Life is bound to be rather unusual for those who live in “one country” but under “two systems”. When Hong Kong was returned to China on July 1, 1997, the people of the former British colony could not quite anticipate how the new arrangement would shape their lives. All that they knew was that it guaranteed them civil liberties which the people of the Chinese mainland did not enjoy. They were given to understand that they would continue to have the freedom of speech and assembly, a free press and an independent judiciary. Instead, many of these freedoms have been curtailed over the past 17 years and Beijing’s control over their lives has increased. The “civil referendum” in which nearly one-fifth of Hong Kong’s electorate took part last weekend was a rejection of Beijing’s crude manipulation of the “one country, two systems” principle. It was not the first time that the people of Hong Kong have protested against Beijing’s mounting assault on their freedoms. But it was certainly the biggest such protest since 2003, when a huge demonstration forced Beijing to repeal a proposed piece of “anti-subversion” legislation. Although Beijing has promised to introduce the “one person, one vote” system in Hong Kong by 2017, the people clearly have no faith in the electoral system that provides only for “patriotic” candidates.
How he handles the challenge from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors will be a major test for Xi Jinping’s statesmanship. The Chinese president has pledged to open up the economy on a larger scale than his immediate predecessors had done. But he has given no indication so far that he would also reform politics and offer more political freedoms. But the methods he uses to suppress cries for democratic reform in the mainland may not work in Hong Kong. Beijing has called the “referendum” in Hong Kong “unconstitutional” and “illegal”. In Beijing’s view, the “referendum” violates the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong and gives it the status of a Special Administrative Region. But any law that curtails the people’s basic rights can only be unethical and politically wrong. Beijing has to realize that it cannot stall democratic reform in Hong Kong indefinitely. But communist bosses in Beijing are not to be trusted with a genuine change of heart. It is up to the people of Hong Kong to decide how they will save old freedoms and earn new ones.