Growing fears of eroding freedom after two decades of Chinese rule

Xi Jinping has a strong sense of history, and soon after he arrived for his first visit to Hong Kong as Chinese president, he sought to reaffirm his commitment to the “One Country, Two Systems” model governing the ex-crown colony since reverting to Beijing two decades ago.

The “One Country, Two Systems” blueprint allowed China to take control of Hong Kong while maintaining civil liberties such as freedom of speech and autonomy from the mainland for a “50-years no change” period.

Analysts believe the focus these days is much more on the “one country” element than the “two systems” these days, and expect Beijing to interfere much more going forward.

Recent incidents, such as the secret detention of five Hong Kong booksellers on the mainland, have sparked fears that Beijing is prepared to only observe the principle as it suits.

“When the ‘one country, two systems’ model turns 20 on July 1st, Hong Kong and Beijing officials will hail its success while street protesters will grieve its demise,” said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame.

“Beijing has played an increasingly heavy role in Hong Kong over the past 20 years, leading citizens to complain that ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ has become ‘Western District [home to Beijing’s liaison office for Hong Kong] ruling Hong Kong’,” said Hui.

Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, believes “one country, two systems” was always an aspiration.

“Having said that, it is holding up in 20 years better than many expected back in 1997,” said Tsang.

Political backdrop

A crucial aspect is the political backdrop in China, where Xi is preparing for the 19th Communist Party congress in the autumn that will reshuffle the party leadership.

“Xi has not come to Hong Kong to resolve problems but rather to enjoy a great celebration, with fanfare and other visual images that should add lustre to his march to the party congress in the autumn,” said Tsang.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, foresees more dark clouds and possible political confrontations on the horizon for Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is politically and even economically clearly less autonomous than 20 years ago,” he said.

Cabestan believes that during his visit, Xi will reassure the good and threaten the bad, which is something at which the Chinese leadership excels.

“He will reassure the Hongkongers that ‘one country, two systems’ will continue and autonomy will be respected, he will concentrate his attacks on the localists and the pro-independence activists, on purpose exaggerating the their that they present in order to meddle even more into HK affairs,” said Cabestan.

One of Xi’s tasks while in Hong Kong is to officially inaugurate the new chief executive Carrie Lam.

“Poor Carrie Lam has already her hands tied: she will be forced to draft and pass the long-shelved national security law and relaunch the patriotic education campaign. She will need to manage the risks of negative reactions in the society and unrest,” said Cabestan.

Democratic representation

As far as securing more democratic representation for Hong Kong going forward, the situation appears grim, said Alvin Cheung, a researcher at New York University School of Law’s US-Asia Law Institute and formerly a Hong Kong lawyer.

“It is difficult to see how any meaningful bargain for electoral reform in Hong Kong can happen for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“Beijing has demonstrated no willingness to reverse its hard-line policies on Hong Kong; this in turn has directly contributed to the rise of localist and pro-independence parties, at the expense of mainstream pro-democracy parties,” said Cheung.

“Unless Beijing is prepared to change course and regain the trust of the Hong Kong public, there seems to be little point in discussing changes to how the legislature or the chief executive are selected,” said Cheung.

Article originally appeared in The Irish Times on 29 June 2017