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Hong Kong's Tough Balancing Act: One Country, Two Systems?

September 17, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

What We Know: On July 1, 2003, half a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong in protest against their government. It was a defining moment for Hong Kong—it served as a wake-up call, both for the Hong Kong administration and for Beijing. The protests were attributed primarily to three factors: concern over Article 23 of the Basic Law, "lackluster" economic performance coupled by rising unemployment, and citizens' general dissatisfaction. After July 1, Beijing's attention shifted back to Hong Kong and to the importance of maintaining the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement. It was said that closer ties between the Hong Kong government and Beijing do not signify the fraying of the "two systems," but rather represent the strengthening of the "one country" concept. This strengthening will foster a mutually beneficial relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland.

What We Don't Know: Article 23 has been mired in controversy, and there is still no timetable for its passage. The Hong Kong administration wants to move forward sensibly, taking care to reach out to the citizens of Hong Kong, to take their opinions into account, and to achieve a true consensus. It was frequently stressed that it is crucial that legislation have the broad support of the people. This concept coincides with Hong Kong's long-term democratic aspirations. However, it was also emphasized that officials and public servants cannot impose a timetable on democracy.

What Are the Next Steps: For the time being, the government of Hong Kong will focus its energies on consulting its citizens and ensuring that Hong Kong retains its distinct advantages, values, and features. Hong Kong has a unique history and identity. Therefore, it would be impossible simply to copy the U.S. or U.K. system: Hong Kong's political reforms will not be imported nor developed from scratch, but will instead be built upon Hong Kong's pre-existing institutions. Furthermore, it is crucial that the administration open-up its lines of communication with all parties—including those which have not traditionally been administration-friendly. This is especially important now, because in recent years the Hong Kong government has isolated various sectors of its population. The July 1 protests provided a glimpse of the power exercised—and threat posed—when a silent majority finds its voice.