The 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty has prompted a flurry of reflection and commentary, in both local media and, significantly, in the overseas press.
Back in 1997, if one was betting on the success of “one country, two systems”, the stakes would have been high. The concept, hailed as the brainchild of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), is certainly one of the most imaginative constitutional balancing acts ever devised: an inspired solution to what seemed like the impossible dilemma of how to fit one of the world’s most thriving capitalist enclaves into the socialist straitjacket of Communist China.
At the same time, sustaining the concept over the 50 years of “no change”, prescribed under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, was always going to be challenging. Leafing through some speeches I delivered shortly after the handover as chief secretary, I came across the following words from an address made in 1998 to the Asia Society in Washington: “None of us could know how our world might change after June 30, 1997. We had no precedent to compare with, or to follow. What we did have were the genuine good intentions and the best wishes of all parties involved. But even before the transition, I felt that, in the final analysis, it would be up to us, the people of Hong Kong, to make the transition work.”
My sentiments have not changed; if anything, I feel even more strongly that it is up to the people of Hong Kong to make “one country, two systems” work, up to and hopefully beyond 2047.
Project Citizens Foundation, of which I am a founding director, recently hosted a public forum on “Hong Kong 2047: Quo Vadis?” One of the speakers was Legislative Council member and Demosisto chair, Nathan Law Kwun-chung.
Law spoke movingly about how Hong Kong’s younger generations feel their future was just handed off by the British colonial power. As a result, they were robbed of any right of self-determination. This is why, he argued, so many young people struggle to identify with a motherland that doesn’t seem to understand their hopes and aspirations.
As I ponder the issue of where we go from here, I am reminded of the words of a song from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical: Jesus Christ Superstar : “I’ve been very hopeful so far, now for the first time I think we’re going wrong … could we start again please?’’
Why do these words resonate? Quite simply because, in the first few years after the transfer of sovereignty, “one country, two systems” worked as it was intended to do. Hong Kong continued to be administered by an able and politically neutral civil service, and there was no interference either by the leadership in Beijing, or the New China News Agency (the central government’s representative office before the liaison office was set up in 2000).
Things have gone badly wrong in recent years. Who is to blame? I do not intend to apportion blame, as it does not take us forward. Rather, I believe we should grasp the golden opportunity presented by the 20th anniversary of the handover, and the entry into office of a new chief executive, to start again: to turn over a new leaf in our relations with the central government.
First, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor must step out of the shadow of the Leung Chun-ying era, with its lack of integrity and connivance in the relegation of Hong Kong’s status to a satellite of the mainland, rather than an important global city in its own right. She must quietly, but firmly, take back the reins of day-to-day governance of Hong Kong and make clear that, while her administration will respect fully its obligations under “one country”, the central authorities must stop eating away at the boundaries of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy guaranteed under “two systems”.
Recent thinly veiled warnings by the National People’s Congress chairman, Zhang Dejiang ( 張德江 ), to the effect that Beijing will not hesitate to tighten its grip in aspects such as the pace of political reform, its power over the chief executive, and its authority to appoint and dismiss key officials, are both uncalled for and totally counterproductive.
As Lam has already rightly emphasised to the leadership, the voices calling for independence for Hong Kong represent a tiny minority. The best thing Beijing can do is demonstrate that, having orchestrated her election as chief executive, they are prepared to trust in her judgement and show her the respect she needs to captain her ship.
Above all, Beijing must support Lam in taking steps to reverse the disastrous decline in the morale of the civil service, which is a direct consequence of its increasingly blatant interference in the day-to-day conduct of the bureaucracy.
I have made no secret, over the years, of my belief that the introduction of the political appointment system was misguided. It has drained the senior ranks of the civil service to fill ministerial positions and compromised the neutrality of those who remain. It has failed to nurture new political talent, as seen in the lacklustre performance of many of Leung’s team and the fact that Lam has clearly been less than successful in recruiting the new blood she had hoped for.
I am not convinced that the failure to attract talent from the private sector into government positions is due to lower pay, or a lack of public-spiritedness. Nor do I believe it is because they are discouraged by the (at times) toxic atmosphere in Legco. The only way to attract individuals of high calibre and integrity into the public service is to convince them they will be able to exercise their duties with intellectual rigour, impartiality, and according to their conscience. Until Hong Kong people are governed by politicians they respect and whom they can trust to protect their interests – politicians who have a genuine mandate by virtue of being appointed on the basis of a democratic system of fair and open elections – it will be impossible to heal the rifts in our society and safeguard “one country, two systems” for coming generations.
Bottom line? Lam cannot afford to place the issue of constitutional reform on the back-burner. At least, she must bring forward proposals to end the scandalous situation whereby the votes of a minority of vested interests in Legco and the Election Committee for chief executive can usurp the rights of the majority of Hong Kong electorate.
Numerous well-thought-out proposals to broaden the electorate of the functional constituencies, or phase them out, were submitted during the 2013-2014 consultation process, including by my own Hong Kong 2020 think tank. All were ignored. These proposals should be revisited at the earliest opportunity.
Back on July 1, 1997, watching for the first time the raising of the national flag at the handover ceremony, I recall a sense of emotion that is hard to describe. I began to appreciate the spiritual propriety of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. My family – like many in Hong Kong – did not leave China willingly. We left because we felt we had to.
As a Chinese, I felt we had been a country and a people divided, travelling different roads and shaped by different events. Now we had an opportunity to be whole.
On July 1 this year, my emotions are going to be far more mixed. I will take pride in the achievements of the past 20 years, in the resilience of our community and its determination to hold on to the values, freedoms and way of life we hold dear. At the same time, I will feel disappointment and alarm that the precious concept of “one country, two systems” seems to be floundering, despite the best efforts of so many.
The visit of President Xi Jinping (習近平),who arrives on Thursday to officiate at the anniversary celebrations, is an opportunity I hope our country’s leader will embrace: an opportunity to promote the healing process and give our young people hope. Could we start again please?
Anson Chan, a former chief secretary of Hong Kong, is convenor of Hong Kong 2020