‘One country, two systems’ a proven system still subject to change

There has been much commentary of late on this fascinating and crucially important topic for the people of Hong Kong but also much debate and interjection from further afield too. This is from armchair “experts” to agitators, political hacks, actual politicians of various shades, the general Western commentariat and of course the greater Hong Kong public, who, in the end, are the real stakeholders here.

Like anything worth debating, there are always at least two sides and several perspectives to explore, argue over and pontificate with, but there is a fundamental reality that must be recognized regardless — it is the actual working system in place in Hong Kong right now. It’s not slated to be replaced, overturned, rescinded or canceled, despite what some may claim! Not only that, but there is a 25-year track record and 25 years of experience to refer to and learn from. There is an English expression originating in the USA in the 1970s that states, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, if this position were to be taken to its logical conclusion, we would all still be riding horses and driving chariots. If a good thing can be made better and more secure within the system’s existing legal framework then I for one see no reason not to do so, provided the fundamental conditions that preserve our unique way of life and basic freedoms to run our own city with significant autonomy are maintained.

Indeed, not only has the innovative and since-proven “one country, two systems” governance system remained supremely active, it is slated to survive and pass beyond the original 50-year agreed period signed 25 years ago between the British and Chinese governments. As has recently been made clear, there is now no set time limit or a date when complete and full integration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region into the overall mainland system is now envisaged, as stated by President Xi Jinping on down. In other words, we are destined to remain an important special administrative region indefinitely with significant autonomy not available in the mainland. Why? Because it has been shown to work, and it is in the greater national interest and reflects the reality that under socialism with Chinese characteristics, co-dependent development and synergy between the HKSAR and the mainland, and other special regions, particularly the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, is a force for national good.

However, any extant system, especially in a rapidly changing world, is usually not static but adapts, evolves and hopefully improves with time to reflect new challenges and emerging conditions. This is so the system can respond effectively and efficiently to these challenges and still be fit for purpose. The original halfway point is perhaps a logical moment to reflect on the daily enactment and value of this wonderful and unprecedented construct and to see how it has fared in practice over the preceding 25 years of what has been massive global change. We can, in this way, validate that its core essence remains as true today as when it was first broached. There have been many opinion pieces recently that support and attest to the strength and effectiveness of “one country, two systems” in action with examples backed up by evidence, results and the incontrovertible truth of it being up to the task through all the challenges and adversities encountered to date. I do not need to repeat these here. Rather, I want us to reflect on the alternatives.

At the moment, a separate system for the Hong Kong SAR that respects our culture, our aspirations and our achievements and preserves its best for the future is still rigorously in place. The fundamental paradigm is that the core essence and value of the system remains in force and is legally protected. If this is not the case, it will no longer be the agreed system, endorsed at the highest levels of the Chinese State, but would be something else entirely.

This is what some would like us to believe is happening now, that somehow, by stealth, the system is being adulterated into a different thing via constant mainland “interference”. But this is evidentially not the case here in Hong Kong, and let’s be honest — there are few if any precedents to work with and be compared to before this bold and exquisite system was enacted.

It was always going to be a work in progress but bound by the basic framework of the agreement. Any built-in wriggle room for interpretation and adjustment is key to the ongoing value and usefulness of a working system if it is to endure. Too-rigid adherence to black and white allows no mechanism for the gray grease that actually allows the wheels of life under this or indeed any system to turn smoothly and move forward. As a world city in flux, we cannot remain static, and neither can the system it operates under. The key to this is to understand that change along lines compatible with the system may not only be good but also necessary if the HKSAR is to maximize the benefits of the freedoms and flexibility to operate globally that this system so generously bestows.

We have the Basic Law; our own currency pegged to the US dollar; and we have the common law system, fortified by a fiercely independent judiciary that guarantees our rule of law but independent of Chinese mainland jurisprudence processes. We have a controlled border and a very robust regulatory framework for finance and business that allows us to invest, trade, develop and grow that is autonomous. We can freely access the internet, travel internationally without limit (COVID-19 notwithstanding), and every child is given a chance to win a place to attend our world-class universities. These and many other aspects of life are what mark our high degree of autonomy.

All of this would be under threat if this working system were to be abandoned to some alternative. What could such alternatives be?

Well, there is in fact only one allowed under the current system, and that is full and complete integration into the mainland in 25 years’ time. We would have the renminbi for money, our business regulations would likely become more restrictive, the border would disappear, travel would probably become unregulated between Hong Kong and the mainland, and we would become just another Chinese city without many distinguishing features left. All those elements that used to make Hong Kong enticingly unique would fade.

The alternative that the Hong Kong SAR could ever be an independent city-state like Singapore or Monaco is never going to happen. This unalterable reality is not appreciated by some, but it is another incontrovertible truth that must be accepted if the people are to better understand the enormous value in what we have now.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong and the director of its Laboratory for Space Research.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.