Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, judging the pros and cons of Hong Kong’s fate during the past 20 years since British colonial rule ended depends on prior expectations and present perspectives.

If the perspective is official, whether Chinese, British, or American, the gloss must be mostly positive and upbeat… “in the main,” as the Chinese like to say.

One reason is that those three governments, especially the first two, have reputations at stake given their lead roles in the transfer of sovereignty from London to Beijing. Admission of failure might have unpleasant consequences.

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Photo: Dan Garrett.

Another reason is that in the larger scheme of things, relations with Beijing are now too complex and too important to put at risk for anything less than some major calamity.

Since Hong Kong has suffered no extreme breakdowns since July 1, 1997, the principals feel free to claim success for their preparations beforehand and promises fulfilled afterwards.

The official gloss

Beijing is extravagant in its claims of success. These were advertised almost daily in preparation for the July 1, 2017 anniversary celebrations. Zhang Dejiang, the top Beijing official overseeing Hong Kong affairs, gave the keynote account at a ceremonial forum in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on May 27.

The event was promoted as a celebration of Hong Kong’s first 20 years under its new post-1997 Basic Law constitution, which promises to grant Hong Kong autonomy as a separate system under Chinese rule within the People’s Republic.

Zhang began his 50-minute oration by declaring that the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997, “marked a major event in the history of the Chinese nation, one of upholding sovereignty and realising national reunification.”

Zhang Dejiang
Zhang Dejiang. File photo: GovHK.

Reviewing the success of the endeavour, he said, “we reaffirm our commitment to advancing the great cause of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ and we will continue to ensure the full implementation of the HKSAR Basic Law so as to further uphold China’s sovereignty, security and development interests as well as Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability.”

In London, the British government has continued to issue its promised semi-annual reports on Hong Kong’s post-colonial progress.  In the most recent, dated February 24 this year, the verdict remained unchanged.

The original 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration guidelines and China’s One Country, Two Systems governing principle for post-colonial Hong Kong have worked out well. The arrangement, notes the report, has also been good for Britain’s continuing relationship with Hong Kong.

A most important aspect of Hong Kong’s distinct way of life, which sets it apart from the rest of China, is its independent judiciary. The report emphasised that legal institutions remain as strong as before and the rule of law remains unchanged. That’s why so many foreign companies continue to do business in Hong Kong.

British officials welcomed assurances from their Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts that Beijing and Hong Kong are committed to the “faithful implementation” of the one-country, two-systems formula.

nigel farage ukip brexit
File photo: Reuters/Toby Melville.

British officials were also encouraged by “indications” that the formula’s 50-year guarantee would not necessarily expire in 2047.

David Wilson, who was Hong Kong’s governor in the late 1980s remains upbeat. He was an old-school governor in the traditional mould. Wilson thinks Beijing has honoured its Basic Law pledges to maintain Hong Kong as a separate system and is willing to give them a 99% approval rating.

In Washington, the State Department also issued a report on Hong Kong. From this quarter, too, came praise for Hong Kong’s rule of law and its independent judiciary, plus the continuing respect for individual rights and the “high degree of autonomy.”

Washington, too, was pleased to note that the Chinese government had reiterated its commitment to that arrangement. Additionally, Beijing was continuing to introduce measures in support of Hong Kong’s economy.

washington usa us congress
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The American report concluded that Hong Kong’s autonomy remains “more than sufficient to justify continued special treatment by the United States for bilateral agreements and programmes.”

The reference was to the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act that authorises the U.S. government to treat Hong Kong as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China, as long as China honours its pre-1997 promises.

Official caveats and qualifications

The positive British and American reports were nevertheless careful to cite some reasons for concern. Chief among them were the booksellers case and Beijing’s November 7, 2016 interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking.

In late 2015, five men associated with Causeway Bay Books disappeared: three while on mainland visits, one from his holiday home in Thailand, and the fifth from his warehouse office on Hong Kong Island. They all eventually turned up across the border in the custody of mainland law enforcement authorities.

Causeway Bay Books. File photo: HKFP/Stanley Leung.

The shop and its publishing arm seem to have closed down for good… in an exercise orchestrated entirely from the mainland that ignored all the relevant Hong Kong judicial, immigration, and police authorities.

On the oath-taking saga, the two reports did not fault Beijing for the substantial new restrictive conditions attached to oaths-of-allegiance by the interpretation of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 104. This was in response to two newly-elected legislators who used the swearing-in ceremony to declare their allegiance to Hong Kong rather than the People’s Republic.

The two were elected along with several others as representatives of Hong Kong’s new dissident younger generation. These young people who were born around the time of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, have come of political age watching the political struggles of their elders and have come to regard Beijing’s One Country, Two Systems promises as empty slogans.

The objections coming from London and Washington were only that Beijing had compromised Hong Kong’s judicial independence by issuing the interpretation before a Hong Kong court could announce its judgement.

The British report also went into considerable detail about Hong Kong’s elections. Details included allegations of manipulation and intimidation perpetrated by pro-Beijing loyalists and conservatives. Also mentioned was a new Hong Kong government vetting procedure introduced ahead of the 2016 Legislative Council election.

Yau Wai-ching Baggio Leung
Disqualified legislators Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung. File photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

A new confirmation form was used to disqualify prospective candidates suspected by election officers of promoting the new dissident advocacies… localism, self-determination, autonomy, independence, and violence.

It was left to Hong Kong’s last British governor, Christopher Patten, to step outside the official mould. He said his confidence about Hong Kong’s future had been shaken, due to pressures coming directly or indirectly from Beijing.

He mentioned attacks on the rule of law and on judicial independence, the book sellers case, threats to autonomy and to the universities, and even to free speech.

Beijing’s Basic Law Sleight of Hand

The most ironic feature of the reports coming from both London and Washington, however, was their unquestioning acceptance of Beijing’s dedication to the One Country, Two Systems principle.

The American report even used as an example of Beijing’s economic solicitude, the December 2016 opening of a cross-border Hong Kong-Shenzhen stock exchange link. This is a perfect example of what is seen in Hong Kong as creeping cross-border integration.

Leung Chun-ying
Leung Chun-ying officiates at the launch ceremony of Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect. File photo: GovHK.

And what all that means is another marker in the silent unacknowledged erosion of One Country, Two Systems autonomy.

Perhaps no one wants to contemplate the political consequences of economic integration because it’s so good for business. But Beijing is certainly aware of everyone’s need to believe the best about Hong Kong’s future.

On the basis of Zhang Dejiang’s May 27 presentation alone, we can see that One Country, Two Systems is not about to undergo a name change any time soon.

On the contrary, it has now acquired theoretical status, which means it is as if written in stone. The design is simply being redefined: same name, evolving content, with shrinking autonomy and more central government intervention.

On the evolving content, Zhang’s remarks indicated Beijing’s new determination to use more emphatically the powers written into the Basic Law. In fact, it’s not being redefined. It was originally written so skillfully that readers everywhere can see in it what they want to see.

basic law
File photo: HKFP.

Zhang Dejiang indicated that the central government is contemplating measures aimed at strengthening its exercise of power in many areas.

“Detailed regulations should be formulated regarding the following powers: the power that an HKSAR law should be reported for the record and may be returned, the power to appoint the Chief Executive and senior officials, the power to interpret and amend the Basic Law, decision making power on the evaluation of the HKSAR political system, the power of the central government to issue directives to the Chief Executive… The aim is to put in place a functioning system and mechanism and ensure full and faithful implementation of the Basic Law.”

Understanding the Basic Law should be an “important criterion for appointing and evaluating HKSAR public servants.” As for the younger generation, “special attention must be given to strengthening education of the young people in Hong Kong about the country’s national conditions and… to instill in them a strong sense of national identity… and turn them into a new generation of law-abiding, hardworking and enterprising people who love both the motherland and Hong Kong.”

Anti-national education curriculum protest.
Anti-national education protests in 2012. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Zhang dismissed the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers principle that democracy advocates champion. He emphasised that Hong Kong’s government is executive-led and judges must adhere to the Basic Law.

He denounced calls for self-determination and independence and said no such challenges to the central government’s sovereign authority and decision-making power could be tolerated. Consequently, he called for passage of the Article 23 national security legislation.

Evidently, One Country, Two Systems doesn’t mean what Hong Kong democracy advocates thought it meant when the Basic Law was being drafted. Nor do that law’s promises mean what democracy advocates thought when they saw words like universal suffrage, judicial independence, Hong Kong autonomy, and so on.

Beijing seems finally to have had enough of letting those words drift in euphemistic debate. Central government authorities are now declaring their determination to colour in the Basic Law’s grey areas and exploit its loopholes.

Voices from the street

Just as well that President Xi Jinping flew back to Beijing before Hong Kong’s annual July 1 protest march began at 3pm. But had he stayed on through the afternoon, he would at least have been able to say that One Country, Two Systems must be working really well because Hong Kong still enjoys free speech.

Xi Jinping People's Liberation Army
Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison. File photo: GovHK.

He was in town to preside over the 20th anniversary celebrations and the swearing in of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Her title is chief executive and China’s President presided at the inauguration to remind everyone that Hong Kong is not independent.

The July 1 protest march is organised by the Civil Human Rights Front. In 2003 it was a new coalition representing many different social and political activist groups. They are each dedicated to separate causes but with enough in common to hold together and continue to sponsor the protest march each year.

The groups come with their own agendas but for this day they must all agree on the lead slogans and themes. These are negotiated in advance and any group that feels it can’t agree doesn’t participate. Political parties are not allowed to campaign during the march, but fund-raising is permitted at promotion stands set up along the route.

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July 1 march. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This year everyone agreed on “One Country, Two Systems: 20 Years of Lies” as the lead slogan. Sub-themes recommended for use were all just as defiant: “Democracy and Self-Determination,” the ever-provocative “Power to the People,” “No August 31: We Want Genuine Universal Suffrage,” and finally, “Release Liu Xiaobo.”

August 31 refers to Beijing’s August 31, 2014 political reform decision that mandated a mainland-style officially-vetted chief executive election in lieu of genuine universal suffrage.

Every year Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy newspaper, publishes in its July 1 edition of the paper, a full page broadsheet cartoon suitable for marchers to use as improvised protest placards. This year there were two: One read: “Stop Political Oppression; Free Liu Xiaobo Now.” The other featured Carrie Lam ascending steps to the seat of power as a puppet with strings pulled by Beijing.

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Liu Xiaobo. File photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The July 1 turnout was not massive this year, but it was big enough and defiant enough to register in Beijing. Organisers claimed 60,000 (police 14,000), with snapshots of dissent all along the route.

One group’s promotion stand featured an amplified “Down with the Communist Party” chant. Another group appeared as usual carrying the old British colonial flag. A few others carried Taiwan’s Republic of China flag. Yet another small group carried black flag replicas of those used by the two legislators last October that provoked the oath-taking saga. The banners declare “Hong Kong is NOT China.”

independence july 1 democracy march rally protest
File photo: HKFP.

In 2014, during the political reform drive there was a big spike in the July 1 turnout, as if in anticipation of achieving the long-sought goal of universal suffrage elections. Civil Human Rights Front groups were enthusiastic participants in that campaign. This year the mood was more like defiant resignation.

So for now, the political boundaries are drawn. Hong Kong really does stand on the fault line between dictatorship and democracy, and no one can see which side might give way first.

Despite his mild tone and the First Couple’s gracious demeanour throughout, Xi Jinping’s speech at the July 1 inauguration ceremony laid down the line with ominous implications.

He said any act that endangers China’s sovereignty and security or challenges the power of the central government is an act that “crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible”… “Hong Kong needs to improve its systems to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

The ominous implications are Article 23 legislation, “systems” to enforce it that do not now exist here, and proper political education for the younger generation, all of which Hong Kong has so far successfully resisted.

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.