In 1984, after two years of negotiations, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, determining the political future of Hong Kong. China and Britain confirmed that Beijing would assume control of the city under the framework of ‘One country, two systems’, whereby Hong Kong would be granted legal, judicial, and economic autonomy – all of which “will remain unchanged for 50 years”, until 2047.
However, in the 22 years since the handover, the mainland has taken steps to tighten its control over Hong Kong. In the process, it has come into conflict with the text of the Joint Declaration. The most controversial actions in recent years included the attempted implementation of the extradition bill, denial of universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive, the detention of anti-mainland booksellers, and the deselection of pro-democracy candidates. These actions appear to seriously breach the Joint Declaration’s promises.
The mainland has adopted a bold attitude towards the treaty, claiming that it is no longer valid. In 2017, the mainland’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the declaration is “a historical document” that “no longer has any practical significance.”
Given the mainland’s response to the Joint Declaration, I think ‘One country, two systems’ has been exposed as a ruse. In fact, I don’t believe the mainland ever intended to honour such a system. I believe the mainland has tried to put both Western countries and the people of Hong Kong at ease, letting them believe that a democratic bubble could exist within one of the most undemocratic countries in the world.
Lately however, especially in the fallout from the disastrous extradition bill, the mask is slipping. More and more people, both in Hong Kong and abroad, are realising that the mainland has no intention of allowing Hong Kong to maintain its autonomy, and will do whatever it needs to do to ensure the city is completely under mainland control.
One positive outcome of the failure of ‘One country, two systems’ is that it can be used as a lesson to other entities that may be inclined to enter into a similar arrangement, such as Taiwan.
In this way, the failed experiment that is modern Hong Kong might help to shatter the illusions of those who believe the mainland will honour its agreements in good faith.
In retrospect, it was naive to believe that two diametrically opposed political ideologies – capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship – could have ever existed as part of the same country, without serious conflict.