Modern Day “One Country, Two Systems” — Implications of the Hong Kong Basic Law

By: April Xiaoyi Xu, PO’18

“Mind The Gap, Please.”

It is another busy day. Commuters take the stairs up, line up, receive an expressionless nod from the immigration officers, and walk across the yellow line, indicating that they have crossed the border. Again.

“Please mind the gap.” The broadcast echoes over and over again, first in English, followed closely by Cantonese, and finally Mandarin Chinese. People walk hastily around the Mass Transit Railway station, carrying the latest copy of the South China Morning Post, which bears the headline “Beijing to 2017 Candidates: You Don’t Have to Love Us – But You Can’t Oppose Us.”

The routine of the businessmen, schoolchildren, and other commuters from Shenzhen, China to Hong Kong seems mundane. According to statistics from China Opitx, more than 40.5 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong in 2013. Yet this yellow line separates two completely different places, marking the boundary between the “Two Systems” of “One Country.”  Not only is it a boundary between two systems of politics and legislature, it is a boundary between two radically different ways of living.

Hong Kong’s geopolitics is fascinating. With a population of 7 million, a small but self-contained government, and no military of its own, Hong Kong is situated right next to Mainland China, an increasingly powerful economy with strong military aspirations for the surrounding region.

If one stands precisely on this yellow line and steps to the right, into Hong Kong, he or she has access to information via the New York Times, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google. If he or she takes a step to the left, the Great Firewall of Mainland China blocks all that access, and arguably, political rights. On this basis alone, not to mention the multitude of other differences between the “Two Systems” in “One Country,” including the Hongkongnese cuisine and language (“Bai Hua”, which differs slightly from the Cantonese that is spoken in Guangdong Province), we see much more freedom in the daily lives of the people of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Dream for Democracy

It has been seventeen years since the British released Hong Kong from their rule in July 1997, relinquishing Hong Kong to its original. That year, the Basic Law of Hong Kong went into effect. The Basic Law is governed by one fundamental principle: “One Country, Two Systems,” which was designed by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, the man behind fundamental economic reforms (which were literally translated as “reform and open up”) in China. Under this principle, mainland China grants Hong Kong a large degree of political autonomy, along with the right to maintain its capitalist economy. Meanwhile, mainland China’s one-party government does not tolerate dissent, and state corporations have significant involvement in the economy.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, The Basic Law “vests executive authority in a chief executive, who is under the jurisdiction of the central government in Beijing and serves a five-year term.” Legislative authority rests with a Legislative Council (LegCo), whose 70 members each serve a four-year term. The Elections Committee currently consists of more than 1,200 members who represent diverse business and professional sectors, but pro-Beijing citizens, ensuring a majority that is obedient to the Communist Party, dominate it.

“Hong Kong is a mixed picture with a limited level of democracy,” said Claremont McKenna Professor of Government Minxin Pei, an expert on governance in the People’s Republic of China and U.S.-Asia Relations. “The judiciary remains independent, but the media is decreasingly independent since July 1997. Under the British, the media was much more free. The underground mafia attack on the editor of Ming Pao [a Chinese-language newspaper published in Hong Kong] is very troubling.”

When asked about his view on “One Country, Two Systems,” Professor Pei opined that the accurate phrasing should be “One Country, One System” because Beijing wants Hong Kong to adopt the mainland’s political system.

“China once said that it cannot have democracy because it is too poor, the peasant population is too large, people are not well-educated and civilized enough… but these excuses certainly do not apply to Hong Kong,” he said. “I do not see any reason why Hong Kong cannot have democracy.”

In 2007, Mainland China promised that the people of Hong Kong would be given the liberty to directly elect their executive in 2017 and their legislators by 2020. This summer, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee decided that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) will be granted universal suffrage in the selection of its Chief Executive on the basis of nomination by a “broadly representative committee” similar in composition to the current Elections Committee. The Chinese Central Government will pre-screen candidates for the position and limit the number of final candidates to two or three. According to Yale Global, Hong Kong is to have an election “with Chinese characteristics,” an election in which candidates are first screened by the Communist Party.

This decision has caused the people of Hong Kong to mourn their dream of democracy. Additionally, it has attracted great international attention on the credibility of China, the world’s second largest economy which ambitiously wishes to balance capitalistic democracy and socialism “with Chinese characteristics.” However, the decision may not be entirely outrageous. Fundamentally, the Basic Law leaves the final say to Beijing. Therefore, although the Law itself does not place any direct constraints on achieving universal suffrage, Beijing may not desire it for Hong Kong.

On the other hand, we should consider another question: how would Hong Kong’s dream for democracy and its current struggles shape China, politically speaking? Although Hong Kong is not very politically influential on a global scale, an interviewee from Hong Kong who wishes to remain anonymous pointed out that Hong Kong’s democracy movement could potentially influence China, but maybe not at its current stage. After all, he stated, Sun Yat-Sen chose to come to Hong Kong to be educated, and Hong Kong was responsible for introducing the first batch of foreign direct investment and capital China decided to open up. Historical examples show that political influence for Hong Kong is possible.

Relevance in Claremont

Although we do not have any events that are directly related to Hong Kong’s Universal Suffrage movements here in Claremont, we do have many students and faculty members alike who follow the news and study this topic in great depth.

Professor Pei suggested that the issue of universal suffrage in Hong Kong is relevant in several ways. Apart from the interest of those members of our community who are from the regions involved in the news story, the US has a very strong interest in democracy, and the relationship between Beijing, Hong Kong, and London is definitely an issue that is under the international spotlight.

Clara Engle, PO ‘15, studies Politics and Asian Studies and lived in Hong Kong for four years. In summer 2013, she researched for Pomona College Trustee and alumnus Barnard Chan on election reforms in Hong Kong and wrote position papers on the topic.

From her research, Clara found that the people of Hong Kong do not directly elect their Chief Executive. “Many of the representatives in the Committee were elected by businesses, such as the insurance companies and Chinese traditional medicine firms,” she said. During the period when she worked for Mr. Chan, Clara wrote a proposal arguing that Hong Kong should keep the elections committee, but instead of focusing on business interests, the Committee should promote proportional local interests as well.

Clara thinks that the Occupy Central Movement (a proposed nonviolent protest for universal suffrage to paralyze the heart of Hong Kong’s business district, known as Central) is not very intelligent, for it aims in part to shut down the economic center of Hong Kong, which is a worrying means of affecting change to many.  A five-day boycott of classes by university students protesting against Beijing’s proposal that started on September 22 led to the commencement of Occupy Central on September 28. Protesters clashed with riot police, with reports that the police used pepper spray and tear gas before backing down. The protesters, numbering in the tens of thousands, want chief executive CY Leung to step down and demand a greater say in their next chief executive. The New York Times has reported that the Hong Kong government intends to wait out the protests as they expect economic concerns and the loss of energy and momentum to kick in shortly.

“If I’m Not Chinese, Then…Who Am I?”: The Gap in Identity

“Please mind the gap.” “Please mind the gap…” The broadcast continues echoing in three languages as the Hong Kongers hastily walk around the MTR station. As Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy continues, we may as well shift our attention from politics and law to the social and human aspects of the issue. Let us ponder for a minute the fundamental cultural identity of those who live in Hong Kong: who are Hong Kongers? How do they see themselves?

Isabelle Ng PZ ‘17’s father grew up in Hong Kong and her mother was raised in Indonesia and Singapore. “I lived in Hong Kong my whole life,” she said. She identifies herself as Chinese, Cantonese and Singaporean.

Victor Chan CM ‘16, an economics and history double major and President of the Hong Kong Students’ Association, commented: “I identify as American-Chinese. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and American mother, I wouldn’t consider myself fully Chinese. People from Hong Kong generally have the perception that they are different from their mainland counterparts.”

A Hong Kong undergraduate student who does not wish to be named raised a thought-provoking point: “When I introduce myself, I say ‘I am from Hong Kong’, but I do identify myself as Chinese. Otherwise, what am I? Who am I? After all, Hong Kong is part of China.” His response indicates an established sentiment — that Hong Kong should be able to retain its unique identity while still being a part of China. “A significant number of people, however, won’t go so far as to strive for an independent Hong Kong. But at the same time, they don’t identify themselves as ‘Chinese’ as in a citizen of the P.R.C.,” he said.

Some may label Hong Kong as a long-time colony: first a colony of the United Kingdom and now of China. Hong Kong is currently very divided on the issue of universal suffrage. The Hong Kong dream of universal suffrage–and therefore political democracy–is complicated by legal, political, and demographic factors. If the people of Hong Kong fundamentally hold fragmented views on their own cultural identity due to the “One Country, Two Systems” politics and law, there is certainly a gap between the mainlanders and the Hong Kongers themselves. We should cautiously mind the gap, then, in order to keep pursuing the dream of democracy.


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