Keep Hong Kong Free

Visiting Hong Kong is a true pleasure. With its modern architecture towering around the busy harbor, that great and exciting city must rank among the world’s most enjoyable urban destinations. But Hong Kong is now under stress, as it finds itself at the center of a number of issues and challenges – including how best to balance economic and political freedom and how to engage with an increasingly assertive and ambitious China – that will define its prospects in the century ahead

Photo: Vadim Boreiko

Fundamentally, Hong Kong’s prospects depend on the implementation of the “one country, two systems” principle, conceived by Deng Xiaoping to serve as the basis for Hong Kong’s eventual return to China in 1997. The idea – which Milton Friedman thought amounted to an impossible balancing act – was that Hong Kong would keep its way of life, liberties, and laws. Its people were perfectly capable of running their city; they simply had to do so as a part of China.

One country, two systems brilliantly balanced the aspirations, anxieties, and difficulties posed by the change in sovereignty from Britain to China. For China, there was the smarting humiliation of having ceded its own territory to a colonial power during the Qing dynasty. Imperialists from all over the world gave China a hard time, behaving in a way that no one today would or should seek to justify. Forcing China to open up to the opium trade formed one of the most disreputable chapters in Britain’s imperial history.

But what must have rankled the Chinese Communist Party most was that the colonial power had been so successful in building, with China’s own people in Hong Kong, a hugely prosperous and contented city – one that became a magnet for many Chinese men, women, and children. If Chinese communism was the wave of the future, why did so many flee from it, clambering over fences topped with razor wire and swimming through hazardous waters, to live under colonial rule?

On the British side, there were equally implacable challenges. Britain needed to determine how best to establish a constructive relationship with a China intent on weaponizing trade, while standing up for the rights and promised freedoms of Hong Kong’s people. In this respect, the handover raised essential and complex questions about political morality.

Just before I left Hong Kong in 1997, after departing from my post as the city’s last British governor, I visited a hospital for the mentally ill, where an in-patient asked me an eminently sane question. How, he wanted to know, could a country that prided itself on its deeply rooted democracy hand Hong Kong over to the world’s last big Communist tyranny, without asking its citizens for their opinion?

The answer is that such questions were never an option, if we were to fulfill our treaty obligations and avoid a catastrophic repeat of nineteenth-century colonialism. Yet we should certainly have done as much to introduce and entrench democratic institutions in Hong Kong as we did to secure the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties. One reason why we moved more slowly on democracy was that China’s leaders had made clear that they feared Hong Kong’s people would think the road was being cleared to become an independent state, like Singapore.

For the first few years after 1997, “one country, two systems” seemed to work pretty well, though China did break its promises by blocking democratic development. But more recently – and especially since 2012, when President Xi Jinping came to power – China has been tightening its grip on Hong Kong.

This is probably related to the government’s broader crackdown on dissidents; China’s growing economic heft, which makes an open Hong Kong seem less important to its future prosperity; and a lack of understanding of what Hong Kong’s system really means. The question now is whether “one country, two systems” will devolve into “one country, one and a half systems” or, worse, “one country, one system.”

There is no doubt that China has increasingly been interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs. Most recently, concerns have focused on the treatment of some of the leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations: three of the city’s most influential activists were sentenced to up to eight months in prison for their activities, and have been prohibited from seeking public office for five years.

Three years may seem like a long time to wait before cracking the whip, but there is no doubt that Hong Kong’s judicial system has acted according to the law. The trouble is that the convictions have taken place against a background of fear and divisiveness, stoked by the Chinese government’s behavior.

China has, for example, attacked the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary, with Rimsky Yuen, Secretary for Justice of Hong Kong, calling for the review of already-served sentences that he deems too lenient. And, even as officials like Yuen purport to be defending the rule of law, Chinese security operatives have apparently abducted Hong Kong residents, including several booksellers.

To ease fears and allow Hong Kong to move forward, three things are required. First, China must make clear through its actions that it can be trusted to keep its promises to Hong Kong. To help ensure that outcome, the international community should vigorously remind it of the broader ramifications of being viewed as an untrustworthy partner.

Second, democracy activists in Hong Kong should not allow their campaign for democracy to morph into a call for independence. For its part, the government should open a dialogue with them, characterized by mutual respect and transparency.

Finally, the people of Hong Kong should not give up hope, as the Chinese communists hope they will. If its people remain resolute in their commitment, Hong Kong will remain a great free city, choosing those who govern it under the rule of law.

Hong Kong is a shining example to the rest of the world about what Chinese men and women can achieve with the sort of freedom that millions of others take for granted. Its people must not – and, I believe, will not – give up on it.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017 ©

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