Representational image. Photo: iStock
As global observers increasingly see a 'two-state solution' as unviable, it's time to examine the issue more objectively. Image: iStock

The 20 years since the Hong Kong handover have given Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” concept a bad name. Just because the idea hasn’t worked as hoped in Hong Kong doesn’t mean it can’t work anywhere. When US President Donald Trump blithely suggested to Israelis and Palestinians that a “one state solution” would be acceptable, he stumbled into a minefield where one country, two systems might succeed.

“One country, two systems” for Israelis and Palestinians would have some key elements that are missing from the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China.

1) The two sides will negotiate a comprehensive settlement.

When the ground rules for Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty were hammered out, negotiators had a huge gulf in motivation. For Beijing’s Communist Party rulers, limiting the rights of Hong Kong and insulating mainland China from any freedom fallout was a matter of self-preservation, political life or death. For British negotiators, Hong Kong’s freedoms were a parting gift to colonial subjects to whom they’d already denied UK citizenship and, until the final pre-handover years, meaningful political rights. Beyond professional pride, British negotiators had no genuine stake in the outcome.

Hong Kong’s business leadership dominated local representation in the Basic Law negotiations. Pretenses of bare-knuckle capitalism aside, Hong Kong tycoons mainly succeed by kowtowing to the authorities that dispense economic privileges from land rights to utility licenses. Big business mainly cared about cozying up to Hong Kong’s new leaders to retain their advantages.

There’d be no confusion or divided loyalties in one country, two systems talks between Israelis and Palestinians

There’d be no confusion or divided loyalties in one country, two systems talks between Israelis and Palestinians. They will negotiate with full and equal fervor because each has a real interest in the outcome. That will make it more difficult to reach an accord, but their agreement will settle issues unequivocally.Even committed democrats, champions of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, had to push against prevalent anti-colonization and Chinese solidarity arguments. As a result, the Basic Law has gaping loopholes, most notably regarding choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive by universal suffrage.

2) There’d be no pretense of both systems supporting the one country.

Hong Kong officials have to walk a fine line to assert the city’s rights without crossing the fuzzy, undefined line (see above) of loyalty to the country, mainland China. Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, duly elected Hong Kong representatives, lost their seats for failing to pledge allegiance to Beijing in their oaths of office. Beijing inserting itself into Hong Kong’s affairs wherever it finds enough wiggle room in the Basic Law is a growing source of tension between city citizens and the country.

Under the one country, two systems of China and Hong Kong, the country unquestionably has primacy. After all, China has thousands of years of history as a nation. Britain acknowledged as much by signing treaties with China’s rulers to obtain Hong Kong.

The Israelis and Palestinians can’t even agree on whether there is a country and who it belongs to. Israel, created by the United Nations, has existed for less than 70 years. Regardless of how you view Israel’s legitimacy, it lacks the longevity of China to be automatically accepted as the default “one country” in the equation. Any “one country” the Israelis and Palestinians agree to will undoubtedly leave the “two systems” dominant, diminishing a key source of potential friction.

3) It’s clear who the leader of each system works for.

Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has a virtually impossible job. She is supposed to represent Hong Kong, but the so-called electoral system – 1,200 electors, mainly handpicked by Beijing and its allies, choosing on behalf of 3.8 million registered voters, with Beijing making the formal appointment – denies the city’s leader a popular mandate or broader legitimacy. The CE is effectively chosen by and serves at the pleasure of Beijing.

Whether by accident, design, circumstance, temperament or direct order, outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying went further than his predecessors in embracing the role of Beijing’s man in Hong Kong, rather than doing the city’s bidding. But whoever the CE is, the people of Hong Kong can rightly wonder who their so-called leader works for.

There will be no such confusion in the Middle East version of one country, two systems. The heads of the Israeli and Palestinian governments will be unabashed advocates for and representatives of their own constituents. That’s an essential component of good government and holds the key to one country, two systems succeeding.

Unfortunately, Deng Xiaoping may not have understood that, and his successors certainly haven’t, dooming one country, two systems to failure in the place where it began and needs most urgently to succeed. Relations between Hong Kong’s people and its governments have grown increasingly corrosive in the two decades since 1997. You know your relationship is scraping the bottom when the Israeli-Palestinian situation signals a pathway to improvement.

Muhammad Cohen is a contributor to Forbes Asia and editor at large of Inside Asian Gaming, and wrote Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.

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