By Jason Buhi

One of the newest symbols of protest to appear in Hong Kong is the American flag. At least three were on display alongside the modern Hong Kong bauhinia flower flag at the rally on July 21. When asked about their intent, the flag bearers said: “We carry these to support the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the US Congress.”

That bill is being tailored by US legislators in response to the Chief Executive’s extradition initiative. It indicates a series of measures that the US Government is willing to take to re-calibrate its special relationship with the HKSAR Government should the practice of ‘one country, two systems’ end. These include retracting recognition of Hong Kong as a separate customs territory, freezing the US-based assets of local officials responsible for any unjust renditions, and guaranteeing that local protesters will not be denied a US visa on the basis of their participation in demonstrations.

july 21 china extradition
Photo: May James/HKFP.

The situation has become this absurd because Hong Kong’s government has been subverted to the point of dysfunction by unelected committees, “functional constituencies” and unjust rules of legislative procedure, some citizens are looking abroad for any checks against the absolute power at home. They’ve desperately concluded that the city’s liberties are more cherished by the international community than by their own government.

Hongkongers’ perspective remains sober, however. When asked if the American flag also meant an appeal to US executive branch, as some “Trump 2020” banners have also appeared at recent rallies, the flag bearers said: “No, this message is for the Congress only.”

There may be a temptation for some to see the presence of a foreign flag as an insult, but it should be noted that the flag bearers did not say that they intend to anger Beijing. Instead, they are appealing to a responsive institution – any responsive institution – for relief.

With that in mind, the powers-that-be in Hong Kong might consider the meaning of the American flag in its context. It is not appearing in isolation, but now joins the Union Jack, Taiwan’s, the colonial and rainbow flags at mass demonstrations. The design of the American flag represents one particular way a national authority engages with its constituencies, known as federalism. The Americans didn’t invent separation of powers or democracy, but federalism allowed them to exercise democracy across an unprecedented landmass.

United States Capitol
United States Capitol. Photo: US Government.

Federalism is a form of government that deeply divides power between the national authority and the subnational governments. Theoretically, both spheres are sovereign, which means that they have the final say on matters within their authority, but not absolutely so.

The states can act through their elected representatives in Congress to temper the prerogatives of the national government, while the national authority retains ultimate authority over foreign policy, interstate commerce, and maintaining a baseline level of fundamental rights that the states are free to exceed.

The American flag emphasises federalism in two different ways. The thirteen red and white bars represent the 13 original colonies that banded together to declare their independence from Britain, each agreeing to yield a certain level of sovereignty to enjoy the benefits of a unified national government. The 50 stars in the blue field represent the current Union, wherein each state, represented by a star, is co-equal in its privileges and responsibilities before the national authority.

Perhaps pragmatically, the flag bearers did not declare emulating this arrangement to be their goal. Beijing does not recognise a divided conception of sovereignty, and federalism requires a national commitment. But Beijing has before and should once against honour Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy.”

Nations such as the UK, France, and Portugal also do not recognise federalism but are still able to provide for rule of law, democracy, and meaningful regional autonomy at the same time. The UK devolves significant power to fairly-elected national legislatures while maintaining parliamentary supremacy. Portugal flips the One Country, Two system equation by granting its regions broad political autonomy.

july 21 china extradition
Grandma Wong. Photo: May James/HKFP.

No model is static, however. Every national order, no matter how structured, requires evolution and constant, good-faith dialogue between central and local authorities. The American central authority was too weak before it became too strong, and the eternal process of balancing “to form a more perfect Union” continues.

The French and Portuguese capitals, conversely, often need to loosen their grip. Fortunately, the world provides these and many other enterprising examples of regional autonomy, such as Belgium, Canada, Italy, Indonesia, and Malaysia, just to name a few.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s political reform has stagnated, and with it so have central-local relations. The structure of the Hong Kong Government has ossified into a colonial configuration that was unsuitable even in its own time, and the illusion of popular representation can no longer be maintained.

Now resolved to shut out their political opposition, Hong Kong’s elite authorities are unable to comprehend livelihood issues that are fostering discontent among residents and draining the city of its dynamism, let alone deal with them as a government.

Hong Kong’s protesters should not need to appeal abroad for a redress of grievances. A democratic and accountable local government should be their best option.

Hong Kong and Chinese flags
Hong Kong and Chinese flags. Photo: Flickr/whampoaorg.

The Central People’s Government should feel confident about Hong Kong’s positive development within China if it were to loosen its reins and allow for more representative government. First, it would be foolish for an elected government to waste its political capital by confronting Beijing. Second, the handful of foreign flags appearing at rallies are no match for the unprecedented pride felt in Hong Kong during China’s triumphant 2008 Olympic Games.

China can innovate in this field. Deng Xiaoping’s adoption of the One Country, Two Systems framework to integrate various sociopolitical ideologies within one national order required courage and vision. Maintaining it as an example that might even appeal elsewhere will require equal amounts of virtue, but a vast and powerful nation confident of its future should be able to manage large territories through diverse and just means.

The people of Hong Kong deserve representative government. Granting genuine universal suffrage to Hong Kong is the right choice for both Hong Kong and China as it is capable of revitalising the One Country, Two Systems relationship, ending the appeals abroad, and elevating the Hong Kong flag to a new position among the world’s recognised symbols of liberty.

Jason Buhi earned his PhD from the Hong Kong University Faculty of Law in 2017. He is now an assistant professor at Barry University’s Dwayne O Andreas School of Law in Orlando, Florida, where he teaches constitutional law.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.