One Country, Two Systems: Not Dead Yet

Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. For the full text of Tung's interview, see the Web site

Not surprisingly, this week’s second anniversary celebration of the return of Hong Kong to China won’t find many people dancing in the streets. In part, that’s because of the overheated controversy surrounding who’s the true boss of the Hong Kong legal system. But it’s also something bigger: whether Hong Kong will retain its own inimitable character and elan, to say nothing of the confidence of international investors.

What would people actually celebrate on anniversary two? The triumph of Chinese communism over British capitalism? Hardly. But it was the hope of Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader whose stature grew along with the growth of his pervasive pragmatism and his large ideas for China’s survival, that differing political systems could peacefully coexist under one sovereign flag. So he coined the phrase “one country, two systems"--meaning Beijing would be the background boss but never really bossy. Technically, Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous district of Beijing. This was a major change after a century and a half as a one country-one system British colony. Its masters in London worried about the application of local democracy for Hong Kong’s 6-million-plus non-Anglos only in the waning days of British control. But Beijing has a way of making British rule look good, at least to the casual observer.

Recently, China’s central government, acting on the official request of Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved ruling executive, publicly reproved and invalidated a Hong Kong court ruling that would permit untold numbers of mainland Chinese to legally enter the former British colony. Jumping to object, critics of the Beijing-installed government thus say that the two-systems idea is bunk, that Beijing’s ruling will erode the integrity of the Hong Kong legal system.

Not so, said Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in a phone interview this week from Hong Kong: “This controversy is an inevitable outgrowth along the road of evolving the one country-two systems approach. Remember, this is an untried endeavor--and there are bound to be some bumps.” Indeed, Tung feels many critics, whether in Hong Kong or America, are too quick to turn a serious political experiment into a frivolous political football: “It’s always very difficult to look for a right compromise between assuring individual rights and freedoms and serving the interests of the community as a whole. But this is no compromise in the rule of law here. All our procedures were fully within the law.”


Tung believes in the validity of Deng’s two systems-no problems approach and is anything but pessimistic about the Hong Kong-Beijing relationship. “One country-two systems can still work, very much so,” said Tung. “But we have to meet two major challenges. One is the full implementation of one country-two systems. We have a lot more work to do, but this system is our reality. The second challenge is to overcome the impact of the Asian financial crisis. I am very pleased at the progress we have made, for the Hong Kong economic situation has stabilized. The country is more optimistic. All this controversy [over the courts] will pass.”

Yes, Tung is comfortable with his masters in Beijing--and they, absolutely, with him. Beijing believes in its own favorite Hong Kong son, and in its own formula. This is actually a plus for one country-two systems because nothing like it can work in an atmosphere of mutual distrust. Explained An Wenbin, a veteran China diplomat and U.S. West Coast consul general who’s well-versed in the importance of Hong Kong’s success to Beijing: “This is just the first test case for the idea. We know the world’s eyes are very sharply on us. We know that people look at the right-of-return issue as a possible step backward. But these small incidents are blown up. There are always people who will try to pick bones from an egg. This issue, too, will blow away.”

How can the world be sure? It can’t, of course. Admits steady-as-you-go Tung: “Well, the proof of what I have been saying is always in the pudding.” Perhaps Deng’s idea will prove the political-science equivalent of the Edsel, existentialism and McGovernism all rolled into one. Then again, perhaps the Chinese can make it work. Why not give one country-two systems a chance?

Before the hand-over of Hong Kong to China July 1, 1997, the assessment of the Western news media was largely negative. In hindsight that view was, at a minimum, premature. Recalls Tung: “Two years ago there were a lot of skeptics about whether one country--two systems could work. So, what can I say to those stubborn skeptics? I say: ‘Come back to Hong Kong on our third anniversary and see for yourself all that we will have done by then.’ ” Now, that doesn’t seem too much to ask.