A rally against the Extradition Law began at 2:20pm and ended at 10pm on June 9, 2019. Photo: Asia Times

The 30th anniversary of the adoption of Hong Kong’s Basic Law was accompanied this month by a string of commentaries by senior members of the Hong Kong administration and political establishment, declaring the importance of upholding the rule of law under the “one country, two systems” principle.  

Talk is easy, but it would be delusional for anyone to ignore the fact that public confidence and support for “one country, two systems” is at an unprecedented low. Given the social unrest in 2019, this is unsurprising – what would be more surprising, if true, is the view that Hong Kong’s political future can be fixed through simple hand-waving and ideological hardwiring. 

Many pan-democrats view the arrangement as merely a stalling excuse that disguises the inevitable absorption of Hong Kong into China’s political arrangements. They view the Basic Law and “one country, two systems” as undermined by intransigence, even bellicosity, from the establishment.

The pro-establishment camp admonishes the doctrine for having allegedly permitted too much insubordination and uncertainty in Hong Kong. They accuse “foreign forces” of operating as the “black hand” (heishou) usurping the “rightful rule” of the central and Hong Kong governments.

Recent events have not provided reassuring evidence that 1C2S is a functional modus operandi. Public confidence in the administration’s competence and ability to govern is at a new low. Mainland Chinese bureaucrats perceive the political arrangement as having spurred significant political volatility and civil instability in the city – such that even the more liberal among them are uneasy about granting any further concession to political reform. 

A significant proportion of Hong Kong residents attributes the repeated failures of the past four administrations – from rectifying socioeconomic inequalities and housing shortages to addressing deeply rooted issues of political inertia and the botched handling of last year’s crisis – to interference that compromises Hong Kong’s rule of law and political autonomy, both objectives enshrined under the Basic Law. 

Much of the persisting antipathy is the result of deeply rooted issues within Hong Kong’s mode of governance. The socioeconomic dimension – the failure to diversify the economy, the inability to address housing and welfare inadequacies, and the glaring lack of a safety net for workers and disfranchised groups – has been belabored as a political point by parties from all sides. Yet there has also been mishandling on two additional fronts.

The first constitutes the cultural aspect of governance. Since 1997, cultural frictions between Hong Kong and China have only increased – from tensions over parallel traders that evolved rapidly into culturalist critiques of mainland tourists and migrants, to concerns over the displacement of Cantonese and Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity, and further to the explicit rebuking of the attempt at introducing a national education program in 2012. 

Beijing saw these expressions of discomfort as ostensible signs of political resistance, and sought to nip the problem in the bud – yet such reactionary recalcitrance only exacerbated the narrative that Beijing was keen to deprive Hongkongers of their right to identify with a social superstructure vastly different from the mainland’s. 

The central government’s forced promulgation of national pride – amid a population for whom a majority has found limited reason to identify with such pride – has eroded bilateral trust after Hongkongers’ national self-identification (as Chinese citizens) peaked during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. 

Throughout these years, the Hong Kong government has not only failed to reduce the worries of Hong Kong people, but also aggravated – through inaction and blatant avoidance – the growing animosity between Hongkongers and their mainland counterparts. 

The second aspect revolves around the politico-normative. Different political communities possess divergent conceptions regarding the just, the right, and the good. 

Mainland citizens, alongside the bureaucrats and officials who rose through Communist Party ranks, value stability, national unity, and obtaining the collective good (however vaguely this is construed in practice). In contrast, Hong Kong’s unique political and historical legacy has produced generations – particularly among the youth and young adults by the time 2014 (Umbrella Movement) came around – who place a far higher premium on civil and political liberties.

The heightened devotion to these values was propelled by a post-1997 Hong Kong with the increasing perception that political reform was an empty promise. 

While Beijing saw itself as permitting Hong Kong’s eventual move toward universal suffrage through a carefully designed transitory phase and with prudential caveats to prevent the upsetting of national unity, a sizable segment of the Hong Kong public was antagonized – if not deeply disappointed – by the offering of electoral packages that were incommensurate with their expectations. 

The Hong Kong government should have addressed the mass uneasiness openly, as opposed to dismissing it as the byproduct of political maneuvers or “foreign interference.” 

If it is indeed the case that accepting the compromise package in 2015 was the correct transitory step toward eventual universal suffrage compatible with Hong Kong’s and Beijing’s interests, local bureaucrats should have taken far more seriously and lobbied on behalf of proposals advanced by moderates, or made the case for why democratization was aligned with the central government’s preferences. Instead, Beijing saw 2014 as a fundamental affront to its national sovereignty, and the protests in 2019 only amplified that perception.

Many Hong Kong people had sought universal suffrage as an instrumental means toward improving the city’s governance, transparency, responsiveness and accountability, as well as people’s livelihoods. 

In fact, these goals are broadly compatible with China’s interests – indeed, a more stable and well-governed Hong Kong could aid with financial consolidation and provision of legal infrastructure toward the mainland. More fundamentally, a well-led and responsive Hong Kong government precisely fulfills Beijing’s persistent desire to demonstrate that Western liberal democracy need not be the sole institutional arrangement that guarantees quality governance.   

Only by rejuvenating how the city is governed could fresh air be breathed into the standoff between the mainland and Hong Kong. We cannot afford to have a leadership led by risk-averse bureaucrats who fail to assuage rampant worries about Hong Kong’s governance. Yet Hong Kong also will not benefit from revolutionaries seeking to transform it into an outpost of anti-China activism. Both Hong Kong people and Beijing should take a leap of faith while the Hong Kong government should take the initiative of righting the wrongs. 

Brian Wong

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar and DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford, and the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.