South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Stephanie Cheung says the chief executive and his team must stop picking fights in order to heal deep divisions in society, and start working to extend the shelf life of ‘one country, two systems’
The second-round consultation paper on constitutional reform says that the proposed reforms pose a challenge for Hong Kong “as to whether we can restore our community, which is divided and full of quarrels, back to a community with political morals and culture which seeks to build common ground whilst respecting differences, and which is rational and inclusive; and at the same time maintains the mutual trust [between Beijing and Hong Kong] under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’.”
Hong Kong is truly wrecked and divided. Every citizen hopes for a restoration of the core values described in the consultation paper. However, there are three observations to be made.
Firstly, the issue for our leaders should not be a question of “whether we can restore”, but “how to restore”.
Secondly, as long as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying continues to pick quarrels where none existed originally, Hong Kong will continue to be divided. Having undergone the umbrella movement, the community craves for a period of peace, for reflection, rest and reconciliation.
Instead of sensing the mood of the community, Leung, in his policy address, chose to denounce an obscure university student publication. Such an incongruous use of his authority is hardly “rational and inclusive” and jars on Hong Kong’s nerves.
Even more jarring are the government’s latest serial attacks against the University of Hong Kong. Article 137 of the Basic Law guarantees that “education institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom”. Alumni and academics across the disciplines and institutions have been forced to unite to resist the onslaught.
In answer, then, to the first question, “How to restore?”, the response must be for Leung to stop further attacks on the Basic Law, and against the bulwarks of Hong Kong’s political and moral culture.
It defies logic that while the constitutional reforms are intended to bring about the selection of a chief executive widely acceptable to different sectors of the public, Leung is, meanwhile, offending one sector after another: the youth, the poor, sportsmen, religious personnel, students and now academics. Doctors and health workers, too, have indicated opposition to the reform proposals.
In the meantime, dissatisfaction and general difficulties of life continue in Hong Kong without any apparent improvement. Recent protests in Tuen Mun and Sha Tin against parallel traders erupted after many months of complaints went unheeded by the authorities. Hong Kong saw pepper spray used again, but this time, skin and hearts have been hardened, and there was little outcry.
This desensitisation towards violent and abusive behaviour is one of the troubling symptoms of post-trauma stress, alongside feelings of anger, helplessness and vulnerability.
Hong Kong needs time and peace to heal. It is time for Leung to stop picking fights and rubbing salt in society’s wounds and, instead, deal with the pressing livelihood issues.
Thirdly, for the long-term benefit of Hong Kong and the mainland, serious thought should be given to extending the “one country, two systems” arrangement beyond 2047. The prospects of two-thirds of legislators approving the government’s reform proposal are bleak. Facing an impasse which cannot be broken, it would be wise to look further ahead, to create opportunities.
The 50-year formula was designed in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping to allow the sharp differences in culture, lifestyle, political and economic systems between Hong Kong and mainland China to level out in time. In the past 30-odd years, the mainland’s economy has advanced exponentially. The cultural gap has narrowed with travel and studies abroad. Exchanges between judges, educators and government officials have taken place and will continue. Nevertheless, inherent differences in systems, culture and attitudes do need time to be harmonised.
Even supposing lawmakers approve the political reform package for 2017, would it be realistic to expect the Hong Kong electorate to be happy to give up their vote in 2047? The development of an advanced political system warrants more time for trial and error than merely voting in a chief executive five or six times.
For the sake of both the mainland and Hong Kong, it would be beneficial for “one country, two systems” to be extended for a gradual convergence of systems, cultures and attitudes. Rao Geping, a member of the Basic Law Committee, suggested a transitional period of 100 to 200 years. I would advocate a 100-year extension; anything shorter will not suffice to give international credibility and certainty, or to justify the work involved for extending land leases and resolving practical issues.
This idea may be novel, but China is brave in conducting political experiments. Extending the special administrative region experiment carries little downside, but China has much to gain in giving a better chance for the experiment to come up with stellar results.
For Hong Kong, the announcement of such an extension would give the community the much-needed breathing space needed to heal and be restored, allowing Hong Kong to turn its attention once more to developing into an attractive and competitive city. A peaceful and healed Hong Kong will be a blessing to China.
Stephanie Cheung participated in the student movements in the 1970s, and is currently a solicitor and mediator, and volunteer in youth work and education