Like beauty in the eye of the beholder, judging the pros and cons of Hong Kong’s fate during the past 20 years since British colonial rule ended depends on prior expectations and present perspectives. If the perspective is official, whether Chinese, British, or American, the gloss must be mostly positive and upbeat … “in the main,” as the Chinese like to say.

One reason is that those three governments, especially the first two, have major responsibilities and reputations at stake given their lead roles in the transfer of sovereignty and power from London to Beijing.   Admission of failure might have unpleasant consequences … unless the breakdown is so extreme that keeping up appearances is impossible to do. Another reason is that in the larger scheme of things, relations with Beijing are now too complex and too important to put at risk for anything less than some major calamity.

Since Hong Kong has suffered no extreme breakdowns since July 1, 1997, the principals feel free to claim success for their preparations beforehand and promises fulfilled afterward. The challenge for drafters of these official accounts is to present caveats and qualifications in the best possible light … and leave the task of corroboration to others.   There are many qualifications and much that needs deciphering.


Beijing is extravagant in its claims of success. These were advertised almost daily in preparation for the July 1, 2017 anniversary celebrations. Zhang Dejiang, the top Beijing official currently responsible for overseeing Hong Kong affairs gave the keynote account at a ceremonial forum in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on May 27.

The event was promoted as a celebration of Hong Kong’s first 20 years under its new post-1997 Basic Law constitution, which enshrines the innovative governing principle known as “one-country, two-systems.” It promises to grant Hong Kong autonomy as a separate system under Chinese rule within the People’s Republic.

Zhang began his 50-minute oration by declaring that the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in 1997, “marked a major event in the history of the Chinese nation, one of upholding sovereignty and realizing national reunification.”   Reviewing the success of the endeavor, he said, “we reaffirm our commitment to advancing the great cause of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ and we will continue to ensure the full implementation of the HKSAR Basic Law so as to further uphold China’s sovereignty, security and development interests as well as Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability” (China Daily, May 29, Ta Kung Pao, May 28).

In London, the British government has continued to issue its promised semi-annual monitoring of Hong Kong’s post-colonial progress. So far 40 such reports have been sent to Parliament by the Foreign Office. In the most recent, dated February 24 this year, the verdict remained unchanged. *

The original 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration guidelines and China’s one- country, two-systems governing principle for post-colonial Hong Kong have worked out well. The arrangement, notes the report, has also been good for Britain’s continuing relationship with Hong Kong.

A most important aspect of Hong Kong’s distinct way of life, which set it apart from the rest of China, is its independent judiciary. The report emphasized that legal institutions remain as strong as before and the rule of law remains unchanged. That’s why so many foreign companies continue to do business in Hong Kong and use the city as a gateway both to the Chinese mainland and to other Asian markets.    

It’s business as usual in any event and all to the good because a “more global free trade agenda” is now important to Britain and so is Hong Kong’s role as a trade partner. This must be an oblique reference to Britain’s pending exit from the European Union and need to search for friends elsewhere. British officials consequently welcomed assurances from their Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts that Beijing and Hong Kong are committed to the “faithful implementation” of the one-country, two-systems formula.

British officials were also encouraged by “indications” that the formula’s 50-year guarantee would not necessarily expire in 2047. Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution promises that China’s “socialist system and policies shall not be practiced” in Hong Kong … and “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.” There have never been any other indications as to the Basic Law’s intended expiration date. Nor has anyone ever defined exactly what “way-of-life” was intended by Beijing drafters to mean when they wrote it into Article 5 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Constitution. This was written under Beijing’s direction in the late 1980s and promulgated in 1990.

David Wilson, who was Hong Kong’s governor in the late 1980s remains upbeat. He was an old-school governor in the traditional mold. Wilson thinks Beijing has honored its Basic Law pledges to maintain Hong Kong as a separate system and is willing to give them a 99% approval rating (South China Morning Post, June 25).

In Washington, the State Department also issued a report on Hong Kong. From this quarter, too, came praise for Hong Kong’s rule of law and its independent judiciary. … plus the continuing respect for individual rights and the “high degree of autonomy.”   The promise of autonomy had been a much-advertised feature of the one-country, two-systems arrangement before 1997.

Washington, too, was pleased to note that the Chinese central government in Beijing continued to reiterate its commitment to that arrangement. Additionally, Beijing was continuing to introduce measures in support of Hong Kong’s economy.  Not surprisingly, then, the American report concluded that Hong Kong’s autonomy remains “more than sufficient to justify continued special treatment by the United States for bilateral agreements and programs.” **  

The reference was to the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act that authorizes the U.S. government to treat Hong Kong as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China … as long as China continues to honor its pre-1997 promises under the one-country, two-systems framework. The State Department report did not mention that a bill aiming to update and strengthen the 1992 law was introduced in the U.S. Congress earlier this year. The bill reflects growing concerns about the two-systems arrangement.


The positive British and American reports were nevertheless careful to cite some of the reasons for those rising concerns.  Chief among them were the booksellers case and Beijing’s November 7, 2016 interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking by all those in official Hong Kong positions.

In late 2015, five men associated with Causeway Bay Books disappeared: three while on mainland visits, one from his holiday home in Thailand, and the fifth from his warehouse office on Hong Kong Island. They all eventually turned up across the border in the custody of mainland law enforcement authorities. And their intended aim was to close down the bookstore because it specialized in publications critical of Chinese government leaders.

Such books are banned on the mainland, where many Causeway Bay books nevertheless ended up, courtesy of its mail order operation. No such ban exists in Hong Kong but the shop and its publishing arm seem to have closed down for good … in an exercise orchestrated entirely from the mainland that ignored all the relevant Hong Kong judicial, immigration, and police authorities.***

On the oath-taking saga, the two reports did not fault Beijing for the substantial new restrictive conditions attached to oaths-of-allegiance by the interpretation of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 104. This was in response to two newly-elected legislators who used the October 12  swearing-in ceremony to declare their allegiance to Hong Kong rather than the People’s Republic (Nov. 3, 2016 post).

The two were elected along with several others as representatives of Hong Kong’s new dissident younger generation. These young people who were born around the time of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, have come of political age watching the political struggles of their elders and have come to regard Beijing’s one-country, two-systems promises as empty slogans.

But the objections coming from London and Washington were only that Beijing had compromised Hong Kong’s judicial independence by issuing the interpretation on November 7, before the Hong Kong court’s November 14 judgment. The two would have been disqualified under existing Hong Kong law, which Beijing preempted with its interpretation.

The British report also went into considerable detail about Hong Kong’s elections. Details included allegations of manipulation and intimidation perpetrated by pro-Beijing loyalists and conservatives. Also mentioned was a new Hong Kong government vetting procedure introduced ahead of the September 2016 Legislative Council election.

The new confirmation form was used to disqualify prospective candidates suspected by election officers of promoting the new dissident advocacies … localism, self-determination, autonomy, independence, and violence. Beijing says all these violate the spirit of Hong Kong’s Basic Law one-country, two-systems mandate and challenge the authority of the central government.

It was left to Hong Kong’s last British governor, Christopher Patten, to step outside the official mold … probably because he alone of all Hong Kong’s governors began life as a professional politician and because maintaining the old-school colonial traditions had never been part of his brief.

He said his confidence about Hong Kong’s future had been shaken … due to pressures coming directly or indirectly from Beijing. He mentioned attacks on the rule of law and on judicial independence, the book sellers case, threats to autonomy and to the universities, and even to free speech (SCMP, June 25).


The most ironic feature of the reports coming from both London and Washington, however, was their unquestioning acceptance of Beijing’s dedication to the one-country, two-systems principle. Both applauded Beijing’s assurances evidently without the slightest concern or doubt as to what Beijing might mean by the formula they were relieved to be able to reaffirm in name.

The American report even used as an example of Beijing’s economic solicitude, the December 2016 opening of a cross-border Hong Kong-Shenzhen stock exchange link. This is a perfect example of what is seen in Hong Kong as creeping cross-border integration, yet another project seemingly designed to promote economic benefits for all that just happens also to strengthen cross-border ties that bind. And what all that means is another marker in the silent unacknowledged erosion of one-country, two-systems autonomy.

Perhaps no one wants to contemplate the political consequences of economic integration because it’s so good for business. But Beijing is certainly aware of everyone’s need to believe the best about Hong Kong’s future.   Hence it would be easy to conclude, on the basis of Zhang Dejiang’s May 27 presentation alone, that one-country, two-systems is not about to undergo a name change any time soon.

On the contrary, he said it has now acquired theoretical status, which means it is as if written in stone. The design is simply being redefined: same name, evolving content, with shrinking autonomy and more central government intervention.

On the evolving content, Zhang’s remarks indicated not so much anything new but only Beijing’s new determination … evidently in response to the recent rising demands for self-determination and independence … to use more emphatically the powers that are written into the Basic Law. In fact, it’s not even being redefined. It was originally written so skillfully that readers everywhere can see in it what they want to see.

When the drafting was finished, in 1990, then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping called it a “masterpiece.” He was right. Only no one at the time, except maybe Chinese officials and drafters, appreciated what he must have meant.

In his May 27 speech, Zhang Dejiang indicated that the central government is contemplating measures aimed at strengthening its exercise of sovereignty and power in many areas:  “Detailed regulations should be formulated regarding the following powers: the power that an HKSAR law should be reported for the record and may be returned, the power to appoint the Chief Executive and senior officials, the power to interpret and amend the Basic Law, decision making power on the evaluation of the HKSAR political system, the power of the central government to issue directives to the Chief Executive … The aim is to put in place a functioning system and mechanism and ensure full and faithful implementation of the Basic Law.”

Beijing’s insistence on “evaluating” Hong Kong’s political system by dictating the nature of its reform is what provoked the Occupy movement that blocked major city thoroughfares for 79 days in 2014.

Understanding the Basic Law should be an “important criterion for appointing and evaluating HKSAR public servants.”   As for the younger generation, said Zhang, “special attention must be given to strengthening education of the young people in Hong Kong about the country’s national conditions and … to instill in them a strong sense of national identity … … and turn them into a new generation of law-abiding, hardworking and enterprising people who love both the motherland and Hong Kong.”

The Hong Kong government had tried to introduce a compulsory course in national patriotic education for all students but it has been on the shelf since 2012 following public protests.

Zhang dismissed the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers principle that democracy advocates champion. He emphasized that Hong Kong’s government is executive-led and judges must adhere to the Basic Law.

He denounced calls for self-determination and independence and said no such challenges to the central government’s sovereign authority and decision-making power could be tolerated.    Consequently, he called for passage of the Article 23 national security legislation that Hong Kong dissenters have kept at bay for over a decade (China Daily, May 29, Ta Kung Pao, May 28).

Evidently, one-country, two-systems doesn’t mean what Hong Kong democracy advocates thought it meant and what they began agitating for long ago, in the 1980s, when the Basic Law was being drafted. Nor do that law’s promises mean what democracy advocates thought when they saw words like universal suffrage, judicial independence, Hong Kong autonomy, and so on.

Beijing seems finally to have had enough of letting those words drift in euphemistic debate. Central government authorities are now declaring their determination to color in the Basic Law’s gray areas and exploit its loop holes, and invoke whatever powers are necessary to implement Beijing’s interpretation of those same Basic Law promises and guarantees.


Just as well that President Xi Jinping flew back to Beijing before Hong Kong’s annual July First protest march began at 3:00 p.m.  Had he stayed on through the afternoon, he would at least have been able to say that one-country, two-systems must be working really well because Hong Kong still enjoys free speech … of a kind permitted nowhere else in China.

He was in town to preside over the 20th anniversary celebrations and the swearing in of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. She succeeds the much-disliked Leung Chun-ying and is the first woman to head Hong Kong’s government. Their title is Chief Executive and China’s President presides at the inauguration ceremonies to remind everyone that Hong Kong is not independent. The authority of its leaders and of the local government derives from Beijing, not the people of Hong Kong.

July First is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, but this particular protest marching tradition dates back only to 2003. Opposition that year arose over the expected imminent passage of national security legislation as mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. The prospect brought half-a-million people out to protest on July 1, 2003, in a demonstration of dissent that surprised and shocked everyone.

The size of the angry crowd that day gave pause to several Legislative Councilors who had agreed to vote for the government’s bill … the very same piece of legislation that Beijing officials are now saying must be revived, re-tabled, and passed into law, sooner rather than alter. It was withdrawn in 2003 and has remained on the shelf ever since.

The July First protest march is organized by the Civil Human Rights Front. In 2003 it was a new coalition representing many different social and political activist groups. They are each dedicated to separate causes but with enough in common to hold together and continue to sponsor the protest march each year.

The groups come with their own agendas but for this day they must all agree on the lead slogans and themes. These are negotiated in advance and any group that feels it can’t agree doesn’t participate. Political parties are not allowed to campaign or canvass for votes during the march, although fund-raising is permitted at the promotion stands set up all along the route.

This year they were reportedly thinking about “Communist Party Leaders Out of Hong Kong,” as the main marching slogan but decided against it.  Some felt  it would be a little too rude with President Xi and First Lady Peng Liyuan in town on an official visit (HKFP, June 7)..

But everyone agreed on “One-Country, Two-Systems: 20 Years of Lies.”  Sub-themes recommended for use were all just as defiant: “Democracy and Self-Determination,” the ever-provocative “Power to the People,” “No August 31: We Want Genuine Universal Suffrage.” And finally, “Release Liu Xiaobo.”

August 31 refers to Beijing’s August 31, 2014 political reform decision that mandated a mainland-style officially-vetted Chief Executive election in lieu of genuine universal suffrage. It was this directive that triggered the 79-day Occupy street blockades in 2014.

Every year Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy newspaper, publishes in its July First edition, a full page broadsheet cartoon suitable for marchers to use as improvised protest placards. This year there were two.  One read: “Stop Political Oppression; Free Liu Xiaobo Now.”  The other featured Carrie Lam ascending steps to the seat of power as a puppet with Beijing pulling the strings (Apple, July 1).

The case of Liu Xiaobo is an especially compelling reminder for Hong Kong because his fate represents Hong Kong’s greatest fear about political life under Communist Party rule. He was arrested in 2009 for his lead role in drafting a manifesto for China known as Charter 08. It was published on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Among other things, Charter 08 called for an end to one-party dictatorship in China. This is the same demand that Hong Kong activists have reissued each year on the occasion of their candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. They continue to commemorate the 1989 June Fourth crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that marked the end of China’s own 1980s democracy movement. Ending one-party dictatorship has remained a June Fourth Hong Kong slogan ever since (June 8, 2017 post).

Liu received an 11-year prison sentence for subverting state power and in 2010 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle, which is now coming to an end. Beijing announced last week that he is suffering from terminal liver cancer and has been released on medical parole but will not be allowed to seek treatment outside China. There is no need to look further for the reason people here fear mainland-style Communist Party rule.

The July First turnout was not massive this year, but it was big enough and defiant enough to register in Beijing. Organizers claimed 60,000 (police 14,000) … with snapshots of dissent all along the route.

One group’s promotion stand featured an amplified “Down with the Communist Party” chant. Another group appeared as usual carrying the old British colonial flag. A few others carried Taiwan’s Republic of China flag. Yet another small group carried black flag replicas of those used by the two legislators who provoked the oath-taking saga last October. The banners declare that “Hong Kong is NOT China.”

In 2014, during the political reform drive there was a big spike in the July First turnout …as if in anticipation of achieving the long-sought goal of universal suffrage elections. Civil Human Rights Front groups were enthusiastic participants in that campaign. This year, with that hope dashed, the mood was more like defiant resignation.

So for now, the political boundaries are drawn. Hong Kong really does stand on the fault line between dictatorship and democracy, and no one can see which side might give way first. Hong Kong’s protest movement remains defiant. But President Xi was equally tough and unyielding.

Despite his mild tone and the First Couple’s gracious demeanor throughout, Xi Jinping’s speech at the July First inauguration ceremony laid down the line with ominous implications. He said any act that endangers China’s sovereignty and security or challenges the power of the central government is an act that “crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible  …  Hong Kong needs to improve its systems to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests” (SCMP and Wen Wei Po, July 2, China Daily, July 3).

The ominous implications are Article 23 legislation, “systems” to enforce it that do not now exist here, and proper political education for the younger generation … all of which Hong Kong has so far successfully resisted.


*   170224 – THE SIX MONTHLY REPORT ON HONG KONG – 1 JULY TO 31 DEC 2016.pdf  (365K)    


***   For a detailed first-hand account by one of the booksellers, see his presentation at a U.S.Congressional hearing in early May that the State Department’s June report does not mention :    

 Posted by Suzanne Pepper on July 3, 2017





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