Hong Kong, June 1, 2009. … Nothing better illustrates the esoteric nature of Hong Kong’s political discourse than the new controversy over “one-country, two-systems.”   This latest upsurge of interest in an argument that has continued off and on for 30 years was sparked by the belated discovery, in April 2009, of an article published in January 2008 that claimed Hong Kong is governed by a duopoly of mainland Chinese cadres and local Hong Kong officials.

The claim was startling only in its candor because it articulated for the first time what Hong Kong politicos have long known but could not say since to do so would contradict, without proof, the widely-acclaimed legal basis of Hong Kong’s current governing arrangements.  These are stipulated in its Basic Law constitution, which promises autonomous locally-run government for 50 years, from 1997.  During that time, the local way of life is supposed to remain unchanged signifying the two separate, mainland and Hong Kong, systems.

The article was also noteworthy because of who the author is and where it was published.   Cao Erbao is head of research at the Chinese government’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong.  His essay, “Hong Kong’s Governing Forces Under ‘One-Country, Two Systems’,” appeared in Study Times (Xuexi shibao, January 28, 2008), a non-classified weekly publication of the Central Communist Party School in Beijing.   Cao is therefore in a position to know the truth of what he claimed, namely, that since 1997 Hong Kong’s two-systems arrangement has in fact been implemented to mean one city with two governing teams.  One is the local executive establishment staffed by Hong Kongers.  The other comprises mainland officials both in Beijing and elsewhere, plus those such as himself assigned to work in Hong Kong, all of whom are responsible for Hong Kong matters including its relationship with the central government.

Hong Kong had already learned, incrementally and sometimes painfully via issues ranging form cross-border migration to local political reform, that Beijing also reserves to itself the right to determine what is and is not part of that relationship.   The mainland team, wrote Cao, is legal, open, and essential for managing the “one country” end of the equation within China’s unitary form of government.  He explained further that “complete autonomy” such as past Taiwan and British negotiators had advocated was tantamount to independence and incompatible with the one China concept.

That there should be any controversy now may seem surprising to outside observers since the formula has been so successful that its beneficial properties are commended by international practitioners everywhere.  What everyone overlooks, however, is that the long-term implications of this arrangement are still too sensitive for public discussion even in Hong Kong itself.  So intent are all the concerned parties on keeping up appearances that no one has yet dared discuss openly the formula’s future or even how it is currently being managed.

Keeping up appearances is important for two reasons.  Beijing wants to show that the pre-1997 promise of post-1997 autonomy is being kept because the Chinese government’s international reputation is at stake and so is President Hu Jintao’s aim of convincing Taiwan that “complete national unification” is nothing to fear.  Meanwhile, Hong Kong democrats interpret the two-systems promise literally and cite it as the legal basis of their ongoing effort to set precedents in practice for the values they champion.  Hence no one wants to admit that the two-systems formula is actually being used for the purpose Beijing evidently intended when the deeds and documents were drawn up before 1997, since Basic Law caveats are more than sufficient to finesse Hong Kong’s full integration within the Chinese political system by 2047.

Like any long-running game of political charades, however, the tensions created by this one are beginning to show.   Beijing’s official posture is increasingly strained, for example, by awkward veiled references to 2047 and to liaison office work with leading local loyalists whose real identities cannot be revealed because the local communist party branch is still officially “underground.”   Given its long-term objective, Beijing must prepare public opinion, institutions, and leadership personnel, and that objective can be deduced from progress already evident on each point.   Yet democrats cannot effectively push back because they cannot target directly what has never been openly admitted, which accounts for the nebulous quality of local political discourse.

Everyone must therefore have breathed a silent sigh of relief over Cao Erbao’s revelations and the beginning of the end of pretense.  Still, the habit of plain speaking is so unfamiliar that Cao’s revelations are only a first step in that direction.  After his essay was discovered in mid-April, liaison office personnel immediately demurred with the standard two-systems talking points.  Editorials followed.  Meetings and forums were held.  Veteran democrat Martin Lee said the two-systems formula had clearly been overturned.  Journalist Ching Cheong, recently released from a mainland prison after falling afoul of national security laws, said Cao’s claims indicated a major constitutional change in Hong Kong’s status.  Others suggested it might be time for communist party members to emerge from underground so they can take responsibility for their actions.   And writer Joseph Lian lamented Hong Kong’s fate now clearly tied to the dialectical complexities of Marxist logic.

Yet no one looked to the future or spoke of 2047 when even the formal guarantees will expire, and among democrats the reasons seem to go deeper than the need to maintain appearances.  Beijing clearly has a plan and an endgame and all relevant resources are being marshaled to promote it.  In contrast, democrats have kept their ideals alive on an incremental case-by-case basis and by meticulous adherence to the Basic Law’s chapters and verses.  But so secure are they in their commitments and 60% voter support margins, that democrats still treat their opponents as they always have:  like ships passing in the night.

Democrats do not even bother to keep themselves up to date on relevant sources of information and so have yet to grasp the full nature of the threat they face.  Toward that end, democrats need to understand that the Basic Law is actually a dual-purpose document and that their arguments will have to be transposed for use accordingly if they are to survive at all.  Especially, democrats and the public need to know what is at stake and to discuss how Hong Kong’s basic rights and freedoms can be protected not just before 2047 but afterward as well.   Otherwise, to paraphrase Joseph Lian, democrats will not only be buffeted by the dialectical complexity of life under one-party rule.  They risk following in the wake of all Hong Kong’s past political reform movements before them, which means they risk sinking beneath the waves of conservative resistance altogether.

Note:  The controversy was covered mainly by Hong Kong’s Chinese-language press, especially (all 2009):  Apply Daily, April 17; Hong Kong Economic Journal, April 18-19, 20, 21, 27, and May 13; Ming Pao Daily News, April 17, 24, 27, and May 10.  Pres. Hu on Taiwan:  Renmin ribao [People’s Daily], Beijing, Jan. 1, 2009.

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