"One China, Two Systems" Prevents Democracy in Hong Kong, says FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork

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A political event of some importance occurred in China in June. It was not the minor changes to the electoral system made by the Hong Kong's legislature. The details are arcane: 10 new seats to Hong Kong's only partially-democratic legislature and a slight change to the way Beijing's choice of the chief executive is rubber stamped. The effect of these changes on the people's control over their governance is virtually zero.

The significance of the June events lies in the closed door discussions Beijing's representative held with leaders of one of the main democratic parties, leading to the party's support for the "reform" package. As the prominent pro-democracy legislator Margaret Ng put it, after this interference by Beijing, "'one country, two systems' is no longer a sustainable illusion."

Hong Kong's autonomy--and ability to achieve democracy--under Chinese rule has always been an ideal, rather than a reality. The Chinese communist government never took it seriously.

Prior to the 1997 handover, Deng Xiaoping insisted that "those who can be entrusted to administer Hong Kong must be local residents who love mother China and Hong Kong. Can popular elections ensure the selection of such people?" he asked rhetorically. The answer was obviously "no," and Beijing arranged to control the levers of power in Hong Kong, carefully setting up the legislature and the executive to allow it to retain control. When necessary, Beijing stepped in to cut off political reform and even meddle in the judicial system.

Hong Kong's people, on the other hand, took Beijing and London at their word. They hoped to enjoy the "high degree of autonomy" promised them and stubbornly believed they could pursue a democratic transition within the framework Beijing set up.

If it were up to Hong Kong's people, there would already be a fully elected legislature and chief executive for the territory. Pro-democracy candidates routinely poll a clear majority of votes in elections, but under rules devised by Beijing, are confined to a minority in the legislature. The chief executive is hand-picked by Beijing and endorsed by a committee of Hong Kong people. One of the "reforms" of last month expanded that committee from 800 to 1,200 in an electorate of well over 3 million registered voters.

The U.S. also purported to take China at its word, making autonomy, democracy and the rule of law the basis for its policy. In the event, however, Washington acquiesced to each of Beijing's interventions in Hong Kong affairs. America's Ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman called last month's reform "another positive step."

Beijing's brilliant achievement in Hong Kong has been making democrats impotent. They are given room to function but prevented from succeeding. Everything they do, no matter how impressive, is deemed a failure.

For example, last winter, five members resigned from the legislature, declaring the resulting by-elections a referendum on democracy. Over 500,000 people voted for the same five who had stepped down, returning them handily. Yet the outcome was portrayed as a defeat because of a low turn-out, caused in part by a boycott campaign led by Beijing's appointed chief executive. Anyway, their victory entitles them only to return to the same legislature where Beijing's rules prevent them from exercising power.

In June, increasingly fearful of looking irrelevant, some of Hong Kong's leading democrats entered into secret negotiations with Beijing. In exchange for a miniscule concession, the voted for the package of "reforms." They walked into a trap. They traded their principled opposition to the key elements of Hong Kong's bogus system without a commitment to full democracy or even agreement on what that means.

Some people claim that Beijing's intervention in this last political episode is positive, showing that Beijing will now deal directly with Hong Kong democrats. But considering the manner in which these contacts took place, behind the backs of the Hong Kong people, that justification is weak at best. It will be exceedingly difficult now to move to full democracy. The undemocratic features of the system are entrenched, the democratic camp is split and Beijing is deeply involved--but completely unaccountable. Pro-democracy legislators who refused to compromise are being derided as "extremists" and "hardliners."

The only good to come from this episode is that it is no longer possible to deny the realities of power in Hong Kong. For years, all parties involved have maintained the fiction that under the "one country, two systems" arrangement, Hong Kong could advance to democracy on its own. As legislator Ng pointed out, that illusion can no longer be sustained. Nor can the U.S. policy based on that illusion.

- Originally written for Forbes.com

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