TWENTY-FIVE years ago, at midnight on June 30, 1997, Britain handed over Hong Kong, its colony for 150 years, to China in return for a promise that the region would be given "a high degree of autonomy" and retain its lifestyle for the next 50 years under a "one country, two systems" formula. What lay beyond 2047 was not spelled out.
Now, China has made that future clear by moving the post-2047 scenario forward.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to celebrate 25 years of sovereignty in Hong Kong on July 1.
Beijing still calls Hong Kong a special administrative region where capitalism, not socialism, prevails. But in 2020 it imposed a draconian National Security Law that led to the arrest, detention, imprisonment or self-exile of virtually all opposition political activists and, last year, it drastically changed the rules so that only "patriots" can serve in the government or run for electoral office.
In fact, since 1997, China has steadily narrowed the autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong.
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For example, before 1997, China promised that Hong Kong could on its own decide to elect the entire legislature through universal suffrage if such a proposition was supported by a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive consents. The decision would then go to the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) "for the record," not for "approval." However, when there was a move to do this in 2004, the NPCSC blocked it by issuing an "interpretation" of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitutional document.
Citing the Basic Law's words "if there is a need to amend" the election method, the NPCSC decided that the Chief Executive must first submit a report on the need for change and the NPCSC would decide whether to proceed.
Beijing insists that Hong Kong still has "a high degree of autonomy" — an undefined concept. Only the Communist Party and the Chinese government, it seems, can say what constitutes "high degree."
On February 16, Xi Jinping for the first time issued rare instructions to Hong Kong on how to deal with the pandemic. He did so as the party leader, not president, perhaps because the anti-Covid campaign is under the party's leadership.
Xi directed Hong Kong to "mobilize all power and resources to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of the Hong Kong people and ensure the stability of the society." He also called on the city's government to shoulder the "main responsibility" in taking all steps necessary.
Lam responded by expressing her "heartfelt gratitude" while putting forward requests for assistance, saying this was Hong Kong's advantage under "one country, two systems."
The central government established a coordinating group in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, led by the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the National Health Commission, including representatives from Guangdong province and Shenzhen municipality.
Beijing's multifaceted assistance reflects various factors, including preserving China's image, Omicron's spread into mainland China and maintaining Hong Kong as a business hub, which gives it an edge over other Chinese cities.
In March, when Hong Kong delegates to the national parliament and the nation's top advisory body held their annual meeting in Beijing, Xia Baolong, director of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, told them that, come 2047, it would not be necessary to change the "one country, two systems" formula as long as it was running smoothly.
Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, provided more details on March 31 in a China Daily article of what Beijing had done and would do in Hong Kong. He said the most important step taken to "restore order in Hong Kong" was "the neutering of the radical opposition."
"Beijing will closely supervise" the Hong Kong government, "monitor its performance, issue instructions and orders when necessary, and hold it accountable for failures and malfeasance," Lau added.
In the future, Lau predicted, there would be a "large-scale and ambitious program of national education, education on the Chinese Constitution and the Hong Kong Basic Law, historical education, and national security education" to ensure that Hong Kong residents, especially the young, will be "patriots."
This strategy, he said, will continue into the long-term future. "The success of the political strategy will allow 'one country, two systems' to remain well beyond 2047."
Meanwhile, he said, action will be taken to promote Hong Kong's economic development, improve people's livelihood, and advance social fairness and justice.
So, for the next 25 years and beyond, Beijing is likely to help Hong Kong improve its socio-economic conditions. Political liberalization, however, is highly unlikely.