With all the media coverage this month regarding the “One China” policy, it is a good time to review what this policy can mean in practice, not only for Taiwan but for other territories that China claims as its own.

A territory that we should all be watching is Hong Kong. Why? Because Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under “One Country, Two Systems,” the very model of autonomy that Deng Xiaoping initially proposed for Taiwan.

So far, Taiwan has flatly refused to reunify under those terms. But Hong Kong is still a barometer for Taiwan because it demonstrates the extent to which Beijing can be trusted to keep its promises.

Hong Kong

The Hong Kong skyline.


I taught law in Hong Kong for 17 years and continue to write about the successes and failures of One Country Two Systems.  When I arrived, in 1989, it was a British colony. Although not a democracy, the territory enjoyed rule of law, clean government and civil liberties. That is why the population swelled so rapidly, from mere thousands in 1842 to more than 7 million.

Most Hong Kongers are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from Mainland China. Over time, these immigrants – together with indigenous residents, British settlers, and migrants from other nations – built a thriving and distinctly Hong Kong community. In my view, this multicultural city-state should have been considered a “people” in international law, with a right to determine its own political status upon decolonization.

Instead, on July 1, 1997, the British sailed away and Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China. The people were not asked but rather were told that this transfer of sovereignty would occur. In essence, China’s territorial claims – which it asserted loudly in the United Nations – outweighed the rights of millions of people.

When Deng Xiaoping first proposed One Country Two Systems it was a vague and undefined concept. Fortunately, the British insisted that it be formalized in a detailed bilateral treaty. Thus, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was drafted, ratified, and duly registered with the United Nations. It promises that Hong Kong will “enjoy a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defense affairs,” and retain its capitalist system, civil liberties and general way of life for at least 50 years.

Although Beijing now likes to insist that Hong Kong is a purely “domestic matter,” the UK continues to monitor compliance with the treaty and will likely do so until at least 2047.

If faithfully implemented, One Country Two Systems could provide Hong Kong with a meaningful form of “internal self-determination.” The territory has its own immigration border, its own currency, and an almost entirely separate legal system. The independent local judiciary diligently enforces civil liberties.

Indeed, in many respects, Hong Kong’s legal protections for human rights are stronger now than during the colonial period. Hong Kong also has developed at least partial democracy, with one-half of the seats in the local legislature elected from geographic constituencies.

Nonetheless, as One Country Two Systems completes its second decade, most commentators would agree that Hong Kong is approaching a state of crisis. The joint declaration was detailed on rights and freedoms but far too vague on local democracy. This created different expectations regarding the pace of democratic reforms and escalating conflicts, including “Occupy Central” and the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014.

A tiny but loud “localist” movement has now developed and a few members are openly advocating for independence. There is a real danger that Beijing will overreact and look for opportunities to curtail freedom of expression, in violation of the joint declaration.

The most worrying example is the disappearance of Lee Bo, who published books that were perfectly legal in Hong Kong but banned in Mainland China. Although not officially acknowledged, it is widely believed that Lee Bo was abducted by undercover agents who had no authority to operate in Hong Kong but somehow managed to take him across the border to Mainland China, where he was promptly detained. When Lee Bo finally returned to Hong Kong he refused to disclose what happened, clearly terrified of further retribution. This incident struck at the very heart of Hong Kong’s autonomy and must not be repeated if the people are to regain faith in One Country Two Systems. 

Small wonder that Taiwan watches Hong Kong so closely. Every constitutional crisis in Hong Kong provides yet another reason why Taiwan should never be pressured to reunify with China. The ultimate success or failure of Hong Kong’s autonomy could also have implications far beyond greater China.

At one time, international lawyers viewed One Country Two Systems as a possible model for power-sharing in other disputed territories. In other words, if One Country Two Systems works then it  might someday provide an alternative to armed conflict in another part of the world. But if it fails to provide the people of Hong Kong with meaningful democracy and continued civil liberties then it will be even harder to persuade the next separatist movement that “internal self-determination” is an acceptable substitute for full independence.

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