A Brief History of 'One Country, Two Systems'

A commentary by Bao Tong
2014-06-19
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A billboard promotes an unofficial referendum calling for full democracy and universal suffrage in Hong Kong, June 14, 2014.
A billboard promotes an unofficial referendum calling for full democracy and universal suffrage in Hong Kong, June 14, 2014.
Eyepress News

Someone at the State Council Information Office who knows nothing of current affairs has put out a white paper saying that Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" means it is subject to the total control of [China's] central government.

"Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" has become a question of how much power central government is willing to grant them. It is very odd, this stirring up of trouble and this flagrant breach of trust.

"One country, two systems" was the brainchild of [late supreme leader] Deng Xiaoping. In a free country, it doesn't matter if you have one system or many. The problem was that Deng Xiaoping knew nothing of top-level design.

In March 1979, he announced unilaterally that China must forever uphold four things. And then there he was again in January 1980, announcing that Taiwan must return to the motherland as one of the three great tasks of the 1980s.

It wasn't until then that he discovered where the rub lay: Are you going to insist that Taiwan return to Marxism-Leninism, to socialism, to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and to one-party rule?

You want Taiwan to follow the leader, to come back to the fold of its own accord, to the suppression of "counterrevolutionaries," to the anti-rightist movements, to the famines of the Great Leap Forward?

Even if some of our friends among Taiwan's politicians would countenance it, the people of Taiwan most certainly would not.

"One country, two systems," then, was a nifty idea forged by circumstance. It was inconsistent with the Constitution, and had no legal effect: it was part of Deng Xiaoping's united front campaign and nothing more.

A solemn promise


It was only with the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that the concept gained some clarity, some legal weight, and some international recognition.

In this historic document of our international heritage, the two governments made a solemn promise. The United Kingdom promised to hand Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China on July 1, 1997, while the Chinese government promised that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, with the exception of matters of diplomacy and the defense of the realm.

"The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People's Government."

This is the primary definition of "one country, two systems" and its basis in law. This definition is comprehensive and complete; in any affairs that are not related to foreign affairs or defense affairs, the Hong Kong SAR has a high degree of autonomy. Here, written in black and white, is my understanding of one "country, two systems."

Should a spokesperson for the SAR say that Bao Tong's understanding has errors and shortcomings, or that it is incorrect, I would thank anyone who could explain to me in what way it is incorrect. I would like to know what the SAR government thinks is a correct interpretation of the Declaration.

The most important thing is that we mustn't allow the power that Hong Kong people have under "one country, two systems" to be devoured by one country and one system.

The Chinese government mustn't allow its checks to bounce, or it will suffer a bankruptcy of trust. This is the one thing it must be clear about.

Universal suffrage is an example. The timing of universal suffrage, the rules under which it is conducted: are these foreign affairs? Are they matters of defense? Then why is the central government clutching these powers so determinedly to its chest?

Electorate should decide

Is "one country, two systems" being implemented here, or is it being trampled under our feet? It seems that some people concern themselves with the affairs of the country, of the people, and of Hong Kong. If they didn't, then how could they embody the principle of a party official? If they didn't, how would they ensure that only "patriots" get elected?

If anyone thinks that party officials are really more important than "one country, two systems," more important than the return of Hong Kong, they should say so outright. There's no need to beat around the bush.

As for whether or not someone is a patriot, I think we can leave that to the electorate to decide. They are more likely to get it right than our leaders.

To put it another way, that great non-patriot Chairman Mao, who let tens of millions starve to death during the Great Leap Forward of 1959-1961, was clearly put in power by the party leadership. He wasn't elected by the people of Hong Kong under universal suffrage.

"One country, two systems" is often explained as "socialism in mainland China, and capitalism in Hong Kong." But as Deng Xiaoping once said, who can say exactly what socialism is? In textbooks in today's China, socialism is presented as a narcissistic myth, while capitalism is a derogatory term used for the purposes of exclusion.

But to put it clearly and starkly; to get to the heart of "one country, two systems," mainland China is ruled by a one-party dictatorship, while Hong Kong isn't.

The trouble is that a one-party tyranny is more ambitious and powerful than a non-tyranny, so one country, one system is always trying to devour "one country, two systems." It is unable to curb its own impulses.

Failures to control

Ever since the Joint Declaration, there has always been someone putting all their energy into pulling "one country, two systems" in the direction of one country, one system.

And yet, Hong Kong isn't Tiananmen, and the 21st century isn't the 20th century. These unlawful impulses can't last forever. One of their most spectacular failures was in the implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law back in 2003.

Back then, the State Information Office fired a fairly low-level volley, urging Hong Kong to implement Article 23 as soon as possible, which was followed by a fairly high-level volley from a deputy premier.

But under the terms of the Joint Declaration, Article 23 clearly falls within the remit of Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, and no one needed irresponsible remarks from any deputy premier.

Fortunately, the people of Hong Kong used a variety of peaceful and legal methods to uphold their autonomy, and the principle of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. They stood their ground and gave a clear indication of public opinion, and Article 23 eventually died a death.

The deputy premier who took a starring role also quietly faded away.

This solution was an excellent one, proving that the Joint Declaration forms the basis for Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, and that it can give Hong Kong people the power they need to protect Hong Kong's security and freedom in a crisis.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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