,People wearing protective face masks walk along a street during lunch hour in Central district in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
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HONG KONG’s status as a British colony ended in 1997, when China regained sovereignty over the territory. Since then, Beijing has exercised its rule over Hong Kong through a special arrangement known as “one country, two systems,” providing autonomy to Hong Kong, which is allowed its own currency and its own administrative and legal systems.
The problem is that Hong Kong itself is a deeply divided society. Local Hong Kong politics is often described as a contest between the blue and yellow forces. On the blue side are the conservative, pro-Establishment forces, a growing number of whom are people disillusioned by the West because of what they see as its growing bias against China and the Chinese.
Across the divide is the other Hong Kong, consisting of people who identify with what they perceive to be Western values, with some retaining an emotional bond with the territory’s British heritage and wishing for more separation for Hong Kong from the mainland.
This situation is all wrong. Dug into their trenches, both sides are missing the key point about Hong Kong. This is that from here on, there are only two directions left for Hong Kong to travel.
The first direction will see Hong Kong people continuing to rule Hong Kong to a large extent. Cantonese remains as the main language, and the territory retains its distinctive culture and systems, thus maintaining the local way of life.
If however Hong Kong ends up heading towards the second direction, its identity will become blurred. Putonghua will increasingly displace Cantonese as the key language, as has happened already in Shanghai and Shenzhen, and the behavior of local society will increasingly resemble that on the mainland, as Beijing’s influence becomes deep rooted.
In other words, “One Country, Two Systems,” which is what Direction One is all about, will become “One Country, One-and-a-Half Systems,” which is how Direction Two is going to be.
Obviously, the first path is much better for Hong Kong. The central government itself wants “one country, two systems” to succeed, as Hong Kong is more valuable to China as a showcase city that connects the mainland with the rest of the world. And successful autonomy for Hong Kong could also improve China’s ability to settle the Taiwan issue.
So why is there a growing risk that Hong Kong will end up going in the second direction? To a significant degree, both the blue and yellow camps must take responsibility.
The street violence of 2019, in which some protestors waved United States and British flags, forced the central government to ask whether Hong Kong might abuse its freedoms. Beijing’s clearly stated position was that Hong Kong is part of China, and cannot be separated or used as a base to subvert the rest of the nation. So Beijing had to rush through the National Security Law, which helped to restore stability but also pushed the territory closer to Direction Two. The trust deficit also caused Beijing to review some civil liberties, such as the content of local school books.