Features | Society | East Asia

China’s “One Country, Two Systems” Under Threat

As mainlanders head to Hong Kong to protest, Chinese authorities are increasingly cracking down on the former British colony.

More than a century ago, the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, revered today as the father of modern China, found refuge in Hong Kong while plotting to overthrow China’s last imperial dynasty.

After the Communist takeover in 1949, the then-British colony was used as a center by intelligence operatives from around the world. Little wonder, then, that on the eve of Britain’s handover of its colony in 1997, Beijing wanted to ensure that the territory would no longer be a base for subversion against the mainland.

However, 15 years after the handover, Hong Kong continues to provide sanctuary to groups and individuals whose activities are considered illegal in mainland China today, such as Falun Gong.

And, increasingly, disaffected individuals who cannot protest legally on the mainland are coming to Hong Kong to stage their protests.

This began two summers ago after mainland authorities cracked down when several hundred people held rallies to protest against a proposal to switch programming on the main channels of Guangdong TV from Cantonese to Putonghua, or Mandarin.

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Subsequently, a number of activists traveled to Hong Kong and, on Sunday, August 1, 2010, a historic demonstration was staged that included protesters from the mainland and Hong Kong calling for the preservation of Cantonese. Some in Hong Kong also fear for the future of their dialect as Putonghua continues to make inroads in the former British colony, now a Chinese special administrative region.

About 200 people dressed in white marched from Wanchai to government headquarters in Central Hong Kong demanding the preservation of Cantonese. Some of the mainlanders covered their faces with medical masks for fear of reprisals after they returned to Guangzhou.

While the staging of protests is part of Hong Kong culture – in the absence of an elected government – in the mainland such rallies are considered illegal.

Just how much influence Hong Kong wields on the mainland was suggested by Lang Zi, a Guangzhou poet, editor and blogger. “We here in Guangzhou follow closely all the actions in Hong Kong, such as the civil movements against the demolition of Queen’s Pier, the building of the high-speed-rail line and so on,” he told the South China Morning Post. “We’ve seen it all and got inspired by what Hong Kong people did to save their valuable past.”

While Hong Kong’s influence over Guangzhou, capital of neighboring Guangdong province, is perhaps to be expected, it is now clear that people across China are seeking to make use of the freedoms of the largely autonomous city, carrying their grievances there. And, where mainland activists go, its security personnel are not far behind.

Ever since 2003, pro-democracy rallies have been held on July 1, which is a holiday to mark the reunification with the mainland.

While individual mainlanders may have marched alongside Hong Kong people in the past, this year there was a very visible mainland contingent, some of whom held up banners that identified themselves not only as being from the mainland but from various provinces and cities.

Subsequently, at least two of them were arrested when they returned to the mainland. The two, Song Ningsheng and Zeng Jiuzi, both of Jiangxi province, were sentenced to labor camp for 14 months. This is the first known instance of mainlanders being punished for protesting in Hong Kong.

Under the Chinese policy of “one country, two systems,” it is lawful for people in Hong Kong to hold such demonstrations. Under Hong Kong law, visitors can also take part. But evidently, China considers it illegal for mainlanders to join Hong Kong protests.

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Mr. Song became a rights activities after his wife died in 2008 as a result of a medical blunder. Ms. Zeng’s husband died in mysterious circumstances while working in Shandong province. She had been petitioning without success for the reopening of an investigation into her husband’s death.

Liu Zhonghua, Ms. Zeng’s son, was quoted as saying that she went to Hong Kong because “there’s absolutely no way to fight for one’s rights here in mainland China.”

Another female activist, Li Guizhi, who is blind, was prevented from entering Hong Kong to publicize the death of her son in 2006. She says he was cremated without her permission and she has been demanding an investigation.

Ms. Li was held in a so-called “black jail” by the security authorities but managed to escape. However, she was recaptured after only a week of freedom.

All these people are desperate. They sought justice in Hong Kong because there were no avenues for doing so on the mainland.

Liu Weiping, leader of a group called the People’s Rights Union of China, said at a press conference in Hong Kong that he had helped about 100 mainlanders take part in the rally. He said that the two Jiangxi residents had been approached by someone who pretended to be a local reporter and asked where they were from and who had organized their visit.

This means that mainland security people are operating in Hong Kong, contrary to the rules of “one country, two systems,” under which the mainland has no police jurisdiction in Hong Kong.

Unless China provides avenues for redress of grievances to its citizens, they will continue to try to do so in Hong Kong. And the former British colony will continue in China’s eyes to be a base of subversion against the mainland. ​