Transition ‧ Masters

The Vanishing Border

For many years, the Shenzhen River that separates Hong Kong from mainland China has served as the natural divide between the former British colony and its hinterland and their capitalist and socialist systems respectively. When Hong Kong people cross the yellow line at the Lowu Bridge above the river, they know they have entered the mainland, which is vastly different from the enclave in many aspects. Come 1997, a concept mooted by late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s to reunify Taiwan became reality in Hong Kong. Call it “one country, two systems”. Still, the yellow line divides the two places.

Fast-track to 2017, the notion of “the other side of the Shenzhen River” being the reference to the mainland turned elusive in the wake of a decision by China’s top legislature to allow mainland officers to enforce mainland laws at the West Kowloon terminus of a cross-border rail link in late December. Call it the “co-location checkpoint arrangement”.

Insisting the arrangement complies with the Chinese Constitution and the Basic Law, Li Fei, a high-ranking National People’s Congress (NPC) official, said it carried constitutional authority. “It is an important constitutional judgment that cannot be challenged,” said Li. In a strongly-worded statement, the Bar Association lambasted the decision as “the most retrograde step to date in the implementation of the Basic Law and severely undermines public confidence in ‘one country, two systems’ and the rule of law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor swiftly fought back. The Bar’s response, she said, “shows the elitist mentality and double standards held by some of the lawyers in Hong Kong. They think Hong Kong’s legal system is paramount while the legal system of the mainland – a big country with a population of 1.3 billion – is not right.”

Lam, a graduate of the University of Hong Kong, followed the footsteps of many seniors to have joined the then colonial government as an Administrative Officer, being groomed as a political elite to run the city. Lam and her AO colleagues were trained to follow religiously a set of systems and values inherited from the British colonial rulers. Like many elites and ordinary citizens, they believe in the city’s systems and values and their superiority over the mainland’s. Having resigned to the reality of reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, they are convinced the best possible option for Hong Kong after 1997 is to keep everything unchanged.

Known for his trademark pragmatism, Deng knew well that letting Hong Kong people run their own affairs with a high degree of autonomy could preserve stability and prosperity. The city’s capitalist systems, the Hongkongers were assured, would remain intact for half a century until 2047. Horse-racing and dancing would continue. The border that separates Hong Kong from the mainland would continue to prevail. Underlying the imperative of keeping a clear line at Shenzhen River and the two systems is the awareness of the vast differences across the border. Or to put it plainly, Hong Kong people are still distrustful of the Chinese Communist Party and the mainland systems, or the lack thereof.

With China rising to world power status after almost four decades of “open door” and Hong Kong having been reunited with the motherland for two decades, the communist authorities feel increasing dismay at the implementation of “one country, two systems”.

Imbued with a growing feeling of self-confidence in the country’s rise to affluence and influence and their modernisation strategy, they became perplexed and disappointed with the feeling of alienation among the Hong Kong populace. Opinion polls show the number of people who describe themselves as Chinese has consistently fallen, in particular among young people, in recent years. Beijing’s fears about the trend of seeking separation from the mainland were further fuelled by the rise of pro-independence activism in recent years. Their patience is wearing thin. In his visit to Hong Kong in July 2017 to officiate the SAR’s 20th anniversary celebrations, President Xi Jinping laid down the “red line” that Hong Kong people must not cross, namely independence.

20 years on, Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” journey could not be more dramatic. On the economic and social front, integration has deepened and broadened. Mainland visitors have flooded the city. Their spending power has given a big boost to tourism-related businesses. The Belt and Road Initiative and Guangdong-Macau-Hong Kong Greater Bay Area plan have been seen as the city’s major sources of economic opportunities in the future. On the political front, the process of transition has been increasingly characterised by separation and alienation. Flash back to the early 1980s, the post-1997 fate of Hong Kong was under negotiation between China and Britain. Back then, China was poor and under-developed. But calls for Hong Kong independence were not taken seriously. Now, China is rich and mighty. The irony, however, is that the pro-independence sentiments grew.

Admittedly, few people had under-estimated the complexity and difficulty of putting two hugely different systems under the banner of “one country”. They had good reasons to believe it would work. Experiences in development of nations show when economic liberalism matures, political liberalism will follow. China, many people had hoped, would be no exception. The gap in economic and political development between Hong Kong and the mainland would have been narrowed. Ultimately, the line between the two systems would converge, hopefully by 2047. Sadly, they were proved to be wrong, at least for now.

China’s rise took on a different path. Despite its phenomenal growth of hard power, the development of its soft power has left much to be desired. More recently, China watchers and media in the West have called for vigilance over China’s use of “sharp power” in world politics. Sharp power works by manipulation and pressure. Instead of using soft power to help nurture a sense of identity with the mainland, the communist authorities have chosen hard power and sharp power by asserting their authority over the SAR. There are growing jitters that the communist regime has switched to control mode when it comes to dealing with issues ranging from rule of law and judiciary to media and universities in the SAR.

As the “one country, two systems” experiment entered its 21st year, the jittery Hongkongers are holding out a humble wish that the border that separates the city and the mainland will remain in good shape.

Chris Yeung

A co-founder and currently Chief Writer of CitizenNews, a Chinese online website. He is also a part-time journalism lecture and currently Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. He had previously worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes regularly on Hong Kong politics and Greater China issues.