10 years of "One Country, Two Systems"
June 29, 2007 11:56 AM   Subscribe

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to the mainland Chinese after 155 years of colonial British rule. Memories of the day are still online, showing the fear that the promised "One Country, Two Systems" policy was a trojan horse. Ten years later, the promise seems intact. Though universal suffrage seems a distant dream, religious and political freedoms are almost on par with Western standards and the economy has survived shipping its industry north. People are marking the day in different ways, while some just want to offer advice.
posted by trinarian (12 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It began long before two British sailors running from the law, chased out of Macau and Canton (Guangzhou), arrived. The first residents of Hong Kong left stone circles and rock carvings around the coastline 5000 years ago. Then came waves of immigration with each crises in Chinese history - starting with the Warring States Period and on to the 1989 Tiananmen protests and Fulong Gong crackdowns. It began it's colonial history because of a trade deficit: too much tea coming into the Empire, too much silver leaving merchants hands. To balance the trade the British began selling opium in the early decades of the 19th century in spite of Qing decrees banning it. It was the only thing the designated traders would take instead of silver. In 1840, the British let the situation boil over into the war to force the Chinese to liberalize the extremely stiffling trading policies that allowed only one trading port in all of China (itself a small island), disallowed contact with Chinese people outside designated traders, forbade learning the Chinese language, and made families stay behind as collateral when the foreign traders went back home at the end of the trading season.

After the British Royal Marines took Canton and Shanghai without difficuly, the Quing government signed the Treaty of NanKing (Nanjing) (1842) which officially handed Hong Kong Island to the British while opening Xiamen, Shanghai, Ningbo, and Fuzhou as trading ports as well. Eighteen years later the colony more than doubled in size with the Convention of Peking (Beijing), the result of the Second Opium War which was started when the British were offended that the Chinese boarded a pirate/smuggler vessel names the Arrow which had an out-of-date Hong Kong registry. Kowloon, a peninsula to the north of Hong Kong Island, was handed to the British and more treaty ports opened.

In 1898, the British asked for and recieved a 99-year lease on the New Territories and Lantau Island, again multiplying the size of the Hong Kong colony and providing a better defensive peremiter. Fifteen years before the lease was to expire, the People's Republic of China and the British began discussing terms for a handover. Over half the population of Hong Kong was living in the New Territories and Lantau making it impossible to hand over only the leased area that was to expire. Working with the eminently pragmatic and reform-minded Deng Xiaoping, who had just created the first proto-capitalist Special Economic Zone across the border in Shenzhen, a "Joint Declaration" was signed in 1984 promising "One Country, Two Systems." It simply was not politically or economically feasible to fully integrate Hong Kong into the People's Republic. The effect of a successful adaptation of a "One Country, Two Systems" model also held promise of a potential peaceful reunification with Taiwan in the future.

Today the border looks, feels, and operates as an international border. On one side, I can buy books and surf the internet freely. On the other side... I can't. On one side people march for universal suffrage under the watchful eye of the police. On the other, peasents routinely riot over being scammed out of their land by underpaid local officials.

I'm not a historian, so a few things might be a bit too simplified or off the mark.
posted by trinarian at 11:57 AM on June 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've actually heard mixed reviews from people who live there about whether or not life is better or worse now.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:59 AM on June 29, 2007

Nice post. A little wordy, but interesting stuff; and at least it's all inside and not cluttering the front page.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:05 PM on June 29, 2007

Things seem pretty good for Hong Kong. Maybe we should hand the U.S. over to China under a similar "Two Systems" agreement -- or have we already done that?
posted by Faze at 2:04 PM on June 29, 2007

Great post. I have a good number of friends whose parents have moved to the US semi-recently from Hong Kong (I'm not sure exactly why), and interestingly enough, a lot of them (the children) want to go back there to work. Seems fair...Hong Kong strikes me as a hell of a city, and still without, as your post suggests, a lot of the things that would make China a difficult place to live.

On a semi-related note, the movie Chungking Express, while a romance, captures a lot about the time of the handover back to China, and handles the East/West vibe of the place really well.
posted by invitapriore at 3:22 PM on June 29, 2007

Hong Kong is an amazing city - a blend of the entire globe in one spot, and number two on my personal list of favorite cities in the world behind London. If I could find a good job, I'd love to live there too.

However, there are a lot of things that have changed in the city since the handover, and most of my friends who live there don't think that those changes have been for the better. It was less than two years ago that there were massive democracy protests in the streets, and there is some evidence that July 1 will see some protests this year like in 2003 and 2004.

Recent suggestions (May of this year) by pro-Beijing politicians that the population in one of the best educated, most sophisticated cities in the world are not "ready" for democracy is pure hogwash. If so, most of the world isn't either, including the U.S. Hong Kong may be first in Asia on the Index of Economic Freedom, but it's not necessarily corresponding with political freedom.

And just because it's both apropos and funny, here is "Folk Guy's always with you!", a video parody commenting on the 10th anniversary propaganda machine.
posted by gemmy at 4:29 PM on June 29, 2007

invitapriore: On a semi-related note, the movie Chungking Express, while a romance, captures a lot about the time of the handover back to China, and handles the East/West vibe of the place really well.

I have the impression that back in the early to mid-1990s, people in Hong Kong were expecting the handover to be really terrible. A lot of movies made around that time are extremely dark. See: Hard Boiled (1992), The Heroic Trio (1993), Executioners (1993), Full Alert (1997), The Longest Nite (1998), Expect the Unexpected (1998).

The Longest Nite in particular has a character who really sticks in my mind as exemplifying the Hong Kong view of the Beijing leadership at the time. He's old, but he's still cruel.
posted by russilwvong at 5:35 PM on June 29, 2007

I'm not seeing the trojan horse aspect. Some one paint me the picture, please?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:12 PM on June 29, 2007

fresh fish: a lot of people thought the PRC was just saying what they needed to say to make things happen smoothly. There probably would have been a lot of resistance inside the UK to hand over HK if the pre-existing freedoms and economy were to be replaced with the mainland's systems. When the negotiations were going on, we were only a decade out of the Cultural Revolution.

Especially after Tiananmen, a lot of people lost faith that there would be any real freedom of speech, assembly, or press inside of a Chinese territory. If the gov't of Beijing was willing to run citizens down with tanks to chase them out a hunger strike, why would they allow let those strikers take refuge and speak out in HK? Why would the let HK newspapers keep printing what happened? Why would they ever allow real elections down there?

10 years later, it turns out - with the exception of universal suffrage, which they didn't have with the British anyway - most of those fears proved to be unfounded and "one country, two systems" works as strongly in the political sphere as the economic.
posted by trinarian at 9:17 PM on June 29, 2007

One certainly must say that it turned out much better than anyone would have hoped at the time. Which isn't to say that the situation is what it should be, but after all, worrying about Hong Kongers' human rights is minor compared to worrying about the human rights of all 1 billion Chinese. As long as you accept that you are, well, in China, it's pretty amazing what seems permissible. To a lesser degree the special economic zones have a little bit of this.

The PRC bet, of course, is that allowing as much economic development as possible under socialism will reduce demands for political development, and so far that bet is working. To most eyes China looks just like any other modern country with skyscrapers and subways and televisions and internet.

Recent suggestions (May of this year) by pro-Beijing politicians that the population in one of the best educated, most sophisticated cities in the world are not "ready" for democracy is pure hogwash.

Of course that's not how they define "ready". Ready means "Socialist Man" or whatever the Chinese are calling their ideal end-state of human development. Someone with Hegel ingrained at about the same level as innate survival traits. ;-) What I don't know, from over here, is how many and how much even the Chinese leadership believes these sophistries anymore; probably few, and not much.

In any case, the Chinese were wise to pursue things the way they did. The long lead time meant that some of the most problematic elements emigrated -- to London, or Vancouver, or Sydney. Of course, it served this same purpose to play up the doom scenarios.
posted by dhartung at 9:32 PM on June 29, 2007

most of those fears proved to be unfounded

Right. There were no trojans in the horse. Ergo, it was not a Trojan Horse. No?

Maybe I'm seeing the vase instead of the faces.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:54 PM on June 29, 2007

Someone with Hegel ingrained at about the same level as innate survival traits. ;-)

posted by homunculus at 11:26 PM on June 29, 2007

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