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Sieren's China: Learning from Hong Kong

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China 20 years ago. Beijing should now understand that the "one country, two systems" principle has given rise to an independent generation of Hong Kong residents, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Before Britain returned its crown colony Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997 (above), the great Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping promised that the horses would go on racing and the dancing would carry on.

Despite these placatory words, Hong Kong shook with fear in the first half of 1997. Two worlds had been separated for 155 years, going in such different ways that it was hard to imagine how they could be reconciled, and now they were to come back together.

Read more: Hong Kong angered at credit downgrade based on 'tightening' links to China

The hundreds of thousands of Chinese who had fled communism to Hong Kong did not go into exile, but they did ensure that they had a second passport. Vancouver in Canada was nicknamed Hongcouver.

Those who stayed were at once excited and in a panic. Some, such as the writer Agnes Lam, saw a horror scenario, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, looming: "The wet smell of blood and the redness of the fire," she wrote in a poem in June 1997. This turned out to be excessive. Economically, Hong Kong has continued to prosper under its new masters. The situation has not improved, nor has it gotten worse. However, the political situation is another story.

The "one country, two systems" principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping is largely responsible for the fact that Hong Kong faced neither the apocalypse nor even a bout of lingering illness, as most Western observers had feared.

The principle ensured that Hong Kong would be allowed to follow its own capitalist path for another 50 years, retaining its tax system and an independent legal system.

Beijing hoped it would be able to learn from Hong Kong how to build up an international financial center. A lot of what there is in Hong Kong now exists in Shenzhen or Shanghai for instance. Yet, no Chinese city has managed to catch up with Hong Kong. The former crown colony remains one of the most important hubs of the global economy and still has the only Chinese stock exchange to rival others on a global scale. 

The "one country, two systems" principle also allowed press freedom and freedom of assembly in Hong Kong to be maintained. Still today, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents meet every year on June 4 in Victoria Park and light candles to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This would be absolutely unthinkable on the mainland.

Beijing has a different interpretation of Deng Xiaoping's principle. It thinks that Hong Kong belongs to China and should therefore subject itself to its system and rules. For many Hong Kong residents, it means that one system should not interfere with the other.

Hong Kong opposition

The handover contract leaves room for interpretation. Young urban dwellers, above all, find that the influence of the mainland has become more tolerable over the past five years of leadership by Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. But many Hong Kong residents resent the elite, which is loyal to Beijing and panders to the media and the real estate market. It is from these ranks of critics that the Umbrella Revolution, also known as the Occupy Central movement, emerged in 2014 when Hong Kong's financial and government district was occupied for 79 days and there were calls for the right to directly elect Hong Kong's chief executive.

Frank Sieren, DW's opinion writer and long-time China resident

Dw's Frank Sieren

The government did not react, and there was no dialogue. No concessions were made. Now, there is more hostility than ever between the opposition and the elite. For most though, it's business as usual in Hong Kong - as it has always been.

There will be protests this weekend when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong to mark the 20 years since the British handover of Hong Kong. The protests will also be directed against his presence at the swearing-in ceremony for the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is considered to be a true defender of Beijing's interests. The opposition feels that swearing her in this weekend is a provocation.

Ideal test run

What is very clear is that the "one country, two systems" principle does not go so far as to allow the direct election of the country's leader. Xi will reiterate this message for Hong Kong's younger generations. Even Britain - one of the oldest democracies in the world - never thought of allowing Hong Kong residents to vote.

The Chinese communist party seems to be happy to use Hong Kong as an example for economics but as a field test for democracy. Yet Hong Kong would be an ideal place to experiment with its seven million residents and youthful protesters who are largely peaceful. It is this young generation who are not satisfied with the way Hong Kong has developed. They are asking the same questions that Chinese youth on the mainland sooner or later will ask - and are already asking in large cities. Questions about identity rather than about status, career, consuming or even communism.

The Hong Kong government could learn a lot for Beijing if it were to talk to the leaders of the youth movement and those who want a different kind of Hong Kong within China.

Beijing will not enter negotiations on Hong Kong's national autonomy just as Berlin would not on the independence of Bavaria.

This is not likely to change with Xi Jingping's visit.

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DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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