Hong Kong will have been returned to the motherland for 25 years this coming July 1, with “one country, two systems” reaching the middle point of “unchanged for 50 years” in exercise. Looking back from this point in time and ahead, we should be able to see things clearer and know how to go forward from here on out.
In the past 25 years, a never-before-seen system arrangement known as “one country, two systems”, designed specifically to facilitate reunification of the Chinese nation, has been universally recognized as a great success, as it allows the city to maintain overall prosperity and stability despite dogged external interference and internal disruption by separatist forces. In fact, attempts by anti-China forces to derail the exercise of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong never stopped in those years, culminating in a period of grave challenges in 2019. Thanks to Beijing for having taken timely and decisive measures to end the crisis in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, particularly the promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong at the end of June 2020, followed by the decision of the National People’s Congress to improve Hong Kong’s electoral system through local legislation last year. Those constitutional milestones effectively ended the chaotic situation in Hong Kong and fully restored the rule of law and public order immediately. As intended, the exercise of “one country, two systems” was also back on track.
It’s not uncommon for unprecedented endeavors to run into difficulties, and “one country, two systems” is no exception, which experienced many challenges in the past 25 years, with a lot of precious lessons learned and mistakes to avoid in the future. We now have a much better grip on the gists of “one country, two systems” as follows:
First, it is a fundamental requirement for the HKSAR to safeguard the sovereignty, national security and development interest of the country. “One country, two systems” is a system arrangement designed specifically for national reunification and State governance, with national unification as the primary goal. The Basic Law of the HKSAR states in the Preamble, “Upholding national unity and territorial integrity, maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and taking account of its history and realities, the People’s Republic of China has decided that upon China’s resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong, a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be established in accordance with the provisions of Article 31 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, and that under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, the socialist system and policies will not be practised in Hong Kong.” The Communist Party of China states in its report at the 18th National Congress that safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, national security and development interest, as well as maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong in the long run, is the fundamental objective of “one country, two systems”. It’s a prerequisite of enjoying the benefits of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that Hong Kong fulfills its constitutional obligation of upholding the nation’s sovereignty, national security and development interest, including the “three bottom lines” laid down by President Xi Jinping.
Second, the Constitution of the PRC and the Basic Law of the HKSAR together form the constitutional foundation of the HKSAR. The Constitution is the nation’s basic law and supreme law, while the Basic Law was promulgated in accordance with the Constitution. That means one cannot talk about the Basic Law completely removed from the constitutional context; and the HKSAR does not have its own “constitutional rule” or “rule of law” outside the constitutional framework of the PRC. Within this constitutional framework, Hong Kong must adapt to and coordinate the practice of its own system with that of the country’s main body. The HKSAR government and Hong Kong compatriots must follow the spirit of the Constitution, respect and uphold the leadership of the CPC, and respect and uphold the country’s political system and mechanisms. At the same time they must safeguard the authority of the Basic Law to ensure its effective implementation in Hong Kong.
Third, the high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is organically integrated into the central government’s overall jurisdiction over Hong Kong. Sovereignty and jurisdiction are inseparable, hence the fact that the Chinese government automatically holds overall jurisdiction over the HKSAR upon resuming the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not a natural gift but authorized by the Central People’s Government. The HKSAR government answers to the central government and is subject to the latter’s supervision with full accountability. The central government holds the right to make final decisions regarding the political system and institutions of the HKSAR but does not interfere in the affairs that fall within the HKSAR’s high degree of autonomy.
Fourth, it is imperative to ensure “patriots administering Hong Kong”, which is a system safeguard of “one country, two systems” and a qualification for “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong”. The Basic Law requires the chief executive of the HKSAR and other officeholders to swear allegiance to both the Basic Law and the HKSAR of the PRC upon assuming office. Loving the motherland is one and the same as loving Hong Kong, meaning those who administer Hong Kong must possess a strong sense of national identity, and the electoral system of the HKSAR must ensure elected public servants are staunch patriots.
Fifth, the HKSAR must maintain the executive-led governance system. As Mr Deng Xiaoping once said, “Apart from economic development, Hong Kong also needs a stable political system to ensure social stability.” Hong Kong’s return to the motherland means it is once again part of the national governance system and must therefore connect its governance system with that of the country effectively. Hong Kong’s executive-led governance system is determined by the unitary-State structure of the PRC and the constitutional status of the HKSAR as an administrative region; this system design is intended to ensure that the chief executive of the HKSAR is accountable to the Central People’s Government. The democratic development in Hong Kong must be conducive to the effectiveness of the executive-led governance system and ensure that the chief executive is in the leadership core of — as well as enjoys the supremacy within — the HKSAR governance system for the sake of maximum efficiency in governance.
All the points mentioned above are interconnected and share a common denominator: “One country” comes before “two systems”; there would be no “two systems” without “one country”.
“One country, two systems” as a system arrangement was created by the sovereign state under the precondition that the main body of the nation maintains its socialist system. In other words, the existence of the main body of the sovereign state and its socialist system is the precondition for “one country, two systems”. Deng Xiaoping said it best: “We practice socialism with Chinese characteristics, which is why we decided to design the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement to allow two social systems to exist in one country.” Who can make such a policy in socialist China except the CPC? The uniqueness of “one country, two systems” lies in the fact that the socialist system of the main body of the country exists in harmony with the capitalist system of a special administrative region and provides support for the latter to enjoy its special status according to law. To fully appreciate this point is crucial to comprehensively and correctly understanding the “one country, two systems” principle.
We look back in order to face the future. How should the exercise of “one country, two systems” continue in the next 25 years and beyond 2047? Without any doubt we must adhere to the principles listed above. We must uphold the “one country” principle while respecting the difference between “two systems”, in order to make good use of the benefits offered by “two systems” on the basis of “one country”. Only when the assurance and backing by the motherland are fully shown will Hong Kong’s uniqueness and strengths work to the fullest in sustaining the steady and consistent exercise of “one country, two systems” in the years to come.
Besides, two other undertakings of trend-setting significance will also proceed prominently moving forward. One is the continuous improvement of the system and mechanism of “one country, two systems”, which General Secretary Xi Jinping once emphasized as imperative in practice. The overall objective of this undertaking is to improve the system arrangements and mechanisms in relation to the Constitution and the Basic Law, so as to enrich the system continuously and resolve new issues as they emerge. The other is to deepen Hong Kong’s integration of its own development into the country’s overall development strategy; as General Secretary Xi Jinping said, “Hong Kong and Macao should achieve better development through integration into the country’s overall development strategy.” Hong Kong can and should cater to the country’s development needs with what it does best and boost its own development along the way. This trend is more apparent than ever.
The future is promising as opportunities are infinite. Following 25 years of trials and tribulations, Hong Kong is now focusing on pursuing greater prosperity after restoring stability and order. With the original objective always in sight while advancing with the times, Hong Kong will no doubt live up to its potential in exercising “one country, two systems” to ever greater success.
The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.