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Twenty years on, ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is caught in an impasse | The World Weekly

When President Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its return to China, he will be entering a fiercely polarised city unsure of its future.

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong - Britain’s last major colony - was handed over to China on July 1, 1997. Amid general optimism, the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”, under which Hong Kong was supposed to remain a capitalist economy and retain its liberal lifestyle for at least 50 years, was established.

But 20 years on, many Hong Kongers think their cherished democracy is under threat.

“It has been 20 years since the handover, and the dream of democracy is yet to be over for the general public in Hong Kong,” says Hong Kong resident Crystal Cheng. For her, “democracy is something Hong Kong people tasted but never actually owned.”

“One Country, Two Systems” was always a hard act to balance. Early on, Beijing was keen to show it respected Hong Kong’s autonomy both to reassure Hong Kongers and to demonstrate to Taiwan that reunification is a workable arrangement. Soon after, however, Beijing began to stamp its authority.

In 2003, Beijing-friendly lawmakers pushed for the implementation of an anti-subversion law, prompting 500,000 people to protest against the perceived curtailment of their freedom of expression, the rule of law and democracy. Beijing responded by stalling reforms which would have granted the city universal suffrage and a more representative legislature by 2017. Things worsened in 2012 when the government was forced to withdraw the national education curriculum in the wake of mass protests by both parents and students who described it as indoctrination.

Today’s Hong Kong is locked in a political impasse. Hopes were high that universal suffrage would be achieved until 2014, when Beijing proposed a highly restrictive framework under which candidates would be screened before this year’s election. This led to the unprecedented 79-day class boycott and the massive student-led Occupy Movement. Beijing claims that separatist factions within the movement pose a threat to national security.

China’s proposal was eventually voted down by the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose inauguration Mr. Xi is due to attend, was elected through the existing method, achieving 777 votes from an election committee with 1,194 members. (Hong Kong’s population is 7 million.)

Many Hong Kongers think the legislature remains unrepresentative and entrenched with vested interests. Half of the seats go to so-called functional constituencies, most of whom are business representatives and landed gentry.

As Beijing continues to resist Hong Kongers’ demand for greater autonomy, it is unclear how this uneasy stalemate will unfold.

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