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A vision of 'one country, two systems' in the 21st century

By Regina Ip | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-02 07:38

A vision of 'one country, two systems' in the 21st century

As someone who has been closely involved in the drafting and implementation of the Basic Law of Hong Kong since the 1980s, the 20th anniversary of its implementation holds special significance. It is time to review its original intentions, its performance in the past 20 years and its likely trajectory going forward.

When Deng Xiaoping put forward the bold and innovative concept of "one country, two systems" in the 1970s, the idea was to provide pragmatic and sufficiently flexible arrangements within one country to help bring Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao back into the fold. All three territories had, for historical reasons, been ruled under separate systems for prolonged periods and developed separate lifestyles and cultures. "One country, two systems" was meant to provide the necessary leeway for them to be re-integrated into the country in a way that would not deprive them of their distinct characteristics.

Hong Kong people of my generation will recall the strong and unambiguous position adopted by the central government at the onset of the Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong's future in the early 1980s. Beijing made clear the negotiations would be a matter between China and Britain, and Hong Kong officials, including the governor, had no role representing the people of Hong Kong. Jitters about the future sent Hong Kong's currency into a free fall, as a result of which the government introduced the linked exchange rate. Confidence was restored after the publication of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set out in detail how Hong Kong's separate systems and Hong Kong people's rights and freedoms were to be preserved for 50 years after 1997. The Basic Law further accommodated Hong Kong people's aspirations by agreeing to the ultimate goal of universal suffrage in the election of the Chief Executive and the entire Legislative Council. On the eve of the reunification, many Hong Kong people, myself included, looked forward to the return to Chinese sovereignty as the dawn of a new era.

Twenty years hence, Hong Kong remains prosperous and the world's freest and most competitive economy. Yet Hong Kong's technological backwardness has also become increasingly obvious. There has been no innovation coming out of Hong Kong since the launch of the Octopus card in 1997. Hong Kong lags behind the mainland and its many competitors not only in fintech but also in harnessing new digital technology in resolving its many urban problems. Hong Kong's Gini Coefficient-a measure of income inequality-has reached its highest level in 45 years. Property prices have soared to levels which make owning a home an unattainable dream to most young people. In repeated economic crises since 1997, Hong Kong has been bailed out by the Chinese mainland, through its investments, yuan business and hordes of tourists. Domestically, wage levels and living standards have been shored up by statutory minimum wage requirements and welfare payments made possible by the local government's colossal fiscal reserves.

Politically, Hong Kong has been a sorry tale. The advance of democracy has no doubt brought much greater transparency and accountability on the part of the government, and has given the underprivileged a much greater voice. Yet the administration has paid a heavy price in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. In recent years, use of filibusters to stall government business by a handful of legislators has greatly slowed development. Indeed, anti-business, anti-development and anti-integration sentiments run deep in the legislature, and would raise their ugly head again at the slightest provocation.

Even more worrying is the fact that government initiatives pertaining to the nation-whether it be national security legislation, national education, or teaching Chinese subjects in Putonghua in schools-have met recurrent objection and resistance. After 20 years of life under Chinese sovereignty, latest surveys show that Hong Kong people's sense of identification with the nation has ebbed, despite China's rising economic clout, international influence and repeated help to Hong Kong..

The unsatisfactory situation leaves much food for thought. Is the inability to identify with the nation, especially on the part of the young, the result of a historical problem, external influence, a backlash against the nation's growing might, a failure of education or a failure of leadership? Has Hong Kong been led by genuine patriots, or only those who pay lip service to the principle of protecting national sovereignty, security and developmental interests? Have the true patriots among our leaders been able to translate their passion into language intelligible and acceptable to all walks of life, especially the young?

The call for greater identification with the nation is not a call for disparaging Hong Kong's separate culture and systems. I remain convinced that Hong Kong can best serve the nation by maintaining its distinct advantages, including its rule of law, its cultural diversity, openness, strong accent on individual rights and freedoms, and convergence with the international community. It will be the mission of our new, incoming leader to balance national imperatives against Hong Kong people's aspirations to maintain their pride and distinct identity. That will be no easy task, but a mission that we should all support.

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