China can still salvage 'one country, two systems' in Hong Kong – here's how

Pro-democracy protesters take part in a massive rally to mark the start of the new year. Isaac Lawrence / AFP via Getty Images
Hong Kong authorities may have hoped to start 2020 with a tumultuous period of sustained, often violent, protests.
Instead, hundreds of thousands of protesters ushered in the New Year by taking to the streets. Around 400 were arrested as protesters continued their political reform efforts on the densely populated island.
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The conflict between the government and protesters has now lasted seven months and has helped to further undermine Hong Kong people's confidence in China's commitment to the “one country, two systems” formula.
According to this principle, in 1997 the region was granted a certain degree of autonomy in its own affairs. However, the perception that Beijing is increasingly imposing its authority has not only led to a more militant protest movement, but also to a separation from the mainland.
As a political scientist who has closely followed political developments in Hong Kong over the past decade, I have seen confidence in Beijing weaken during the ongoing turmoil.
If China is to correct this course and convince the Hong Kong people that their greatest hope lies in autonomy rather than independence, then I believe that this must enable real democracy in the region.
Cycle of unrest
The people of Hong Kong did not have much say in their own fate.
Not only did they lack political power as a British colony, but they were also not consulted in drafting the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration that set out the terms for the surrender of the territory from the UK to the people in 1997 became Republic of China. Yet this deal offered the Hong Kongers an implicit deal: they would submit to Beijing's sovereignty in order to preserve the promise of a "high degree of autonomy" based on "one country, two systems".
Although Hong Kong was promised more than one seat on the bus in 1997, Beijing stayed behind the wheel. AP Photo / Mike Fiala
Major unrest in Hong Kong over the past two decades followed Beijing's attempts to take undesirable measures in violation of this agreement. Large-scale protests fought back Beijing-led legislative proposals that addressed sedition in 2003, national education in 2012, and extradition last year. Umbrella protests in 2014 managed to prevent Beijing's proposed overhauls of Hong Kong's system of selecting its general manager, but protesters' demands for universal suffrage and an open nomination process were rejected.
Many Hong Kongers see this interference as a violation of the promised autonomy enshrined in the provisions of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong. This interference adds to fears that the city will lose its autonomy entirely after 2047, the end point of the commitments made under the Joint Declaration.
With limited and inadequate democratic mechanisms, Hong Kongers have developed a vibrant and increasingly militant protest culture as the primary means of exercising political influence.
Autonomy or independence?
Efforts to make Hong Kong more integrated with the mainland have failed and have undermined confidence in Beijing's promise of "high levels of autonomy".
The result is an ongoing cycle of radicalization. The focus of many protesters has moved away from a specific issue to focus on the basic status of Hong Kong's relations with China.
More and more people are wondering why they should keep their side of the business - by accepting Beijing's sovereignty over Hong Kong. According to a recent poll by Reuters, 17% of Hong Kong people are in favor of independence from China, while another 20% express dissatisfaction with the “one country, two systems” model. In addition, 59% of respondents said they supported the recent protests and over a third had participated in a protest themselves.
According to a separate survey, support for eventual independence of young people is close to 40%. Many young people also reject any “Chinese” identity in favor of a “Hong Kong” identity.
The deep discontent among Hong Kong residents was reflected in the district council elections held on November 24th. These low-ranking posts have traditionally been dominated by pro-Beijing political parties. However, the recent elections saw record turnout, with pro-democratic parties winning nearly 90% of the disputed positions.
Beijing's misjudgment
In order to curb the growth of the separatist sentiment in Hong Kong, Beijing must tackle what social scientists call the "engagement problem". In negotiations, either side will only cooperate if it believes the other side is ready and able to honor commitments made under the agreement. If one side feels that the other side's commitments are not credible, cooperation will fail.
What China must do now is to show that it is committed to keeping the promises of autonomy contained in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.
I believe the best way to do this is for Beijing to stop manipulating the city's governance. As long as the selection of the Director General and the majority of the Legislative Council is in Beijing's hands, it will be difficult for the mainland to meddle in Hong Kong's affairs and for Hong Kongers to feel that autonomy gives them a real say in their fate.
In other words, Beijing could undermine demands for independence and break the cycle of mass protests by allowing Hong Kong people to choose their leaders through free and fair elections.
Beijing miscalculated in 2014 when it proposed electoral reforms that fell far short of the demands of the Hong Kong pan-democratic camp, a coalition of parties campaigning for universal suffrage. As a result, older mainstream leaders lost control of the protest movement to younger, more militant activists. Until 2019, young radicals took violent street actions, coupled with harsh rhetoric against Beijing. A move towards democracy, however, could calm the waters, provided the process allows for real and effective local participation.
This suggestion can be far-fetched. Indeed, some reports suggest that leaders in Beijing are making plans to move in the opposite direction by taking more direct control of Hong Kong's political and legal institutions. In addition, Beijing fears that full democracy in Hong Kong could lead to demands being made elsewhere in China as well.
If a democratic solution to the Chinese Hong Kong problem seems unattractive to Beijing, the alternatives may be worse. The current cycle of provocation, protest, radicalization and growing separatism can only lead to one possible outcome: violence that would damage China's reputation and leave it for a generation or more in the costly cast of a sullen and defiant population.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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David Skidmore does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article and does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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