As Beijing tightens its grip over Hong Kong, does 'one country, two systems' still apply?

Shipping magnate Tung Chee Hwa had a clear vision for Hong Kong in the 21st century when he campaigned in 1996 to be the city’s first chief executive after its return to China.

He saw “a stable, equitable, compassionate and democratic society” governed by the principle of “one country, two systems” under which Beijing would allow the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region a high degree of autonomy and certain freedoms not permitted in mainland China.

“I have every confidence that this can be achieved,” the Shanghai-born tycoon declared. He went on to be the city’s leader after the handover, which took place on July 1, 1997.


Fast forward to 2022, and Hong Kong is preparing for the silver jubilee of the handover, the halfway mark of Beijing’s pledge to uphold the city’s freedoms for at least 50 years.

The city’s political landscape has been overhauled, opposition politicians and civil society activists largely silenced, and Hongkongers anxious about the future have been applying to move to Britain, Canada and Australia, which have all eased their emigration rules for residents.

Half a year of anti-government protests in 2019 pushed Beijing into action.

The initially peaceful marches against an extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to the mainland and other jurisdictions morphed into a broader anti-government movement focused on political reform and police conduct.

Although the controversial legislation was withdrawn, the protests continued, often descending into violent clashes between radicals and police officers.

In June 2020, Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, banning acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.


The wide-ranging law, giving sweeping powers of investigation to a special national security police team, resulted in the arrests of more than 100 opposition politicians, civil society activists, journalists and media owners.

Some opposition figures fled Hong Kong while several organisations chose to disband. Some academics, who had been outspoken in regular newspaper opinion pieces or gave their views freely when approached by reporters, clammed up.

Then Beijing followed up by transforming Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure that only “patriots” ran the city.

The Legislative Council was expanded from 70 to 90 seats, but the number of directly elected members was slashed from 35 to 20. 40 seats were to be picked by a powerful, expanded Election Committee packed with Beijing loyalists. The remaining 30 seats were for the 28 mainly trade-based functional constituencies.

The pro-­establishment bloc swept all Legco seats last December, except for one won by non-establishment candidate Tik Chi Yuen.

On May 8, John Lee Ka Chiu, a career police officer before his appointments as security chief and chief secretary, was elected the city’s next leader. He was the sole candidate who had Beijing’s blessings to run.

The swift, sweeping changes drew criticism from the West, with sanctions imposed on several Hong Kong leaders. But Beijing argued that drastic action was needed to restore stability in the city and prevent attempts by opposition lawmakers to paralyse the Legco.


Emeritus professor John Burns, a scholar of politics and administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the defining characteristic of the one country, two systems principle was that a special administrative region of China would have relatively more autonomy than mainland cities in managing its own affairs.

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“Hong Kong still has more autonomy than mainland cities, but less autonomy than it had before the chaos of 2019. Accordingly, one country, two systems is not just a slogan,” he told the Post.

He noted that the city now had less freedom to manage security, education, the civil service, media and civil society than before 2019.

“Twenty-five years into the 1997 handover, we are left with neither executive-led government as Beijing wished nor locally accountable and elected government, as many in Hong Kong wished,” he said.

An incident which made Beijing pause

Beijing’s increasing assertiveness over Hong Kong affairs stands in stark contrast to its largely hands-off approach in the first few years after Britain returned its ex-colony to China.

Veteran diplomat Jiang Enzhu, who arrived in 1997 to become the first director of Beijing’s liaison office in the city, kept a low profile throughout his five-year stint. He seldom commented on Hong Kong’s internal affairs, and other senior officials from his office kept out of the public eye.


That approach was regarded by many as a sign of Beijing’s confidence that Hong Kong would be able to chart its own course.

Former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok Sing, 75, founding chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), recalled a meeting with Tung a few months after he took office.

He recalled that a DAB official suggested Tung seek the advice of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) on a key appointment in his administration.

“Tung responded instantly that there was no need to do so under the principle of ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’,” Tsang told the Post.


He recalled that Beijing also refused to entertain businessmen and others who went to the capital to complain about the government, telling them to “talk to Mr Tung directly”.

The turning point came in 2003, when the Hong Kong government introduced a national security bill, as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

On July 1 that year, an estimated half a million people marched to oppose the bill, which the government then abandoned.

Tsang, who was Legco president from 2008 to 2016, said that in the wake of the controversy over Article 23, some mainland officials had reservations about speeding up the pace of democracy in the city.

“After the July 1 march, a senior HKMAO official said to me: ‘How come you Hongkongers ignored the central government’s demand for enacting legislation to implement Article 23?'” he recalled.

“The official asked me how Beijing could trust Hongkongers to elect our own leader when we were reluctant to pass laws to safeguard national security.”

In the years after 2003, calls for greater democracy and universal suffrage grew louder, even as adjustments were made to the legislature to create seats that enabled direct voting by residents.


As a prelude to the changes it had in mind, in June 2014, the State Council issued a white paper that stressed the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.

Two months later, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), the nation’s top legislative body, introduced an electoral reform framework in which Hong Kong would be allowed to pick its chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017 with voters choosing from two or three candidates pre-vetted by a 1,200-strong nominating committee. The proposal was swiftly condemned by the opposition as a “fake” democratic model.

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The framework also triggered the Occupy movement, the city’s biggest demonstration of civil disobedience, which saw protesters blocking commercial areas in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay for 79 days.

Legco voted against the government’s proposal for universal suffrage based on Beijing’s framework and the city’s fourth leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngor, was picked by the Election Committee in 2017.

Principle of governance or just a facade?

Veteran opposition politician Emily Lau Wai Hing, 70, said that in the first two decades after the handover, Hong Kong people still enjoyed civil liberties and the rule of law remained largely intact.

“But the situation has been deteriorating in recent years and our city has become unrecognisable. We didn’t expect Hong Kong to turn out like this,” said the former journalist, who was chairwoman of the Democratic Party from 2012 to 2016.

Referring to the aftermath of the national security law imposed two years ago, she said: “Many people have been put in jail for many months without trial. You have to be ready to be arrested, If I am arrested, I would not be surprised. What is happening now is the criminalisation of free speech.”

Current Democratic Party chairman Lo Kin Hei, 38, said he did not expect the situation to improve soon, as the distrust between Beijing and the opposition groups had only deepened.

“The social unrest in 2019 laid bare all the tensions, differences and disagreements since 1997,” he told the Post.

Lo said he saw no grounds for optimism, because opposition politicians were now out in the cold, and it was hard to have any interaction with Beijing or the Hong Kong government.

Stressing that his party had always supported the one country, two systems principle, he said: “We do not oppose communication, but now we are just not involved.”

Tsang, one of the most liberal-minded politicians from the pro-establishment camp, said a key indicator of the success of the principle of governance was whether Beijing would resume dialogue with the pan-democrats.

He said Beijing’s tightened grip over Hong Kong raised the question of whether the principle was merely a facade because, in reality, Beijing had not only comprehensive jurisdiction over the city but also that it had lost much of its autonomy.

“I think state leaders also understand it would not serve any purpose if ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ is reduced to a shell,” he said.


“I believe state leaders, including President Xi Jinping, want the one country, two systems formula to win the hearts and minds of Hongkongers, the Taiwanese and people around the world.”

But he added that it was not enough for Beijing to declare that the principle of governance was working well in the city.

“If a large number of Hong Kong people vote with their feet, you can’t say one country, two systems is popular,” Tsang said.

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One man who is convinced the principle of governance has not only worked but is also a success is Leung Chun Ying, 67, Hong Kong’s third chief executive from 2012 to 2017.

“I still say this today after 25 years, one country, two systems and ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ with a high degree of autonomy are no longer a broad concept. They have been translated into 160 articles in the Basic Law,” he told the Post.

Leung was secretary general of the Basic Law Consultative Committee, which in the 1980s canvassed Hongkongers’ opinions on the draft document.

He said what came through loud and clear was that people did not regard Hong Kong as “a political city” but a place with economic freedom.

“That’s the deal we made with Beijing. Do not try to throw this original intent away and turn Hong Kong into a political city,” he said. “And definitely do not try to cast Beijing aside and pretend that Hong Kong has all its powers and authority as if, when we left British rule in 1997, we became another Singapore.”


What happened in recent years, he said, was that some in the city tried to “turn Hong Kong upside down” and these people had to come to grips with reality.

“They need to accept the provisions in the Basic Law. If they don’t, they will have a pretty tough time ahead,” he said.

In May 2020, as the silver jubilee of the handover approached, tycoon Aron Harilela, then chairman of the influential Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, called for a dialogue between Hong Kong and Beijing on the city’s future beyond 2047 to remove uncertainty troubling residents and foreign investors.

He suggested setting up a panel of mainland and Hong Kong officials, representatives of political parties and various sectors of Hong Kong society to discuss what would happen after 2047, the 50th anniversary of the handover.

Leung said 2047 — the 50th anniversary of the handover — was “a non-issue”. “There’s no end date to one country, two systems. We shouldn’t within Hong Kong turn 2047 into another issue,” he said.

Ex-Legco president Rita Fan Hsu Lai Tai, 76, the city’s sole delegate to the NPCSC from 2008 to 2018, disagreed that freedoms were shrinking and said Hong Kong had nothing to lose if some NGOs left.

“I’m glad they are leaving Hong Kong. What have they done to Hong Kong? What have they contributed to us? So-called freedom, the freedom of hitting another person’s head because he doesn’t agree with me? The freedom of ensuring American democracy will work in Hong Kong? Come on. Let’s be realistic,” she said.

“If NGOs wish to leave Hong Kong, they have the freedom to do so. If a businessman decides not to invest in Hong Kong … again, he has that freedom. But for those who’ve decided to stay, I am very glad they made the right decision because this Hong Kong, if we play it right, we will still be the city of Asia.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.