Hongkongers have marched against the extradition bill by the million - highlighting the depth of their distrust in the mainland judicial system and the central government. This mistrust, accumulated over the years, will not only directly affect how the Beijing and Hong Kong governments handle this situation, but also shape the administrative arrangement for Hong Kong that will eventually replace "one country, two systems".
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has apologised to the public, and shelved the plan to allow extraditions to the mainland. But the protesters are still dissatisfied, demanding the withdrawal of the bill. The central government holds the key to the problem. How Beijing - especially President Xi Jinping - considers the protests will largely determine the Hong Kong government's follow-up, and, ultimately, Hong Kong's fate.
On the surface, the protests were aimed at the Hong Kong government, but in reality they also targeted Beijing. Given Xi's strongman politics and combativeness against political opponents, he would not like the idea of backing down after a couple of million-strong protests. This would not only undermine the authority of the central government, but also be taken as a personal affront. It's possible that Xi will harden his attitude towards the protests after he meets Donald Trump at the G20 summit and China weathers the trade war.
Regardless of the outcome of the protests, they will worsen Beijing's negative perception of Hong Kong, and accelerate the pace of Hong Kong's political and economic integration with the mainland. In the overall development of China, the marginalisation of Hong Kong is inevitable. At the end of Hong Kong's 50-year transition period, "one country, two systems" will exist, if at all, in name but not in substance.
Assuming that the opposition prevails in the contest of wills over extradition, the first thing to come under threat will be democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing has a deeper fear of democracy, and of the opposition seizing the momentum to pursue again an open chief executive election, so it would just tighten its grip on the election.
With China's economic rise, it is natural that Hong Kong's status as a trade and finance hub has declined. Still, following the Occupy protests in 2014, Beijing has been more proactive about integrating Hong Kong economically. This is to alleviate the city's economic development problems, and to relieve pressure on the middle and lower classes - especially young people who might have turned to politics because of low employment. Moreover, the Hong Kong economy will become increasingly dependent on the mainland, which is exactly what Beijing wants.
From this perspective, it is clear Beijing is effectively taking over Hong Kong. Two obvious examples are Hong Kong's participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, and the plan for the Greater Bay Area. In Beijing's vision, the plan will deepen integration and complete its unification.
Regardless of whether Beijing instigated the extradition bill, the proposed amendments, if passed, would shake the foundations of "one country, two systems", and Beijing would be happy to see the bill passed.
One view is that Beijing has been interfering in Hong Kong's affairs because it doesn't know what Hongkongers want. Actually, it knows what they want, but can't give them that. It also understands it has radicalised Hongkongers, especially young people. Beijing's current strategy is to delay opening up the Legislative Council and chief executive elections for as long as possible. Actually, from Tung Chee-hwa to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's leaders have been more and more obedient to Beijing.
At the same time, within the constitutional arrangement of "one country, two systems", Beijing has influenced judicial and administrative proceedings in Hong Kong through the National People's Congress' interpretations of the Basic Law, and tipped the balance towards "one country".
Beijing has also declared in a white paper that "one country" is the precondition for "one country, two systems". There has been greater emphasis on "one country" since Xi took power. In his view, China is strong now; Hong Kong should come under central governance rather than go its own way under "two systems".
At this rate, might Beijing prematurely terminate "one country, two systems"? This is a matter of much concern in the outside world. When Deng Xiaoping proposed that Hong Kong's way of life should remain unchanged for 50 years under the formula, his purpose, of course, was to recover Hong Kong.
But he also probably believed that a developing China would move closer to Hong Kong over 50 years, so Hong Kong wouldn't have to change. However, midway through the 50 years, there have been major changes on both sides. If Deng were alive, would he still feel the formula should remain unchanged? Obviously, Xi doesn't.
Yet, Beijing should be aware that radicalisation and the rise of localism in Hong Kong are not problems that can be solved with economic integration. Some hardliners are already demanding the implementation of "one country, one system" in Hong Kong after the transition period. However, barring major upheaval, Beijing is more likely to keep the formal framework of "one country, two systems", but gradually reduce the space for "two systems" such that it can legally intervene in Hong Kong's affairs.
By Beijing's logic, this will probably be Hong Kong's fate. But need the city always be under Beijing's thumb? There is a possible way out: if people on the mainland advance their own demands for democracy, Beijing's authority might decline. Therefore, if Hongkongers want to take charge of their own destinies, they must support the struggle for democracy on the mainland. In this regard, people on both sides of the border have the same interests.
Deng Yuwen is an independent scholar and a researcher at the China Strategic Analysis Center Inc. This article was translated from Chinese
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