Hong Kong Wonders if ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Is Only a Slick Slogan

Hong Kong, Asia’s most vibrant city, is now suffering from two sweeping historic forces at the same time. One is the end of the British Empire, and the other is the end of a Chinese dynasty. The collision of forces has caused an especially ugly mess.

In 1984, as a correspondent in Beijing, I covered the signing of the deal in which Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. At the time, the British government, and to some extent China and the United States as well, perpetrated the illusion that not too much was going to change here after the turnover.

The British talked as though this were going to be merely a paper transaction. Maybe there might be some office in some obscure outpost halfway around the world with a ledger that keeps track of sovereignty, and in 1997 a little man with a green eyeshade would find the Hong Kong account, yawn, cross out “Britain” and pencil in “China.” But in Hong Kong itself, everything would be the same, or so the British suggested. The transition would be smooth and seamless. After all, the deal had guaranteed Hong Kong’s residents “a high degree of autonomy.”

Contrast that with the current state of affairs in Hong Kong, two years before the turnover.


British and Chinese officials responsible for Hong Kong are not even on speaking terms because China is furious at British Gov. Chris Patten’s efforts to introduce more democracy here in the final years before China resumes control.

Top Chinese officials openly ignore and defy Patten, who is still theoretically Hong Kong’s leader but who has already become a melancholy, marginalized figure. By 1997, he may well be left standing outside on the spacious back lawn of the governor’s mansion, reciting Shakespearean soliloquies, with an emphasis on the tragedies.

Attorney Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s leading crusader for democracy--a Queen’s Court version of imprisoned Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng--is now given to musing at length about the possibility he will be thrown in jail sometime after the Chinese takeover.

“What would be the point of locking me up?” he asked last week. “I will not kowtow to them. But it’s not impossible for them to lock me up on trumped-up charges.”

Lee, whose dramatized eloquence and penchant for martyrdom are hated by many in the Hong Kong Establishment, insists that local business leaders privately encourage him to stay on after 1997 as a sort of canary whose fate will provide others with early warnings of danger. “They tell me: ‘The moment they lock you up, I start packing, because there’s going to be some time between when they arrest you and when they come for me,’ ” he reports.

Another leading Hong Kong politician-legislator, Christine Loh, has recently begun to raise questions in public about the underground operations of the Communist Party in Hong Kong, which has been moving new intelligence networks into the colony. What will the party’s role be here after 1997? Will there be secret party cells in each government organization and a secret party secretary to make the decisions?

That issue is so sensitive that Patten has refused to talk about it: It would be a public reminder that the British will be returning Hong Kong’s 6 million residents to Communist Party control. Diplomatic sources confide that a couple of years ago, Portugal, which will be transferring neighboring Macao back to China in 1999, quietly asked Chinese officials why the regime couldn’t just do openly in Macao what it seemed to be doing there already with spy networks working toward political control. The British either aren’t making such appeals or aren’t talking about them.

Among Hong Kong residents, efforts to emigrate are on the rise again. Foreign consulates--particularly those of Canada, Australia and the United States, the destinations of choice for those trying to leave Hong Kong--saw a rise in applications to leave the colony in the middle of last year. Fewer than 20% of those leaving Hong Kong these days to get citizenship elsewhere ever come back. Yet there are 500,000 to 1 million people in Hong Kong now who have other passports and could leave within a day, legally, if things go badly.

What happened? Why are things turning out so differently from what so many expected a decade ago? The principal factor has been the changes in China and Britain’s earlier, unimaginative failure to anticipate them.

China’s Communist Party leadership has abandoned efforts to motivate its 1.2 billion people with the spirit of Marxism. And, in the absence of elections, it needs something else, some other ideology, to justify its one-party rule. So it has turned to a new blend of assertive Chinese nationalism, anti-Westernism and Confucianism, to win the people’s support.

Regaining control of Hong Kong not only fits into the new ideology but is the best imaginable symbol of it. In fact, where a decade ago China may well have intended to leave Hong Kong alone, now it plans to turn the place into the embodiment of ascending Chinese power at the end of the 20th Century.

“The ceding of Hong Kong (to Britain in 1842) was the starting point for China to become a weak and shamed country,” Li Ruihuan, the Chinese Communist Party leader in charge of propaganda, observed in a revealing speech two months ago. ". . . We can wipe away the regrets our ancestors have after Hong Kong reverts to China. We can tell our future generations that they should learn the lesson and understand that unless China remains strong, it will be bullied and occupied by others.”

China’s nationalistic fervor is compounded by the current situation in Beijing, where Deng Xiaoping is now dying and Chinese leaders are engaged in an increasingly open power struggle. Certainly no Chinese leader wants to appear to be too soft in dealing with Patten or overly tolerant of dissent, democracy and Hong Kong’s autonomy.

In the midst of this turmoil, the Clinton Administration is secretly trying to decide what the United States can and should do about Hong Kong. A few months ago, an interagency working group was set up under Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, an ally and supporter of Patten’s, to deal with some of the problems the 1997 changeover will raise for the United States.

Hong Kong’s return to China raises not only moral and political issues but also all sorts of practical problems for the United States. For example, between 50 and 70 U.S. Navy ships a year make port calls in Hong Kong--down from 100 a year at the height of the Vietnam War, in Hong Kong’s “Suzy Wong” era, but still a sizable number.

Will China allow the American ships to make routine visits? Will it try to turn Hong Kong into its own strategic asset for military operations? What kinds of officials can be stationed in consulates here after 1997? Will the U.S. Secret Service, for example, which keeps track of money laundering, be able to operate in Hong Kong?

The 1984 agreement gave China control over foreign affairs in Hong Kong. Does that mean that when U.S. Congress members want to visit Hong Kong after 1997, they will have to get official permission in advance and be guided around by the Chinese government?

The ultimate question, of course, has nothing to do with these details. It is whether the ideal of “one country, two systems” is effectively dying along with Deng, the man who a decade ago convinced the world that China intended to leave Hong Kong alone after regaining sovereignty.

“One country, two systems” was always an imaginative but questionable formula. It ran counter to the pithy, crude epigram of another Communist leader, Josef Stalin. In early 1945, as Western forces were regaining control of Italy and Greece, and as Stalin’s troops were moving across Eastern Europe, he bluntly informed Winston Churchill: “Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system.”

It will be up to China’s next dynasty--the post-Deng leadership that will truly decide Hong Kong’s fate--to prove that Stalin was wrong.