The “one country, two systems” model is not perfect, but it is a pragmatic and realistic approach to reunifying the mainland and Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau. It allows the two sides time (50 years or longer) to come up with solutions that could bridge the development gap – economic, political, social and cultural – between the three sides. What’s more, mainland China will never allow any of the three to declare official independence.
History of “one country, two systems” theory
The term is said to have originated at the end of the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. Rather than continuing the conflict, which risked drawing the US or Japan into the fray and incurring more destruction and misery, Mao ended it. Further, Marshal Ye Jianying is believed to have said that it was not a “big deal” if China had two systems as long as Taiwan did not leave the “family.”
The decision not to unite Taiwan with the mainland by force proved to be both practical and wise, although reunification might be in the distant future
The decision not to unite Taiwan with the mainland by force proved to be both practical and wise, although reunification might be in the distant future. Both sides have prospered from the long period of stability but the relationship is increasingly strained.
One country, two systems architecture for Hong Kong
The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) forced the Qing Dynasty to cede the island of Hong Kong and the southern part of Kowloon to Britain in perpetuity. The imperial power forced the Qing government to sign the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory (Second Convention of Peking) in 1898, giving Britain a 99-year lease for all of Kowloon and the New Territories, which expired on June 30, 1997.
In the early 1980s, British and some Chinese merchants lobbied the UK government to retain the status quo or at least protect their interests in the colony. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, journeyed to China to demand that it honor the provisions of the Treaty of Nanjing, the Second Convention of Peking, and other treaties.
However, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping refused and reportedly told Thatcher that China would take back Hong Kong one way or the other. To make sure that Thatcher got the message, he deployed troops along the mainland-Hong Kong border. Deng knew that Britain did not have the military muscle to call his bluff because Britain and France had to ask the US for military aid during the 1954 Suez Canal crisis.
Thatcher recommended that Parliament return Hong Kong to China, culminating in the ratification of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. It formed the basis for drafting the Basic Law, the territory’s constitution, in which the “one country, two systems” architecture is enshrined. The model takes into consideration development gaps between the two sides and Hong Kong’s value to the mainland, and provides a template for Taiwan.
Over 150 years of British colonial rule shaped Hong Kong’s economy, polity and society in ways that are incongruent with their mainland counterparts. It will take time to bring them into alignment.
What’s more, the mainland needed Hong Kong because its currency was fully convertible and it had world-class service sectors, allowing it to excel in international trade and finance. Hong Kong helped the mainland develop its hospitality, logistics, financial and other service sectors. The territory was also the mainland’s hub for foreign investment and trade and a source of foreign reserves.
The model was also an experiment for Taiwan. The Hong Kong experience provides the mainland with the opportunity to perfect the “one country, two systems” architecture for when the two sides are ready to reunite.
The Basic Law
Enacted in 1985, the Basic Law became Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. It guarantees Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life for 50 years but does not give it control over national defense and foreign affairs. It also stipulates that mainland-style socialism is not practiced in the territory.
However, some within Hong Kong emerged to oppose reunification, incubating “democratic” parties and a change in the educational curricula. Chinese history became an “elective” and extremely difficult to pass. Some in Hong Kong opined that the curriculum change might have been intended to influence the young to become more “British.” In the 1990s, the Democratic Party and other organizations were formed to promote “democratic ideals” or get democrats elected to the legislature. Lu Ping, then in charge of Hong Kong/Macau affairs, blamed Chris Patten, the last colonial governor, for “planting a political time bomb in Hong Kong, labeling him “sinner of a thousand years.”
Did China renege on the Basic Law
Whether the mainland has reneged on upholding the Basic Law depends on whom one talks to. The “pro-democracy” groups – the Umbrella Movement, the Pan Democrats and Occupy Central – said it did, accusing the mainland of taking away Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and other democratic rights.
The problem with this charge is that the “pro-democracy” activists themselves prove the mainland lives up to the Basic Law. They are allowed to spout their anti-mainland rhetoric at home and abroad without repercussions. Neither the Chinese nor the Hong Kong government takes away their travel documents or prevents them from denouncing them in public.
The anti-reunification groups (and foreign nations) accused the Chinese government of the 2015 “kidnapping” of five Hong Kong booksellers or publishers who “mysteriously” appeared in the mainland and were charged with smuggling banned books from the territory. However, Lui Bo and Cheng Jiping asked the Hong Kong police to drop the “missing persons” case, confessing that they went to the mainland on their own. Lee Bo said he went to clear his conscience after killing a mainland citizen while driving under the influence of alcohol. However, Lam Wing-kee told reporters in Hong Kong that he was kidnapped, handcuffed and forced to confess. But Lee Bo rejected Lam’s claims.
Judging from the comments made in news reports and opinions of Hong Kong expats in Vancouver, the majority of the territory’s population appears to support reunification, and the mainland did not renege on the Basic Law. They, in fact, indicate that Hong Kong is just as, if not more, free than during the colonial era. Their sentiment is echoed by one of Thatcher’s principal advisers (who participated in drafting the Basic Law. Kurt Tong, US counsel-general in the territory, testified that the “one country, two systems” posture has worked well for Hong Kong.
A final comment
Britain leased a big chunk of the territory and returned a sliver of land in Kowloon and the island of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Without China’s tourists, investments, food, water and other benefits, Hong Kong’s economy would not survive. Therefore, Hong Kong cannot legally or economically secede from China.
Moreover, it is debatable whether the “pro-democracy” activists really believe what they preach in light of their deeds and history. Holding protests to disrupt the economy, polity and society borders on “anarchy.” Testifying against China at US Congressional or Canadian Parliamentary committees to reinforce these countries’ anti-China policies amounts to treason. What’s more, some of those who testified in front of these committees championed British colonial authoritarianism.
Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, is right: China is Hong Kong’s future. “Democracy” activists have a responsibility to work with the governments in sustaining and enhancing Hong Kong’s dynamism and prosperity.