Published on December 8, 2021
Written by Dennis Kwok, Ash Center Senior Research Fellow
Wu Ting Fang was the first Chinese barrister who also served as a member of the British colonial legislature in 19th-century Hong Kong. Wu wanted equal status and freedom for his compatriots, and the Governor supported his push for policies that would put native Chinese on par with Europeans. Wu and others sowed the seeds of the common-law tradition in Hong Kong that would last for the next 150 years. I used to pass Wu's portrait on the third-floor corridor of the Legislative Council building.
In the 1990s, the people of Hong Kong were quietly confident of who they were and what they wanted Hong Kong to be. Standing outside the Wanchai Convention Hall, where the handover ceremony took place on June 30, 1997, I joined the crowds in admiring the fireworks and bidding farewell to the last British governor on board HMY Britannia. As a young law student, I did not know what to make of this new constitutional arrangement. Like many others, I simply hoped it would work.
The Hong Kong people had no choice but to trust the words and promises of the Central People’s Government as embedded in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. While they wished for continued political and economic freedom, their good faith was tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism and pragmatism. And the rest of the world had a similar reaction. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered with the United Nations, promised a high degree of autonomy for the Hong Kong people. They were supposed to govern Hong Kong post-handover, including enacting political reform that would lead to universal suffrage. These democratic aspirations lasted for 17 years. They ended in 2014, when the Central People's Government presented its proposal for constitutional reform for Hong Kong.
The proposal was simple: Beijing would choose who could run for chief executive, and the Hong Kong people would vote. Some said it wasn't such a bad deal, but Hongkongers knew better; this was not what they had been promised. In response, Professor Benny Tai launched the Occupy Central movement to demand for true universal suffrage as promised to the Hong Kong people under the constitution. Tai is now charged with subversion and facing the possibility of life imprisonment. Many of my friends and colleagues await trial and face the same fate.
“Well water should not be mixed with river water.” So goes the Beijing saying in describing the constitutional concept originally designed for Hong Kong, which eventually served as a model for the reunification of Taiwan. All this was premised on the erroneous belief held by many in the international community that economic liberalism would eventually bring about political liberalism in China, thereby bringing Mainland China closer to the international system. People had hoped the differences between the ‘two systems’ would fade over time with the Mainland moving closer to the international liberal order as its own middle class grows. But after witnessing the brutalities in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, I always wondered why the international community believed this regime would honor its commitments to the Hong Kong people. At the time, a senior British diplomat was asked this same question. He replied, "Well, it's all written down." Shortly thereafter, China entered the World Trade Organization.
The inherent contradictions between Mainland China and Hong Kong’s ‘two systems’ have always existed, but they were painfully laid bare in 2020.
Anyone who has dealt with the Chinese Communist Party ought to know that negotiation only truly begins after everyone has signed on the dotted line. According to the official position of the Central People's Government, the Sino-British Joint Declaration is now merely a historical document with no current significance.
The key to Hong Kong’s success was never about democracy. After all, Hong Kong was not a democracy under British Colonial rule. However, Hongkongers had basic freedom. The freedom to be left alone by those in power. The freedom to make a living and to get on with life. The freedom to speak out or not to say anything. And that freedom was protected by the rule of law.
Many people escaped Communist China in the mid-20th century to find freedom for themselves and their families. They found what they were looking for in colonial Hong Kong. Decades later, those refugees would never have imagined that their children would need to fight to protect that freedom. From 2003 to 2019, millions of Hongkongers took to the streets on July 1st. The essence of their every chant was “Leave us alone.” The narrative now pushed by China is that the pro-democracy protests were somehow instigated by foreign forces. Should the international community care about what's happening in Hong Kong? Absolutely. But it is ludicrous to suggest the protests movement were instigated by foreign powers. It was a cause led by the Hongkongers for Hong Kong’s freedom.
Freedom, alas, has now been sucked out of Hong Kong following the promulgation of the National Security Law. Every few months or so, the National People's Congress issues its new edicts from Beijing, ruling Hong Kong as its colony from afar. Civil society has been completely dismantled, with the rule of law in tatters.
Hong Kong’s experience has taught us that freedom without democratic governance is ultimately unsustainable, and trusting those in power to act with restraint is futile. The city is now suffocating under authoritarian rule. Opposition figures, students, journalists, radio hosts, and civic activists are arrested daily or forced into exile. An international treaty has been torn up before the eyes of the international community. The Hong Kong story is consistent with the rest of the national policies now emanating from Beijing, including those on Taiwan, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, trade sanctions against Australia, or wolf-warrior diplomacy. Political considerations now trump all other considerations, economic ones included. The pragmatism once championed by earlier Chinese leaders must give way to China’s most powerful political ideology: Xi’s nationalism.
The inherent contradictions between Mainland China and Hong Kong’s ‘two systems’ have always existed, but they were painfully laid bare in 2020. The failure that lies beneath "One Country, Two Systems" is the fallacy in hoping that an authoritarian regime would trust its people to make decisions for themselves. If the world was naive back in 1997, it should be clear-eyed. Our Taiwanese friends have certainly taken note. The common law traditions once laid down by Wu and many others after him will soon be relegated to history as Hong Kong enters this ‘new’ era.