The rewriters of Hong Kong history have been at work over the past 20 years and are doing their best to forget that the one country, two systems concept was originally devised to lure Taiwan back into the embrace of the mainland.

In Beijing it was thought that starting this experiment in Hong Kong and Macau would be an excellent way of reassuring the people of Taiwan that they had nothing to fear from integration into the People’s Republic of China.

There are no prizes for guessing why this is never mentioned these days. Indeed in Taiwan people are not shy in expressing their determination not to become “another Hong Kong.”

File Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

To be generous it is possible to argue that Deng Xiaoping really meant what he said when he spoke of giving Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” and stressed that under this system we would see “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong.”

However the essential DNA of a one-party state is not amenable to concepts like autonomy and in a vast sprawling nation like China the fear of separatism is ever present, not least because China’s history is heavily dotted with challenges to the central authorities from far-flung and not so far-flung parts of the empire.

What even the most authoritarian and least flexible members of the Chinese Communist Party elite had not quite imagined was the willingness, almost from day one, of Hong Kong’s ruling class to voluntarily diminish the autonomy that was offered to the newly established Special Administrative Region.

Much of the initial blame must go the SAR’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Just two years after the handover he started the process of asking Beijing to interpret the Basic Law so as to overrule decisions made in Hong Kong’s highest court, in this instance it was a case involving the right of abode of children from Mainland parents who were born in Hong Kong.

File photo: GovHK.

More interpretations have followed and have effectively served as amendments to the Basic Law, whittling down the SAR’s judicial autonomy and, in every case, introducing measures that nibble away at civil liberties.

Tung was also responsible for inviting mainland intervention in all manner of local decisions which he passed over to the central authorities. At first mainland officials responsible for Hong Kong affairs actively encouraged Tung to deal with these matters himself.

However in 2002 when he decided, with the vigorous backing of Regina Ip, who was then responsible for security matters, to introduce a draconian version of anti-subversion legislation to fulfil the requirements of Article 23 of the Basic Law, there was a sea change in attitudes.

Beijing had been assured not only by Tung but also the usual ragbag of sycophants who “advise” the central government, that there would be no problem passing this legislation into law. However mass protests succeeded in blocking this attempt and even encouraged normally tame pro-government legislators to take a step back.

Secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Michael Suen, chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, secretary for security Regina Ip, secretary for justice Elsie Leung in 1999.

The authorities in Beijing drew two major conclusions from this episode. First, they came to realise that the Hong Kong officials they had installed as leaders of the SAR lacked both competence and a sufficient understanding of what local people were thinking.

Secondly, this experience strengthened the hand of hardliners in Beijing who always suspected that Hong Kong people were not to be trusted. This hardened their resolve to implement what has increasingly become a policy of far more central control.

In a recent interview Zhou Nan, who was China’s most senior official at the time of the handover, obligingly confirmed the Communist Party’s determination neither to negotiate nor listen to government opponents by approvingly quoting the remarks of Mao Zedong: “We must uphold a clear-cut stance…unity gained with compromise dies quickly.”

Meanwhile the authorities in Beijing deepened their misgivings about tolerating the kind of autonomy that was initially promised. They later developed an almost paranoid concern over foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs, convinced that this was aimed at fostering separatist sentiments.

The China Liaison Office. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Beijing also moved a far bigger contingent of officials into the SAR, only some of whom actually work in either the Liaison Office or the foreign ministry, the public faces of the mainland official presence in Hong Kong. It is impossible to put a figure on the number of mainland agents now stationed here but it clearly runs into the thousands and is even greater when those not stationed here but making regular visits are included.

While Beijing tightened the screws a central tenet of faith has evolved among the people who argue that challenging the authority of the central government is futile and indeed counter productive. They maintain that every challenge moves Hong Kong further away from achieving any form of autonomy and conclude that “put up and shut up” is by the far the best policy.

In some ways this argument is persuasive because, as the response to the 2014 Occupy Movement showed, even the biggest street demonstrations could not succeed and enhanced the determination to make no concessions on democratic government.

With Leung Chun-ying as chief executive, Beijing had the kind of leader they liked. one who would vigorously pursue a policy of totally ignoring opposition and punishing those who dared to raise their voices.

Leung Chun-ying. File photo: GovHK.

There is little doubt that after 20 years progress on constitutional reform has been stalled, freedom of expression is on the decline and civil liberties are under threat.

However nothing is forever and even the most myopic student of history must know that appeasing dictators is a recipe for disaster not progress. Had, for example, the Chinese Communists accepted the continuation of Kuomintang nationalist rule and not spent some three decades working for its downfall, Chinese history would look very different.

The fact of the matter is that authoritarian governments always play the short game, patching up problems without solving them, while opposition movements are compelled to play the long game and bear all the pain that this entails.

However the long game is the game that counts even though it is often difficult to visualise winning while the game is on.

File photo: HKFP.

Hong Kong’s civil society has evolved in remarkable ways since 1997 and the genie of resistance to authoritarian rule is well out of the bottle.

Those who even dare to dream of the concept of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” are far from achieving this goal but it is equally clear that the divisions in society and the dysfunctional form of government that prevails in the SAR are equally unsustainable.

So this is where we are in 2017. The situation is neither dire nor sustainable; the reality is that there is a state of flux with much to play for on all sides.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship