We may look back at Deng Xiaoping’s words and ponder over how these protests will play out and what they herald for the future of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy …
‘One country, two systems’ – this core principle has been the cornerstone of state policy on the reunification of China. And generating fascination, scepticism, consternation and more, this constitutional policy sought to answer lingering questions pertaining to sovereignty, administration and autonomy with regard to the mainland region of China and the Taiwan region. This principle was coined by People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) paramount leader [from 1978 until 1992] Deng Xiaoping – popularly referred to as the General Architect of Reforms – who went on to highlight its most conspicuous implication: ‘within the People’s Republic of China, the mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system.’ He further added that ‘When we adopt the policy of “one country, two systems” to resolve the Hong Kong question, we are not acting on impulse or playing tricks but are proceeding from reality and taking into full account the past and present circumstances of Hong Kong.’
The latter point is particularly interesting – its context leaves one contemplating what this political and administrative ideology entails for future circumstances in Hong Kong; circumstances quite like the 2019 protests that have been ongoing since the end of March and have seen especially violent escalations this week. Following the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in February 2019 the government of Hong Kong proposed the controversial Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill which would permit extradition of fugitives to China and facilitate mutual legal assistance. Fears pertaining to arbitrary legal processes and detainment were among the most concerning, as stated by organisers of the protests and pro-independence political figures.
This bill elicited strong public opposition and invoked international concern. Protests initially gathered momentum in late March but reached its peak on 9 June (with numbers varying from 250,000 to 1,000,000), pushing through to July and continuing into August.
On 2 August 2019, the Hong Kong police stated that a number of arrests of pro-independence figures had been made with regard to the possession of weapons and suspicious material during the ongoing protests. The recent use of rubber bullets and tear gas by the Hong Kong police on protesters in attempt to quell the protests have also been observed. An especially perturbing situation for China – it goes without saying that the sensitive nature of these protests, the amplified aggravation of the protestors and the watchful eye of international media have led to a situation where all involved actors are walking on tightropes.
As the protests have taken a violent turn, it is pertinent to explore the range of narratives (with some in stark contrast to the other) observed with regard to understanding the causes, objectives and implications of these protests. The protestors, along with pro-independence political parties, cite complications and fears pertaining to China’s arbitrary legal process with Sophie Richardson of the Human Rights Watch stating: ‘The proposed changes to the extradition laws will put anyone in Hong Kong doing work related to the mainland at risk.’ Chinese officials, however, have a differing take on the situation. First Chief Executive of Hong Kong Tung Chee-hwa claims that ‘foreign politicians and anti-China forces with ulterior motives’ were working ‘to incite the fear of the people of Hong Kong and undermine the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong.’
Given the polarisation between the two most prominent perspectives, the role of the international media and the reaction of incumbent world leaders is another point to ponder over. Identifying the involvement of other non-state actors such as non-government organizations (for example, the National Endowment for Democracy) is also integral in order to critically analyse the developments that follow. Pro-independence rallies, political activism and protests are not uncommon in Hong Kong – United States President Donald Trump would agree, as he quite recently stated that ‘Something is probably happening with Hong Kong, because when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time.’
One can look back at the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2012 Kong Qingdong incident and draw similarities between the objectives, consequences and outcomes. With the former movement utilising methods such as civil disobedience and occupation, the use of brute police force was employed in order to secure the ‘rule of law.’ As the movement was dispersed, the government of Hong Kong granted no concessions. This is what makes the nature of the ongoing protests even more complex as political analysts and commentators attempt to decipher possible outcomes of what may (or may not) happen next.
With the ambiguity that surrounds this emerging political phenomenon, coupled with the sudden escalation in tension between the state and the protestors, one may look back at Deng Xiaoping’s words and ponder over how these protests will play out and what they herald for the future of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy.
Ana Tawfiq Husain is a student at Habib University.