Is Hong Kong’s autonomy dead? Is the ‘one country, two systems’ model coming to an end?

Starting the conversation…

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Beijing’s decision to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong triggered the US Secretary of State to decertify the city’s autonomous status and the UK to provide a path to citizenship for Hong Kong citizens born before the 1997 handover.

Would Hong Kong become like Xinjiang?

International observers once believed that all was well in Hong Kong so long as the People’s Liberation Army has not rolled out military tanks in Tiananmen-like fashion. Such a criterion misses the fact that the Tiananmen crackdown carried other sub-military elements: the use of regular police to beat people to death in the city of Chengdu, the narration of “the truth” about the “riots” and “turmoil”, and the use of patriotic education and censorship to create “Tiananmen amnesia.” Since Tiananmen, Beijing has mostly relied on public security forces and hired thugs to achieve “stability maintenance.” These are the tactics that Beijing deployed after the outbreak of the anti-extradiction protests in 2019.

For many Hong Kong people, the city’s autonomy was already dead last year when the Chief Executive introduced the extradition bill and met with central leaders across the border for any major decisions. The city’s freedoms were also dead by July 21 – when thugs indiscriminately assaulted passengers at the Yuen Long metro station and the police looked the other way. The most basic of all freedoms, the freedom to be free from fear, was gone.

At the same time that the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress discussed the national security legislation in the week of May 21-28, the Hong Kong government also pushed through the national anthem law. The Legislative Council is structured to ensure that pro-regime legislators are in the majority. Beijing could have taken this same route to force through a local national security law as required by the Basic Law’s Article 23. Yet, top leaders chose a “nuclear option” which blatantly violates the Basic Law, probably believing that the world would continue to take no action so long as military tanks do not roll out of the garrisons.

Hong Kong people have vowed to resist, but Beijing seems unlikely to back off. What could Hong Kong people do in the face of heightening repression? What are the best and worst scenarios? What concrete actions could the world take? Would strong international reactions only convince Beijing to further rein in Hong Kong? Would Hong Kong become another Chinese city like Shenzhen? Or would it even become like Xinjiang?

Responses…

Andreas Fulda, Senior Fellow, University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute

I broadly agree with Victoria’s bleak assessment of the current situation in Hong Kong. Where I would slightly diverge is that in my view “One Country, Two Systems” (1C2S) already ended at around end of August 2019. By then Hong Kong was governed by martial law in all but name and thus had firmly transitioned towards “One Country, One System” (1C1S). Hong Kong could soon become Xinjiang 2.0. 

Let me also offer a couple of comments on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tactics deployed after the outbreak of the anti-extradition protests in 2019. I would add that the one party-state has weaponized it’s increasingly militant form of nationalism against Hong Kongers. Soon after the popular uprising began Chinese state media portrayed Hong Kongers as undeserving and disloyal subjects. China’s consul general in Brisbane, Australia, praised physical assaults by mainland Chinese overseas students on peaceful protesters at a pro-Hong Kong rally at University of Queensland. Dan Garrett has called the enemification of dissidents the key governance approach under Xi Jinping. Another feature of the CCP’s rule by fear in Hong Kong is political and psychological warfare waged by organs of the party-state. China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) recently used genocidal language by referring to Hong Kong’s democracy movement as a ‘political virus’. The HKMAO also called for the elimination of so-called ‘poisonous’ and ‘violent’ protesters. Following most recent protests disproportionate numbers of children were arrested. This comes to show that what the CCP fears most is a new generation of Hong Kongers who no longer accept the party’s authority.

We are thus witnessing a grave escalation of the conflict: An overbearing central government has sidelined the HKSAR government, marginalised the Legislative Council, and begun with a harsh crackdown on leading figures of the democracy movement. It is no longer alarming to say that under the conditions of the National Security Law Hong Kong could soon become Xinjiang 2.0.

And while Hong Kong’s leaderless/leaderful political movement has shown great courage and resilience in light of increasing suppression, it has also struggled to reach a consensus over its ultimate goal. Whereas in the past the five demands implicitly meant a defence of 1C2S, political activists will have to reassess their strategic options. Will they now try to mould 1C1S in Hong Kong’s liberal democratic image or pursue Hong Kong Independence instead? Or will political activists vote with their feet and emigrate?

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History, University of California at Irvine

For several years now, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of “imperfect analogies,” by which I meant comparisons that might seem at first farfetched and are definitely flawed, but which I feel have value in helping us think about subjects in novel ways and get out of analytical ruts. In writing about Hong Kong recently in commentaries and in my early 2020 book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, I argued that “imperfect analogies” can be useful to view Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s position as comparable to, even if not quite like, that of the head of a country like Poland, Hungary or East Germany during the Cold War. Those leaders, too, when faced with protests thought a lot about what men in a distant capital, in their case Moscow rather than Beijing, wanted them to do. Sometimes, the capital sent in troops to suppress unrest (the case in Hungary in 1956); sometimes, the capital indicated that force should not be used against protesters (the case in East Germany in 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev, an unusual person to be in charge in Moscow); and sometimes, they used local forces in a brutal way to stem a social movement (the case in Poland at the end of 1981, when Solidarity’s first surge was crushed in a way that parallels what we are seeing in Hong Kong right now).

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that what caught my attention most in the excellent opening statement by Victoria Tin-bor Hui was her ending that brought up two doubtless analogies. Might, she asks, Hong Kong come to resemble Shenzhen or even Xinjiang?

There is nothing novel about considering the possibility of a partial convergence between Hong Kong and a neighboring mainland city. One feature of the use of this analogy has, however, changed over time. Before the Handover and just afterwards, it was possible to imagine that the convergence would occur through mainland cities becoming more open, hence more like Hong Kong. Now, the only likely trend seems for Hong Kong to become less open, less governed by the rule of law, hence more like cities over the border on the mainland, and more like Macau, which has long occupied a sort of in-between position in these areas.

It was the Xinjiang mention that is likely to strike some as outlandish. In noting my reaction to it, I realized two things. First, that, to pair Hong Kong with Xinjiang still takes me aback. It is bound to, as Hong Kong is, even now, the part of the PRC that is in many ways freest, Xinjiang the least free—its only competitor there being Tibet. The second reaction I had—and this is what I want to stress—was to realize that it no longer seems as wildly outlandish, as it once did, to bring up the specter of Xinjiang.

The same goes for Tibet. I remember scoffing at the first mentions of Tibet’s present being an augury of things to come in Hong Kong that I came across in the mid-2010s. I became less dismissive as I began to note ways that Beijing was drawing from its Tibet playbook vis-à-vis Hong Kong in denouncing activists there and trying to pressure foreign governments to block Joshua Wong from entering, the way they had tried in the past with the Dalai Lama. By 2015, when the dystopian film “Ten Years” came out, with its controversial segment featuring an act of self-immolation, a strategy often associated in the PRC context with Tibet, I found myself thinking, to imagine that scene really happening in Hong Kong is farfetched for right now but maybe not for 2025. As the journalist and podcaster Louisa Lim and others have noted, what seemed to lie a decade or probably more in the future when the film came out has come to seem closer on the horizon. This is true with that scene, while with others, there are similar things that have already taken place, though we are only half-way from 2015 to 2025.

By the time I wrote Vigil last year, Tibet had moved so far in my mind from the farfetched to the plausible enough to count as an “imperfect analogy” that I worked references to it into the text. I noted that the Seventeen Point Agreement structuring Tibet’s integration into the PRC in 1950 as a territory that was supposed to enjoy considerable autonomy was a precursor of sorts to the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, something that, as I point out (in an extended footnote that nods to work by Isabel Hilton, Ni Kuang, Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin) others had realized much earlier.

Hong Kong has always been and will remain unique in many ways. History never repeats itself. The situation in that city on the eastern edge of the PRC may never get nearly as stifling of freedoms as it is now on the western edge of the country. Still, especially in light of the dark developments of the last few weeks, it makes sense to me, in a way it would not have during the heady days of the Umbrella Movement or before that, that Professor Hui would follow up her nod to the Shenzhen possibility with the phrase “or even Xinjiang” as a way to alert us to the range of possible endpoints for the processes underway now. I would probably have written “or even Tibet,” had I written the opening post, but the point would have been basically the same.

Your view…

Ben Bland, Research Fellow, Lowy Institute

The authors make good points but, to advance the discussion, it’s helpful to distinguish between Hong Kong’s autonomy, the freedoms it’s meant to enjoy and the nature of “Two Systems”.

Hong Kong’s autonomy has been heavily curtailed by Beijing in recent years. Several weeks ago, legal experts were debating the fine points of the Basic Law and Beijing’s right to intervene in Hong Kong. The unilateral introduction of the national security legislation makes such discussions academic. It’s clear now that Hong Kong has no effective autonomy.

Similarly, Hong Kong’s freedoms have come under ever greater pressure. The national security law will deal a further heavy blow to these rights. However, Hong Kong will still have far more space for dissent than any other region in China. The “muscle memory” of speaking one’s mind is not easily erased. But the penalties for resistance will continue to rise, and the avenues for opposition will continue to be blocked.

As for One Country, Two Systems, it’s in Beijing’s interests to keep it alive as political rhetoric and a partial economic reality (unless and until it’s willing to give up capital controls in the rest of China). The US has threatened to revoke some of the special trading privileges extended to Hong Kong but it’s not clear how far it will go.

Other Western democracies have deliberately held back from declaring the end of One Country, Two Systems because they believe it’s in their interests to maintain trading links, even to a Hong Kong that’s not really autonomous and is less-and-less free.

Macau offers a practical, if depressing, example of a Chinese special administrative region that has no effective autonomy and minimal freedom but still has a distinct “System” and enjoys unique economic privileges. But Hong Kongers will not accept such a fate so meekly.

Alexander Görlach, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

Asking whether Hong Kong can become the next Xinjiang is not provocative but outrageous at best. For what is known outside China about Xinjiang is that up to two million Uyghurs are incarcerated periodically and have to undergo brainwashing-like “educational” programs. Further the Communist party makes religious practice de facto a crime by deploying “comrades”, preferably of the Han ethnicity, into each family. The list of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang is long and it is happening for the last couple of years. As lamentable the situation in Hongkong is, it is by far nor comparable to Xinjiang.

What the Communist autocratic leadership in Beijing wants is for Hong Kong to become one amongst the Chinese cities, under its full control and whim. This has been the wish of Chinese leaders since the handover: already in 2003 a security law was meant to obstruct the democratic framework that was promised to Hongkong by Beijing in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Protesting Hong Kongers prevented this from happening. The first real election was scheduled to be held in 2007, it was laid off until 2014. That’s when autocratic China decided to only allow people on the ballot that have been approved prior by the CPC. 2019 came the extradition bill, which failed tremendously.

The democratic camp triumphed in the local elections in November 2019 and won 18 out of the 19 districts of the city. Being became aware of the chance it might loose this years elections to the Legislative Council hence the efforts of incarcerating democrats in April and bringing forward the new security law in May.

Whatever happened in regard to Hong Kong before Xi Jinping took over it was not directed at segregation and racism. Xi Jinping re-introduced this on a broader scale, making it one key component of his “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Looking into Xinjiang you see that he is not shying away from cultural genocide. The world cannot close its eyes as it has long done with Tibet.

“One country, two systems” is dead because it would require for Xi and the Communist Party to accept the people under the second system as equals — which they don’t. In consequence the “One China”-consensus is dead as well as Communist China does not give Taiwan any chance to live its side of the “One China”-Formula.

I am afraid that Hong Kong’s freedom is over. With it goes all credibility China might have gained in the last decade. Under Xi China is not a partner of anyone. Given all the surveillance he puts in place he rather wants his realm to become a giant North Korea.

Dr. Agnes Chong, Assistant Professor, University of Hong Kong

When Hong Kong protestors stormed the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo) on 1 July 2019 in an extreme protest against the extradition bill that would have created a “legal mechanism” which infringes the constitutional rights of the people of Hong Kong, the protestors left the “writing on the wall” of LegCo – “China will pay for its crimes against Uighur Muslims”. It was a cry for justice for a people who is being systematically weakened and coopted into the way the Communist government no longer sees them a political risk. The graffiti also seemed to show that some in Hong Kong identify with their compatriots in Xinjiang, who are subject to oppressive rule from Beijing. The writing on the wall somewhat became prophetic as to the ‘systems coercion’ by the government of Hong Kong that subsequently unfolded.

The extradition bill – the reason for the storming of the LegCo – was eventually withdrawn on 4 September 2019. But the ineptness of the Lam administration showing a Hong Kong government not governing in the interests of the people; and the traumatic events of the Yuen Long incident on 21 July 2019 and the Prince Edward station on 31 August 2019 – resulted in a breakdown of public trust in the very institutions that were meant to protect Hong Kong people and their basic freedoms and rights.

We now see elements of the Mainland system operating in Hong Kong in the following recent events. There were the political arrests of some of Hong Kong’s most senior and prominent pro-democracy figures, including senior QCs Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, for illegal assembly. In LegCo security guards facilitated the pro-CCP camp taking control of a key committee and physically removed the democrats from the chamber. The National Anthem Law passed the legislature on the notable date of 4 June, following which any insulting behaviour towards the Chinese national anthem is a criminal offence in Hong Kong. Finally, the Independent Police Complaints Council Report that investigated police actions in last year’s protests did not find any irregularity in the disproportionate use of force by the police force which were captured on video and widely criticised by world leaders. These are all indications of a loss of the way of life to which Hong Kongers have been accustomed.

Finally, the nail in the coffin that marks the death of Hong Kong’s autonomy is the passing of the national security law for Hong Kong. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed the law and added it to Annex III of the Basic Law, thereby imposing the law on Hong Kong by decree. This ignores the fact that it ought to be the HKSAR on its own who should pass the law according to Article 23 of the Basic Law, and that the NPC enacting this law would appear to breach the Basic Law. The bypassing of the HKSAR’s duly elected legislature and wilfully manipulating the Basic Law marks a demise of the rule of law and threatens confidence in the Hong Kong legal system. It also marks the arrival of broad, undefined and ambiguous security legislation that is already being used to remove political opposition in the name of state security. In that regard, Hong Kong moves significantly closer to becoming like Xinjiang. It’s more than writing on the wall.

Join the conversation.

Please send us your comments of no more than 300 words through the form below. Contributions are curated by the Centre for Geopolitics. All published contributions must include the name of the contributor.