Has China's 'One Country, Two Systems' Experiment Failed?

06/18/2015 10:53 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
PHILIPPE LOPEZ via Getty Images

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HONG KONG -- Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. It's been 18 years. If Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" initially was considered a landmark political experiment by Beijing, the Chinese government has had enough time to try to make it work. Unfortunately, what is happening today in Hong Kong -- a much more divided society than in 1997 or even in its colonial times -- only proves that the experiment has too many problems to be called a success.

The reasons why "one country, two systems" has failed as a policy experiment are quite mixed. First, there have been a lot of learning moments that Beijing should have picked up on over the past 18 years, especially since 2003, a year that in my view marked a turning point in Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong after a massive demonstration against Article 23, the anti-subversion part of Hong Kong's Basic Law. The Chinese government lost face in Hong Kong in 2003, and those who study Chinese politics will agree that face means almost everything to Beijing.

Since 2003, Beijing has chosen a harder tack on Hong Kong affairs. The government's propaganda machine has tried very hard to depict Hong Kong as a spoiled and naughty kid that doesn't listen to its good parents. Such propaganda work has had significant influence on mainland Chinese public opinion about Hong Kong, following debates over Hong Kong's ban of mainlanders' bulk purchase of Hong Kong baby formula and the flood of pregnant mainland women checking into Hong Kong maternity wards, among many other politically sensitive social issues. Mainland-Hong Kong relations worsened and Hong Kong society grew more divided on how to deal with mainland relations.

"Beijing has put more emphasis on 'one country' than 'two systems.'"

In recent years, Beijing has put more emphasis on "one country" than "two systems" -- quite understandable from Beijing's point of view. The central government increasingly has been concerned about anti-China sentiment, especially among the younger generations of Hong Kong people, who were born and grew up under British colonial rule -- unlike their parents or grandparents, many of whom were raised in mainland China and didn't move to Hong Kong until the 1940s-50s.

As Beijing emphasizes the importance of "one country" over "two systems," it indicates the Chinese government's insecurity about the whole experiment. A growing number of people in Hong Kong are doubtful about Beijing's sincere intent to continue the experiment initiated by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping -- doubtful that Beijing will allow Hong Kong to continue in the direction Deng set out for Hong Kong when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The more doubts, the more disagreements, the more signs of a "one country, two systems" failure.

This week Hong Kong legislators voted against the electoral reform package endorsed by Beijing for Hong Kong universal suffrage in 2017, echoing polls that indicate nearly half of Hong Kong society believes the Beijing plan would only result in "fake universal suffrage."

Beijing will again feel a loss of face in front of the Hong Kong people and the rest of the world, too -- yet another sign of the failure of the "one country, two systems" experiment.

But how to get it right? What does "two systems" really mean in the context of "one country"? Did we disappoint Deng, the policy's architect? If 18 years were not enough time for Beijing to get "one country, two systems" right, then whose problem is it now? Senior officials in Beijing, the "one country" capital, are left with a lot of problems to study and fix.

This article was first published on ChinaFile, an online magazine from Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.

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