Former governor Chris Patten has said that the idea of “One Country, Two Systems” for Hong Kong was “brilliant” before Chinese President Xi Jinping began implementing reforms.

In a British parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday, Patten said to panel members that the framework was a political compromise that dealt with problems on both the British and Chinese side.

Chris Patten

“In many respects, ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was a brilliant way, proposed by Deng Xiaoping, of dealing with this,” he said. “That changed pretty decisively with Xi Jinping.”

Since 1997, Hong Kong has been ruled under the semi-autonomous model of “One Country, Two Systems” – which pledges to safeguard the city’s own laws and way of life for at least 50 years.

But concerns that those freedoms are being eroded by Beijing are mounting. Since 2014, elected politicians have been ousted from the legislature, pro-democracy activists imprisoned and, last year, the Immigration Department refused to grant former foreign press club chair, Victor Mallet, a visa renewal after he chaired a talk by a pro-independence activist.

A ‘tightening of control’

“There was a general tightening of control,” Patten said. “Those aspects of Hong Kong’s system, which go beyond ‘One Country, Two Systems’ isn’t just about capitalism, it’s about the rule of law. It’s about free speech, it’s about all the freedoms we associate with pluralism, and I think that’s happened to a considerable extent over the past half a dozen years.”

YouTube video

The former colonial governor added that the model was largely successful for the first 10 to 15 years, after Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty: “There were no questions about the rule of law, freedom of speech and so on and so on. It was still probably one of the freest cities in Asia.”

“Anybody… who tells you that nothing has changed in Hong Kong, can’t be listening to what anybody in Hong Kong’s saying.”

handover 1997 chris patten
Photo: GovHK.

Patten also made reference to the United Nations review session in November in which seven countries – an unprecedented number – gave recommendations relating to Hong Kong. The countries included Australia, Canada, Croatia, France, Indonesia, Ireland and the Philippines. No such recommendations were made about the city during the last iteration of the Universal Periodic Review in 2013.

‘Extraordinarily moderate’ activists

Patten dismissed the belief that pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong are radical. “It’s absurd, they’re extraordinarily moderate,” he said in reference to the 2014 pro-democracy protests. “These young people have a real and profound sense of citizenship, a sense of citizenship which is very Chinese, which is very patriotic but believes in the rule of law…”

YouTube video

He also said that the largest anti-government protest during his governorship involved a few hundred people. “It’s extraordinary that it’s taken… an autocratic government in Beijing, to produce an independence movement in Hong Kong,” he said.

Patten raised a recent Chinese University of Hong Kong poll that said 51 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds living in Hong Kong had considered emigrating.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.