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Why Hong Kong's 'One Country, Two Systems' Was Doomed to Fail

The concept of 'one country, two systems' is the cornerstone of Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, three areas that remained outside of the control of the People's Republic of China (PRC) after the successful revolution of 1949, but which the Communist state claimed as part of 'China's territory'.

In this post, I would like to show how the 'one country, two systems' policy developed, and what contradictions it entailed from the very beginning. We will see how the reaction of the current leadership in Beijing to the 'Occupy Central' movement echoes Deng Xiaoping's understanding of 'one country, two systems', and that some of Hong Kong's pan-democrats are wrong when they claim that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is betraying Deng's promise to grant the former British colony a high degree of autonomy.

Taiwan and Two Systems in One Country

After Deng Xiaoping rose to power in the late 1970s, he abandoned Marxist ideology and Mao's 'leftist' extremism. As a staunch nationalist throughout his life, Deng filled the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Communist orthodoxy by promoting pan-Chinese nationalism. One of the priorities of Deng's agenda was the 'recovery' of Taiwan.

On December 26, 1979, the Fifth National People's Congress (NPC) issued a 'Message to Compatriots in Taiwan'. The text reflects the nationalistic orientations of Deng's government, and it makes use of the typically quasi-religious and ideological language of nationalistic discourse.

Throughout its history, foreign invasions and internal strife have failed to split our nation permanently. Taiwan's separation from the motherland for nearly 30 years has been artificial and against our national interests and aspirations, and this state of affairs must not be allowed to continue. Every Chinese, in Taiwan or on the mainland, has a compelling responsibility for the survival, growth and prosperity of the Chinese nation. The important task of reunifying our motherland, on which hinges the future of the whole nation, now lies before us all; it is an issue no one can evade or should try to. If we do not quickly set about ending this disunity so that our motherland is reunified at an early date, how can we answer our ancestors and explain to our descendants? This sentiment is shared by all. Who among the descendants of the Yellow Emperor wishes to go down in history as a traitor?

The message uses a rhetorical strategy based on nationalistic dogmas, emotions and irrational assumptions. First, foreign invasion is recalled in order to awaken a sense of humiliation. Second, the unity of the Chinese nation is stated as a dogma. Third, whoever does not adhere to this dogma is considered a traitor. This rhetoric also draws on a parallel between nation and family and on the traditional Chinese concept of filial piety. Moreover, the myth of the Yellow Emperor is used as an authentication of the continuity of China's history. As we can see, Communism and Marxist theories are not mentioned at all.

For Deng, Communist doctrines should not stand in the way of reunification. He not only wanted to reassure the people of Taiwan that their way of life and economic system would be preserved, but he also wanted mainland China to benefit from Taiwan's economic boom. But how to convince Taiwan to become part of the PRC? The Communist leadership grappled with this problem for quite some time.

The earliest nucleus of the 'one country, two systems' formula is to be found in the 'nine principles' announced on September 30, 1981, by Marshal Ye Jianying, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC.

  • 1. In order to bring an end to the unfortunate separation of the Chinese nation as early as possible, we propose that talks be held between the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang of China on a reciprocal basis, so that the two parties can cooperate for the third time to accomplish the great cause of national reunification. The two sides may first send people to meet for an exhaustive exchange of views. 
  • 2. It is the urgent desire of the people of all [China's] nationalities on both sides of the Straits to communicate with each other, reunite with their relatives, develop trade and increase mutual understanding. We propose that the two sides make arrangements to facilitate the exchange of mail, trade, air and shipping services, family reunions and visits by relatives and tourists as well as academic, cultural and sports exchanges, and reach an agreement thereupon. 
  • 3. After the country is reunified, Taiwan can enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region and can retain its armed forces. The Central Government will not interfere with local affairs on Taiwan. 
  • 4. Taiwan's current socio-economic system will remain unchanged, as will its way of life and its economic and cultural relations with foreign countries. There will be no encroachment on proprietary rights or on the lawful right of inheritance of private property, houses, land and enterprises, or on foreign investments. 
  • 5. People in authority and representative persons from various circles in Taiwan may take up posts of leadership in national political bodies and participate in running the state. 
  • 6. When Taiwan's local finances are in difficulty, the Central Government may offer subsidies as appropriate. 
  • 7. For people of all [China's] nationalities and public figures of various circles in Taiwan who wish to settle on the mainland, we guarantee that proper arrangements will be made, that there will be no discrimination against them, and that they will have freedom of entry and exit. 
  • 8. We hope that industrialists and businessmen in Taiwan will invest in the mainland and engage in economic undertakings there, and their legal rights, interests and profits will be guaranteed. 
  • 9. The reunification of the motherland is the responsibility of all Chinese. We sincerely hope that through various channels, people of all [China's] nationalities, public figures in all circles and all mass organizations in Taiwan will make proposals regarding affairs of state.

However, the government of Taiwan (that is, the government of the Republic of China which the Communists had overthrown in 1949) was unwilling to discuss reunification on Beijing's conditions. In 1978 the President of the Republic of China (ROC), Chiang Ching-kuo, had already restated his government's official position:

The Republic of China is an independent sovereign state with a legitimately established government based on the Constitution of the Republic of China ... The international status and personality of the Republic of China cannot be changed because of the recognition of the Chinese Communist regime by any country of the world (Shirley A. Kan: China/Taiwan: Evolution of the "One China" Policy - Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei, 2011 p. 34).

Chiang Ching-kuo remained faithful to this principle and did not respond to Beijing's proposals. 

As reunification with Taiwan couldn't be achieved in the short term, the PRC turned to the British colony of Hong Kong and later to the Portuguese colony of Macau. Britain's 99-year lease of the New Territories, the bulk of the Crown Colony, was due to expire in 1997. London and Beijing held talks in the 1980s in order to solve the thorny issue. Deng Xiaoping made it clear that he considered the 'unequal treaties', which had been forced upon China by Britain in the 19th century, as null and void, and that he would retake Hong Kong not later than in 1997, if necessary by force. Confronted with the threat of military invasion and the possible exodus of millions of Hongkongers to Britain, Margaret Thatcher's iron will was soon bent.

However, Deng made a decisive concession by proposing the 'one country, two systems' framework, which would allow Hong Kong to retain a high degree of autonomy as well as its own social and economic system. Deng Xiaoping adopted a strategy that historian Steve Tsang has described as 'maximum flexibility, rigid framework'. The CCP adopted a flexible unification policy and adjusted to Hong Kong's special status. However, the framework was rigid: Hong Kong must submit to the leadership of the central government (which in a one-party state is obviously tantamount to the ruling party). It was a carrot and stick approach.

The Contradiction of 'One Country, Two Systems'

On June 22-23, 1984, Deng Xiaoping explained the essence of the 'one country, two systems' model to a delegation of Hong Kong capitalists:

Hong Kong's current social and economic system will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life and its status as a free port and an international trade and monetary centre will remain unchanged and it can continue to maintain and develop economic relations with other countries and regions. We have also stated repeatedly that apart from stationing troops there, Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hongkong special administrative region. We shall station troops there to safeguard our national security, not to interfere in Hongkong's internal affairs. 
Our policies with regard to Hongkong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this. We are pursuing a policy of "one country, two systems". More specifically, this means that within the People's Republic of China, the mainland with is one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hongkong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system (Fundamental Issues in Present-Day China, 1988, p. 48).

On October 22, Deng made it clear that Beijing would not rule out the use of force to solve the Hong Kong and Taiwan issues:

The policy of "one country, two systems" has been adopted out of consideration for China's realities. China is faced with the problems of Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are only two ways to solve them. One is through negotiation and the other is by force (ibid., p. 74).

Superficially, the 'one country, two systems' model seemed to grant Hong Kong an even higher degree of autonomy than the city enjoyed during the British era. While in the colonial era the Governor of Hong Kong was appointed by London and sent to the colony, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) would be 'governed by Hongkongers' elected by Hongkongers. But, as I explained in my previous post, Deng Xiaoping's thinking was often very contradictory, and 'one country, two systems' is no exception. 

Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong

In fact, in the same speech of June 1984, after he had assured the Hongkongers that the HKSAR would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and that Beijing would not appoint members of the local government or interfere in Hong Kong's internal affairs, he made a complete U-turn, stating:

Some requirements or qualifications should be established with regard to the administration of Hongkong affairs by the people of Hongkong. It must be required that patriots form the main body of administrators, that is, of the future government of Hongkong. Of course it should include other people, too, as well as foreigners invited to serve as advisers. Who are patriots? The qualifications for a patriot are respect for the Chinese nation, sincere support for the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hongkong and a desire not to impair Hongkong's prosperity and stability. Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hongkong (ibid., p. 52).

We can see very clearly that these words spoken by Deng Xiaoping de facto nullify the autonomy he had previously promised. Deng's speech anticipates the contradictions of the 'one country, two systems' model that have led to polarisation and conflicts in Hong Kong after 1997.

1) concepts such as "patriotism", "love", "sincere support", "desire" etc. cannot be clearly defined or rationally measured. Therefore, who actually decides who fulfills these criteria? If the CCP believes to have the right to answer this question, then the HKSAR is not ruled by Hongkongers, but it is ruled by the CCP through Hongkongers loyal to Beijing. 

2) if Beijing demands the fulfilment of these requirements, then Beijing is already interfering in Hong Kong's affairs and it is de facto influencing the choice of those who administer Hong Kong. 

3) these requirements can easily be used as a rhetorical strategy to favour pro-Beijing groups and marginalise those who oppose Beijing. It is not a coincidence that nowadays the CCP leadership still parrots Deng Xiaoping's words. One of the accusations launched against Occupy Central leaders is that they are undermining Hong Kong's stability and prosperity. For instance, in a recent editorial the Global Times, a Communist newspaper, wrote that "Some pan-democrats have sacrificed Hong Kong's stability and prosperity for their political ambition". This insinuation dates back to the flawed and contradictory logic of Deng's requirements.

4) Deng's requirements de facto nullify Hong Kong's rule of law. There can be no rule of law without rational and democratically negotiable principles. In fact, those unmeasurable and undefinable criteria such as love, patriotism, desire etc. can easily be used to slander, vilify and demonise political opponents. This is what the Anti-Occupy camp has been doing all along. They do not focus on a rational political debate over the advantages and disadvantages of universal suffrage; they simply make various insinuations. This strategy is reminiscent of the 'insinuation techniques' used by various murderous groups or institutions such as the Inquisition, the Nazi regime or the Gang of Four.

The core of these 'insinuation technique' is that the mere suspicion of misbehaviour (misbehaviour as defined by those in power) is sufficient reason for punishment and repression of individuals. In a handbook published by the Italian Eliseo Masini in 1625, there is a list of the five 'crimes' that the Inquisition should prosecute: 

First, formal Heresy and the suspicion of it. Second, the protecting and furthering of heretics and of those who are suspected of heresy. Third, Necromancy, evil spells, witchcraft, black magic. Fourth, heretical blasphemy. Fifth, offense, and resistance to the Holy Office (Jules Speller: Galileo's Inquisition Trial Revisited, 2008, p. 20).

Obviously, if a 'crime' is so broadly defined, there can be no rule of law. If somebody can be de facto politically disenfranchised solely on grounds of the accusation and suspicion that he or she doesn't love the country or doesn't desire the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, the rule of law is a farce. This manipulation of the law is 'feudal' in nature and has already compromised Hong Kong's way of life.

An episode of the pre-handover period reveals once more the contradictions of the 'one country, two systems' experiment. On June 22, 1984, the Unofficial Members of the Legislative Council (UMELCO), a delegation of Hong Kong politicians, went to Beijing to meet Deng Xiaoping. In his memoir, Hong Kong politician Chung Sze-yuen writes,

Deng ... started to say, "Feel free to say whatever you want to, but I would like to say something first ... You know the Sino-British talks well, we will resolve the problem with Britain, which will not be subject to any interference. There have been talks of the so-called 'three-legged stool'. No three legs, only two legs." 
Deng was resolute and absolute, continuing to express his rather threatening view, "As far as sovereignty is concerned, it will be resumed in 1997 regardless of the Sino-British talks and reactions from all sides. I have told the British Prime Minister that if major unrest occurred in Hong Kong before 1997, we would reconsider the timing and ways of taking back Hong Kong" (Chung Sze-yuen: Hong Kong's Journey to Reunification: Memoirs of Sze-yuen Chung, 2001, p. 100).

Chung Sze-yuen and his colleagues had prepared a presentation in three parts: a preamble and two main themes. In the preamble, Chung stated his support for China's resumption of sovereignty. Then, he proceeded to voice the concerns of the Hong Kong population. 

People remain anxious and worried, and are filled with uncertainties. This anxiety is not limited to those with money. They affect workers and ordinary citizens alike (ibid., pp. 100-101). 

After explaining in detail the nature of the concerns, Chung was about to move on to the second theme, when Deng Xiaoping suddenly interrupted him and said:

"Generally speaking, you said Hong Kong people don't have confidence. Actually it is your opinion. It is you who have no faith in the People's Republic of China." With the confidence issue summarily dismissed, [Deng] then tackled the subject of the transition period and said, "In regard to the 13-year transition period, the problem does not lie in Beijing. Our worries are no less than yours ... I do not doubt there will be unrest in Hong Kong during the 13 years ... We do not want to see any major unrest ... If there were more serious disruptions ... we would consider recovering the sovereignty and the right of administration earlier (than 1997) ... 
"As regards the question of who will rule Hong Kong in the future, I want to draw a line. Members of the future Hong Kong Government and its affiliated bodies should basically be patriots. Their mission is to rule Hong Kong well. I have said many times that Beijing would not send people to Hong Kong. The Central Government has the power. No matter how they are nominated or selected, the Hong Kong officials will be appointed by the Central Government ..."
Deng then ended the meeting saying, "The duration of the discussion is long enough. I want to take a rest. If you have other opinions, you can discuss them with my colleagues" (ibid., pp. 101-102).

The sentence 'The Central Government has the power' demonstrates the contradictions of 'one country,two systems.' 

After the meeting an embittered Chung Sze-yuen told the press, 

Chairman Deng did not believe what we had told him was the real opinion of Hong Kong. He did not believe we really reflected the public state of mind. He did not believe there was a crisis of confidence in Hong Kong. He said China would look after the interest and standing of Hong Kong (ibid., p. 103).

After this press conference, Xu Jiatun, the director of Xinhua News Agency which at that time functioned as an unofficial PRC embassy in Hong Kong, rebuked Chung, accusing him of distortions.

But the concerns of the Hong Kong people were justified. If Deng Xiaoping had been willing to listen to the Hong Kong people instead of dismissing their wishes and concerns, the society of the HKSAR wouldn't have been so split and polarised after 1997. 

Unfortunately, the PRC leadership hasn't changed its practices. It simply refuses to listen. If 'one country, two systems' faces a deep crisis, it is not because of 'foreign forces', or the Occupiers' 'unpatriotic' spirit. It is because the system itself is fraught with contradictions, and Beijing has so far been unwilling to adjust it to the demands of large segments of Hong Kong's society.


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