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Less Than a Decade to Decide What to do about Hong Kong?

Less Than a Decade to Decide What to do about Hong Kong?

Matthew Hurst is a doctoral student at the University of York researching the Sino-British negotiations over the future of Hong Kong during the 1980s and ’90s.

The past can be a poor indicator of the future. Anyone looking to history books as if they were a crystal ball is likely to find themselves disappointed. In the case of Hong Kong, however, there is at least one lesson we can draw – decisions about what to do about Hong Kong after 2047 will need to be made within the coming decade.

Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, promised that under Beijing’s sovereignty Hong Kong’s “capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged” for a 50-year period lasting from 1997 until 2047. However, the Basic Law says nothing of what will happen to Hong Kong after 2047. The spectre of 1997 began to affect the city in the 1980s; so too will the date 2047 become ever more salient as we sail towards it. In this piece, I look to Hong Kong’s past for indications about its future and argue that we should adjust the timescales we currently assume to conclude that there is less than a decade to decide what to do about Hong Kong.

Hong Kong became a British colony during the 19th Century. An 1842 treaty ceded Hong Kong Island from China to Britain; in 1860, Kowloon was ceded; and lastly, in 1898 the New Territories were leased for 99 years. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the colonial administrators and citizens of Hong Kong – which continued to grow without a care for the artificial boundaries between the treaties and the lease – began to worry about what would happen in 1997. This is why Hong Kong has been called a borrowed place on borrowed time.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hong Kong faced a question – what would be Hong Kong’s future? One of the main concerns was confidence in Hong Kong’s economy. Investors needed certainty about Hong Kong’s future but no-one knew what would happen after 1997. More urgently, the colonial government had issued leases for 12-15 years. This would mean that by about 1982, such leases would have to become ever shorter or could no longer be issued until the question of 1997 was resolved. Subsequently, the British and Chinese governments negotiated Hong Kong’s future, which set in motion the promulgation of the Basic Law. During the ‘transition period’ from 1985 to 1997, the colonial administration found itself constantly negotiating and compromising with Beijing.

History shows us that, with the 1997 date looming over Hong Kong, decisions and statements about the future had to be rendered far in advance. The date 1997 became secondary to that of 1982-5, the years when twelve and fifteen year leases would become troublesome. Hong Kong faces a repeat of this experience. 2047 may be the end of the 50-year period of no change promised to Hong Kong but people and businesses must make decisions about what to do long before then. Furthermore, there are practical choices to make: it would be folly to think that on one day Hong Kong would practise capitalism, the rule of law, use the Hong Kong dollar etc. only for everything to change the very next day.

The past five years especially have seen changes implemented in and upon Hong Kong that have already brought the 50-year promise into question. But these will seem piecemeal in comparison to the changes that are likely to come in the lead-up to 2047. We should expect decisions to be made about Hong Kong – around which business leaders and individuals will react – no later than 2032, 15 years before 2047.

Exactly what those decisions may be will depend on the prevailing political winds in Beijing. By 2032, Xi Jinping will be 78 years old and it is quite possible that he may still be in charge (his father lived to 88). International political, economic and, increasingly, environmental considerations will also influence decision-making.

A common assumption is that Hong Kong will become “just another Chinese city”. This would mean replacing all of Hong Kong’s qualities, probably bit-by-bit either side of 2047 to smooth out the transition. Changes would include replacing the rule of law based legal system for China’s socialist legal system, the dollar for the renminbi, Hong Kong government officials for Party officials, capitalism for socialism with Chinese characteristics, etc. as well as tightening restrictions on the media and internet, operations of foreign companies, and freedom of speech and expression further. Hong Kong’s five bauhinia flag would become redundant, Mandarin and simplified characters would likely be taught in all educational settings and mandated for official business, Hong Kong would cease to be represented separately from China at international platforms, travel between Hong Kong and the mainland would probably become easier, and Hong Kong passports would be changed for Chinese passports. If Beijing intends for Hong Kong to be just another Chinese city in time for 2047, then there are still many changes left to implement.

Another possibility is that Hong Kong’s period without change might be extended (notwithstanding those changes already enacted). Looking again to history, between 1949 and the 1980s the Chinese Communist Party did not seek to take Hong Kong back by either diplomacy or force until the 1997 issue was tabled, Hong Kong was too valuable to China as a window to the world. Hong Kong could demonstrate its value to China once again. Although Hong Kong’s contribution relative to the size of China’s economy has indisputably shrunk, China’s meteoric rise has stalled. Hong Kong remains a regional financial hub, has a freely convertible currency, has an international stock market etc. China’s stumble could be to Hong Kong’s benefit and induce Beijing to extend Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Between these two extremes – complete absorption or a renewed commitment not to change Hong Kong – could be a hybrid scheme that attempts to fuse elements of each. A hodgepodge of different economic, political and cultural edicts may be cobbled together to suit the tastes of Beijing’s leadership and satisfy their perception of what China needs at the time. Connected to this, the Greater Bay Area project which aims to make use of the separate systems represented by the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau may be developed further.

Finally, there is the possibility that Hong Kong might be returned to something closer to its makeup immediately post-1997. This could happen if a leader came to power in Beijing who swung the pendulum of permissiveness in the other direction. Alternatively, if the prospect of peacefully reunifying Taiwan became imminent, Hong Kong might be lavished with freedoms and investment in an effort to make it into a model for the ‘one country, two systems’ concept in order to woo Taiwan.

The date 2047 is effectively of little relevance. As history shows us regarding the date 1997, it will be the completion of change rather than the start. Whatever the decisions for Hong Kong’s post-2047 future, the changes will begin within the decade meaning that there is less than a decade to decide what to do about Hong Kong.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

© Royal Society for Asian Affairs. All rights reserved.
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