Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people march on the streets on October 1, 2019. Photo: Asia Times

Over the past few months, Hong Kong has undergone one of the most turbulent periods in its political history since the end of World War II. Dissent toward a controversial extradition bill has rapidly spiraled into a behemothic explosion of resentment towards the government, channeling pent-up socio-economic, political, and cultural frustrations and woes. Many have expressed anxiety on whether the “one country, two systems” doctrine is tenable. This policy forms the basis of the Special Administrative Region status granted to Hong Kong and Macau.

In theory, “one country, two systems” grants substantial autonomy to Hong Kong, founded upon the principle basis that Hong Kong’s population remains – on three crucial levels – distinct from their mainland counterparts: in economic systems, cultural values, and political structures.

The imperative to accommodate these distinctions stems from many grounds, some to do with maximizing the autonomy and political representation of both mainland Chinese and Hong Kong populations in determining the respective leadership structures and visions under which they are governed; others pertain specifically to the practical difficulties of integrating or homogeneously treating two highly disparate communities and ecosystems of business and cultures.

The empirical evidence only affirms the foresight of this arrangement. Hong Kong adopts a free-market economy while the mainland adopts a hybrid model that integrates partly laissez-faire economics with state-supported “natural oligarchies” in other sectors.

Given the city’s historical trajectory and developments, Hong Kong people prioritize liberty over national security, channeling a neo-Lockean logic in their pursuit of political freedoms and liberties, whereas many of their mainland counterparts identify with the appeal of materialistic and economic growth complemented by political stability. “One country, two systems” is intended to be a modus vivendi, until the differences between the mainland and Hong Kong become significantly reduced as they converge at the Archimedean mean.

In practice, however, Beijing and the Hong Kong public see things differently.

Beijing feels that it was not well informed about the public’s interests in Hong Kong, to the extent that it must resort to accessing the public will through a variety of non-governmental channels. It also believes that Hong Kong has struggled with articulating a vision of itself compatible with an exponentially growing economy in the mainland, and struggled with exploring room for positive and mutually beneficial integration of Hong Kong into the mainland.

Disillusioned

On the other hand, in Hong Kong, the inadequacies in incorporating public opinions into governance – whether it be due to sheer incompetence, a complex encumbrance of government with interest groups, or lack of accountability mechanisms – have left many Hongkongers feeling heavily disillusioned with the city’s governance since 1997.

Two dominant misconceptions continue to perpetuate differences that are nearly irreconcilable between the city’s political elites and the masses: The first is the belief that a “greater pie” equates “a greater pie for all” – that is, that economic growth is likely to trickle down organically to benefit even the poorest of the poor; the second is that the public’s dissatisfaction with governance could be addressed through socio-economic policies and ad hoc dissemination of material benefits alone.

The future is not all doom and gloom. The adherence to the founding tenets of “one country, two systems” remains a mutually beneficial enterprise for both the mainland and Hong Kong.

For the mainland, Hong Kong’s autonomous economic and legal institutions – dependent upon and bolstered by its highly competitive human capital and knowledge concentration – render it a crucial entry port for foreign investment, as a site for IPOs and lucrative financial transactions, and as a source of “middlemen” who can negotiate between the West and China.

The success of “one country, two systems” will also demonstrate to the world the viability of a pluralistic Chinese governance model, accommodating value and politico-cultural differences.

Hong Kong elites – businessmen, politicians, or intellectuals – would know that China’s continued economic growth and regional political hegemony are likely to be inevitable givens.

They should speak up for “one country, two systems” and articulate to Beijing how greater political autonomy and a free market in Hong Kong can help China fulfill its political vision.

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Brian Wong

Brian Wong is a DPhil in Politics candidate at Balliol College, Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar (Hong Kong '20), and the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review. Brian has written for TIME, the South China Morning Post, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, where they keep a weekly column.

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