GOVERNMENT RELATIONS - One Country, Two Systems: 20 Years and Beyond


Photo: Chris Patten

Hong Kong remains a great city and one of the freest in the world, but it’s important that the community should talk to one another and make sure that other countries take an interest in how Hong Kong develops, former colonial governor Chris Patten suggests

By Kenny Lau

Although “One Country, Two Systems” was once thought to be an oxymoron, it was a “sophisticated” formula to solving a problem of sovereignty under extremely difficult circumstances on both sides in dealing with the handover in 1997, said former colonial governor Chris Patten at a recent AmCham luncheon.

“On the Chinese side, Hong Kong represented the memory of humiliation in the 19th century when colonial powers behaved so intolerably in China, and Chinese leaders had seen for years thousands and thousands of people leaving China to get to this outpost of colonial approach during and after the Mao era,” he reflects.

“The issue for Britain was how it would do so without ever consulting the people of Hong Kong. It capsulated a moral dilemma,” he adds. “Perhaps we never did enough to [secure] some of the freedoms which are still a matter of contention. ‘One country, Two Systems’ was an extraordinary concept for enabling Britain and China to do what history dictated we had to do in a fair way.”

The transition, however, has gone “more smoothly” in the early years after 1997 than in the last few years. “I hope it isn’t just the passage of time. Some suggest it is because of the spectacular Chinese economic growth that Hong Kong perhaps doesn’t matter as much to China; others say it is related to the general crackdown on dissidents on the mainland.”

The way forward

“Hong Kong will continue to be a free society and have freedom under the rule of law; it will continue to have growing accountability and a clean public [civil] service so long as people in Hong Kong want that,” Patten believes. “Hong Kong is a Chinese city but a Chinese city with a great sense of what it means to be here.”

“People in Hong Kong understand that there is a real relationship between the rule of law and what makes commercial life so successful and [allows for] freedoms associated with [Hong Kong] citizenship,” he explains. “It doesn’t make them less Chinese or any less patriotic.”

“If ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is to survive, people should understand what Hong Kong’s system means. It is about fairness, decency, dialogue and solidarity – things which knit a society together. The extent to which people are shouting rather than talking today is disturbing, and I don’t think that is very helpful.”

“It would also be a bad idea to turn the argument for democracy into an argument in favor of independence,” he adds. “It is provocative and it dilutes support for a democratic course. I don’t think that the question of Hong Kong not being part of China should come into play. The international community isn’t going to support it, and most people in Hong Kong would find it difficult to support.”

Patten suggests the world should take an interest in Hong Kong because “it gives you a good indication of what might happen with other international obligations that China has undertaken. Hong Kong will be a very good test case…if you resile once, people aren’t going to trust you anymore. The British have a particular responsibility to show an interest because of the Joint Declaration and shouldn’t just expect other people to do it.”

The role of the United States

The United States and China are key to the future of this century, Patten believes. “The world has become a more peaceful and prosperous place in the past 60 years thanks primarily to American leadership. It is inconceivable that the United States won’t understand it needs to develop a better, warmer and more effective and honest relationship with China.”

“And I hope China feels the same way about trade – an issue which will affect Hong Kong,” he says. “It would be a disaster if a disagreement on trade turned into outright protectionism. The way we have tackled this in the past is by having rules and international agreements which make certain that everyone plays the game in the same way.”

“To an astonishing degree, America is probably the only great power in the history of the world which has been prepared to accept the rules that apply to everybody else as well,” Patten points out. “It is an extraordinary thing and particularly noticeable after the Second World War.”

“Overall, Hong Kong remains a great city and one of the freest in the world,” he reiterates. “Perhaps it’s bad luck but true that Hong Kong is absolutely at the crossroads of many issues. So, it’s important that the community should talk to one another and make sure that other countries take an interest in how Hong Kong develops - giving credit to China as it does so.”