‘One country, two systems’ isn’t dead. But Hong Kong needs serious overhaul and reform

Domestic News

No one — Establishment or Democratic, progressive or conservative, outside observer or local resident — should want to see Hong Kong burn.

As the COVID-19 outbreak recedes — and in light of Thursday’s announcement from Beijing’s National People’s Congress that a new law will be passed to “prevent, stop and punish” acts in Hong Kong that “endanger national security” — Hong Kong politics have reignited in a big way.

Protesters were back on the streets over the weekend, and in the preceding weeks, violent scuffles had broken out in the legislature between establishment and democratic lawmakers. The latter’s filibustering of months of government bills has been the target of seemingly unprecedented denunciations from Beijing, which saw these lawmakers’ inflammatory rhetoric as jeopardizing their very baselines amid a rapidly escalating geopolitical conflict with the U.S. In the meantime, hundreds were arrested on May 10 after protests broke out as soon as social distancing regulations were eased.

Beijing hawks have been encouraged to see Hong Kong as a hotbed of secessionism, and are presented skewed information (such as the extent to which Hongkongers are pro-independence). They are reminded that protests are happening in the context of their country’s deteriorating relations with the U.S., which has made clear its support for Hong Kong’s continued autonomy. Hong Kong’s democrats have been branded as traitors and separatists who want to carve out an independent city-state, and are accused of colluding with Washington to fulfill their goal.

The sight of Hong Kong protesters waving the Stars and Stripes at rallies and demonstrations hit a raw nerve with Beijing. The 19th-century Western invasions and subsequent concessions of territory remain a source of humiliation to many Chinese. (Hong Kong itself was seized by the British in 1841, during the First Opium War.) In this context, conceding greater political autonomy and democracy to Hong Kong appears to be a no-go — especially as China braces for a new cold war. The caricature of Hongkongers as bound up with British colonialism and “foreign forces” has gained significant traction among many mainland Chinese, with extensive media coverage only feeding into entrenched stereotypes about Hongkongers.

But I beg to differ — this interpretation simply is not the case. Most Hongkongers do not yearn for independence; instead, secessionism is a rhetorical ploy, embodying the nihilism and angst of many in the city, particularly its youth.

Hongkongers are sick of a government that is unresponsive and steeped in both bureaucratic inertia and self-congratulatory arrogance. They are sick of a government whose intransigence over political freedom led to months of civil unrest, which saw thousands injured and arrested last year. The city’s socioeconomic inequalities and treacherous economic conditions have been laid bare by the past year of chaos and the COVID-19 pandemic. More structurally, those sympathetic to the opposition do not see realistic hope in affecting policymaking through the legislature, let alone through the executive or civil society at large. The administration has seemingly failed to reflect upon its errors in gauging public opinion, communicating and explaining its policymaking, and holding accountable those who have clearly neglected their duties. The very same indifference to popular sentiments that paved the way for last year’s unrest also convinced the significant plurality — who cast their votes in the District Council elections in November — that Beijing was to blame for the city’s misfortunes.

 

Centrists, who are trying to foster a critical coalition spanning different camps — united by the belief that a better Hong Kong is worth fighting for — face insurmountable pressures to align themselves with either side.

 

Fundamentally, Hong Kong-mainland China relations have always been a precarious balancing act. The two are conspicuously and intrinsically different: from societal culture and normative values to political and legal institutions to economic and financial systems. But these differences are not intractable. Few Hongkongers, a decade ago, would have disputed the fact that they were “Chinese”; fewer, even, saw toppling the Chinese regime as an end goal. Similarly, many in mainland China held favorable views toward Hong Kong, especially given the city’s pivotal role in the country’s economic liberalization and growth.

Yet the persistent absence of a political vision that strikes a reasonable compromise between the practically feasible and the ideationally inclusive has left many in Hong Kong, even the apathetic or the uninformed, convinced that it is Beijing’s centralized top-down rule that is to blame for the city’s inept governance. Twenty-three years have elapsed since Hong Kong’s handover, yet little has been done by the city’s administration to help its residents make sense of the sociocultural fallout resulting from its inevitably closer economic interactions with the mainland.

On the other side of the equation, equally little has been done in assuaging the paranoia of mid-level mainland bureaucrats that Hong Kong is not — contrary to the words of some radical Establishment figures — a “breeding ground” for insurgency. Previous administrations have embodied risk aversion and total submissiveness, and failed to articulate to Beijing the divergent values, visceral concerns, and needs of the Hong Kong public, thereby instilling both false impressions and unrealistic expectations. This partially explained what happened in the run-up to the controversial, now-shelved extradition bill last year, yet it also accounts for the ongoing stalemate.

In response to the perceived futility, even hostility, of formal institutions, many self-identifying progressives or democrats have embraced arguably unrealizable “objectives” and militant language in an attempt to force Beijing to “talk.” The brazen rhetoric adopted by the disproportionately represented extremes is worrying, as the need to remain ideologically pure and politically loyal drives both sides away from a rapidly shrinking middle ground. Centrists, who are trying to foster a critical coalition spanning different camps — united by the belief that a better Hong Kong is worth fighting for — face insurmountable pressures to align themselves with either side. I speak from firsthand experience here.

No one — Establishment or Democratic, progressive or conservative — should want to see Hong Kong burn. Ironically, those who have the most to gain from Hong Kong’s self-annihilation would be its neighboring competitors and rival cities. Yet this renders it all the more necessary that those who believe in a vision of reformism within the system, amenable to both Beijing and Hong Kong, speak up.

Accountable, transparent, and substantively democratic governance could play the part of that vision. Politics is a matter of giving and taking. To prevail against the global calamity that is the new Cold War, Hongkongers must find a way of rendering their vision palatable to Beijing. As a polity, Hong Kong must rethink how reforming its governance could align with Beijing’s interests, as opposed to against them.

And indeed, there is no innate reason why Beijing should want Hong Kong to flounder. Beijing benefits from savvy political leaders who can maneuver between competing factions while improving Hong Kong’s overall stability and institutional robustness, particularly in the financial and commercial spheres; a government that swiftly tackles Hong Kong’s entrenched inequalities while opening governance up to aspirational, civic-minded youths could serve as the perfect exemplar that “One Country, Two Systems” is not, as some commentators have eagerly declared, dead.

The short-term prognosis may be grim, as two distinct political cultures and arrangements clash over a city of 7.4 million. Yet through winning the hearts and minds of most Hongkongers — who are neither ideologically predisposed nor revolutionaries at heart — Beijing could expend minimal effort in retaining the support of a pivotal pillar to its Greater Bay Area vision. Similarly, Hong Kong could retain broad swathes of its economic and political liberties, even though adjustments to tailor to Beijing’s interests may well be necessary.

It is trivially true, almost stale, to insist that Hongkongers must respect the political baselines of Beijing, which include a strict prohibition on both secession and immediate democratization. Yet Beijing would also benefit from recognizing this fact: most Hongkongers do not want secession; they just want a government that listens. National security baselines are ideological necessities for Beijing, but there remains some room for mutually beneficial concessions. Hongkongers do not want independence — they just want a more accountable, responsive government. All parties should work together to make this happen.