Hong Kong Crisis Tests China’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Model – Analysis


By Parameswaran Ponnudurai

Former Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping would be turning in his grave at the ongoing debate over Beijing’s recent decision that effectively ruled out promised open elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive and lawmakers.

Deng’s “one country, two systems” model—based on which the former British colony’s future would evolve after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997—is at the heart of the current wrangling between Chinese leaders and the pro-democrats in Hong Kong after Beijing decided it would vet candidates for the first popular elections in Hong Kong in 2017.

Democratic lawmakers in Hong Kong have threatened to veto the plan by China’s main legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC) requiring candidates for Hong Kong’s next leader to be screened by a committee heavy on Beijing backers as well as business leaders—making it unlikely that those opposed to the Chinese leadership will appear on the ballot.

The plan rejects genuine universal suffrage and contradicts the “one country, two systems” model introduced by the late Deng, who had promised that Hong Kong would keep its civil liberties and gradually transition to democracy while the mainland practiced socialism.

The pan-democrat camp comprising political factions in Hong Kong that support increased democracy under the “one country, two systems” is calling for universal suffrage in accordance with “international standards.”

But Chinese officials claim there are no such requirements under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which was written following the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong that set out arrangements for the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China under the 1984-designed “one country, two systems” model.

Is Beijing’s decision to restrict electoral reforms in Hong Kong a breach of an international contract based on the terms of Britain’s handover?

“Although the Joint Declaration, a bilateral—international—treaty, does not talk about universal suffrage, it can be said that the Basic Law entrenches China’s basic policies— including universal suffrage—towards Hong Kong mentioned in the declaration,” Surya Deva, Associate Professor at the School of Law in City University of Hong Kong, told RFA.

“If we make a combined reading of the two instruments—Joint Declaration and Basic Law—then the NPC Standing Committee’s decision breaches what the Chinese government had promised to the UK government,” he said.

University students and lecturers in China’s special administrative region, as Hong Kong is now called, have threatened to boycott classes beginning next week, expressing disgust at Beijing’s assertion that it has the sole prerogative over choosing the election candidates.

And pro-democracy activists have vowed a civil disobedience campaign to bring Hong Kong’s financial hub to a standstill in upcoming protests over what they call “fake Chinese-style democracy.”

Why did Beijing pursue this line of action?

Chinese leaders are concerned that any vibrant democracy in Hong Kong could lay the groundwork for similar demands in mainland China that could cause a possible breakup of the country.

“The Chinese in Beijing are making their calculations not only based on what they see in Hong Kong but their own real concerns about the possibility of a color revolution in China,” Jonathan Pollack, a China expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told RFA.

“These are the things that agitate more than anything else—that may explain in part the decision [on elections in Hong Kong],” he said.

Firm control

China’s President Xi Jinping, haunted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “color revolutions” that toppled the regimes in former Soviet republics, looks determined to keep his one-party communist state in firm control of the country.

He has launched a campaign to fight corruption targeting both “tigers and flies” but has locked up anti-graft crusaders and stepped up a crackdown on grassroots political activism and online dissent.

The reversal of the democratization trend in Hong Kong has dented the international credibility of China, already the world’s second largest economy, which has pledged to be a more responsible rising power in the world stage, said George Chen, financial editor for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, now participating in a fellowship program at Yale University in the United States.

“If Beijing can so easily break its promise for Hong Kong, then the rest of the world must ponder whether the Chinese government will live up to other international commitments,” he said In an article on YaleGlobal Online, a university publication.

Chen warned that the one country, two systems scheme “is now at the risk of collapse due largely to increasing interference, directly or indirectly, by Beijing in various aspects from local elections of legislators to freedom of the press, for decades widely considered one of Hong Kong’s core values alongside the rule of law.”

He also suggested that China is concerned that any Western-style democracy in Hong Kong could act as “a beacon for supporters of democracy in mainland China, in particular those most-developed cities including Guangzhou and Shanghai where the fast-increasing middle-class has strong desire for social justice and political reform to protect interests of local residents.”

“Given the porous nature of communication between Hong Kong and the mainland, freedom granted to Hong Kong people to elect candidates not vetted by Beijing would have a subversive effect on China,” he said.

Beijing’s decision on Hong Kong has also doused hopes in Taiwan of maintaining the island’s vibrant democracy if it integrates with the mainland.

Deng’s “one country, two systems” model is the starting point for any discussions for eventual reunification of Taiwan.

“I think the operative test case, if you will, is whether or not there is a tolerably satisfactory outcome here [in Hong Kong] that would in theory at least over the longer run convince the citizens of Taiwan there is a basis on which they can arrive at a negotiated agreement with the mainland” Pollack of Brookings said.

“But clearly to the degree that there is such dissatisfaction in some circles in Hong Kong, it doesn’t for the moment suggest a very good precedent.”

Beijing views Taiwan, which has developed its own democratic, capitalist system since Chinese nationalists fled there from the mainland in 1949, as a province of China that must one day be brought back into the fold.

‘Not tolerate reform’

Brad Glosserman, the Executive Director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party “would not tolerate any potential reform that would even open the door to a challenge to its authority and its legitimacy and its ability to maintain control over the country.”

“So obviously the degree to which Beijing has drawn a line in [Hong Kong] has demonstrated that there are very definite limits that Beijing is not prepared to cross,” he told RFA.

The Hong Kong case has also raised doubts about Beijing easing controls in the restive autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Deva of City University of Hong Kong believes the push for greater democracy in Hong Kong would increasingly get connected with the struggle of the people of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

“Since people living in these regions or jurisdictions have a different language, culture, religion, sociopolitical system, and freedoms, they do not wish to buy the ‘uniformity’ notion sold by the central government,” he said.

“But if Beijing continues to impose its wishes on these people, they would react against such homogenous imposition of views, though in different ways, like Taiwan may not wish to unify because of the Hong Kong experience.”

“The current Hong Kong universal suffrage saga may also open the possibility of more cooperation and collaboration amongst democracy and freedom-oriented activists across these regions.”


Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press. Content used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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