The 20th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover

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The 20th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover

A Discussion with Richard Bush

The 20th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

July 1 marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to the People’s Republic of China. After two decades under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong’s political system is showing cracks. Yet a political reform process intended to give Hongkongers the power to elect their own leaders has remained stalled since 2015. Meanwhile, the territory’s persistent political inequality, growing economic inequality, and increasingly polarized political environment point to major decisions ahead for Beijing and the Hong Kong government. In this interview, Richard Bush, former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chairman and Managing Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, and current Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, discusses the critical challenges facing Hong Kong and his recent book Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan.    

[The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

Kristian McGuire: Your most recent book, Hong Kong in the Shadow of China, was published last fall. Most of your previous works have focused on mainland China and Taiwan. What inspired you to take this in-depth look at Hong Kong?

Richard Bush: My practice is to do a book on China-Taiwan, and then a book on something else, and then go back to China-Taiwan. I’d finished my book Uncharted Strait in 2013 and was looking around for a topic and hit upon Hong Kong because I knew the next few years in Hong Kong were going to be very interesting; I didn’t know how interesting.

Another reason was that I had actually lived in Hong Kong as a teenager in the early 1960s. And it was because of having lived there that I chose to do China professionally. So, in a way, this was sort of giving back.

This was the first book published in the United States in almost 20 years that looked at Hong Kong even partially. The last one was Nancy Tucker’s book—that was more about Taiwan than about Hong Kong. So I figured it was about time.

Also, as I discovered, but was not surprised by, it’s a very easy place to do research. There are a lot of very good political scientists there. People in government and elsewhere are very open to talking to visiting foreigners. So it was a great project and I had fun doing it. And the Occupy or Umbrella Movement happened in the course of my research, so it was a little bit exciting as well.

Kristian McGuire: In your book, you highlight several things the Hong Kong government and Beijing could do to build trust with Hong Kong’s democrats and get the ball rolling again on political reform. It’s now been two years since the Legislative Council voted down a Beijing-backed electoral reform plan. What is your current prognosis for trust-building and political reform in the territory?

Richard Bush: I think first of all and probably the critical thing that has to be done is to cultivate and engage with moderate members of the democratic camp or the antiestablishment camp. The reason that electoral reform failed was that that group of legislators decided, both because they mistrusted Beijing and because they were mistrusted by their radical colleagues, that they weren’t going to stick their necks out and vote for reform. And at that point, the Hong Kong government didn’t need too many of those people to be able to pass the reform. That was one of the reasons for failure. If electoral reform is going to succeed in the future, if anything is going to succeed in the future you probably need those moderate democrats or moderate antiestablishment people.

One of the sad things about watching this process unfold was how radicals on both sides were empowered and moderates on both sides were somewhat marginalized. Clearly radicals in Hong Kong were empowered and were able to call the tune at the end of the day. One could guess that hardline people in Beijing, when it came to Hong Kong policy, were also empowered; and that each group of radicals justified their own position by pointing to the actions and attitudes of the other. The two groups of radicals needed each other to continue to push their line.

A couple of other things that are going to be needed: First of all, I think Xi Jinping has to decide that it’s in the central government’s interest to revive electoral reform; and that if they don’t do that, then there’s going to be continued political instability in Hong Kong in the form of demonstrations and protests and gridlock. It’s not in Beijing’s interests to have an unstable Hong Kong. The question is how you go about it. Maybe the default response, particularly of the radicals in Beijing, is to get tough and suppress dissent, and so on. The smart way, I think, would be to surprise Hong Kong and say: Ok, we’re going to go back to political reform. Let’s talk about why we failed the last time. Let’s talk about ways that we could adjust what was tabled last time in order to move forward. It’s probably counterintuitive. It may not happen. But, you know if—

Kristian McGuire: Do you think that the central government maybe drew the wrong lesson from the protests—the fact that it eventually dissipated, it’s been relatively quiet for the past couple years—that they can handle something like that every five, ten years; and that perhaps it’s not going to become a more frequent occurrence?

Richard Bush: It’s certainly possible. And I hope that that’s not the assumption that they’re working on. You hear talk in the Communist media about requiring Hong Kong to go ahead with national security legislation pursuant to Article 23 of the Basic Law. I don’t know what would happen if the Carrie Lam administration felt that it had to do that. But I would bet that you would see demonstrations and protests against that. That would be just the thing that would revive public action of that sort. And so, my argument would be: Diffuse radicalism, diffuse the temptation that at least some people have to go outside the political system. Create confidence among the mainstream in Hong Kong society and the institutions that they do have. And bring about greater stability that way rather than some sort of top-down approach.

Kristian McGuire: You have suggested that Beijing could at least indicate certain reforms that it would support and provide a timeline for future reforms that it would enact so long as the initial reforms didn’t destabilize Hong Kong. That seems like a pretty safe course for the government to follow. Why have they been so reluctant to do so?

Richard Bush: A couple of different reasons: First of all, I think that addressing Hong Kong issues in 2013, 2014, 2015 was constrained by a larger concern on the part of Xi Jinping and the central government about national security. And in their construct, national security is both domestic and external. I suspect that the impetus for this heightened concern about national security was the Arab Spring and the way in which, even in China, there was a bit of instability that was spawned by the initial demonstrations and protests in the Middle East. And so, you had a series of steps that were taken placing greater policy emphasis on national security, creating institutions to address this, giving greater power to certain agencies in the government in order to deter instability within China and to crack down if it was necessary. A lot of the focus on this has been on Xinjiang, but I think it did affect the way in which Chinese officials were viewing what was happening in Hong Kong and perhaps overinterpreting protests that had their own impetus but, through this new lens of national security, seemed more dangerous.

Probably China’s implementation of its Hong Kong policies after 2012 was influenced by a belief that seems to have been quite real that somehow the United States was behind a lot of the trouble that was brewing in Hong Kong. I think that was a bum rap. I think the United States understood very clearly that it needed to walk a very fine and careful line and that to be actively engaged in the struggle over electoral reform would only bring about a result that was inconsistent with our principles.

After the Occupy Movement, then you have the emergence of localism, and even Hong Kong independence. And this, to my mind, is a very small sliver of the population and the political community, but it may have spooked the central government or may have been used by hardliners in the central government to justify a continuation of their policies. I think that Beijing did not understand after 2005-2006 how radicalism was growing in Hong Kong and that it needed to be preempted. And so, the protests in 2014 were very different from the protests that occurred in response to the Article 23 legislation in 2003. If they had acted more quickly on electoral reform, maybe they would have had a very different result.

As I put it in my book, if you take the principle in the Basic Law that progress towards universal suffrage had to be both gradual and orderly, there was a point after which you couldn’t have both at the same time. That if it was going to be gradual, it wasn’t going to be orderly; and if you wanted it to be orderly, you had to do it quickly. But they wanted to have both and it just was no longer possible.

Kristian McGuire: Although you argue in your book that Hong Kong is overdue for political reform and it will become only more difficult to achieve as time goes by, you also note that Hong Kong must maintain its economic competitiveness and reduce economic inequality. Can success in the economic realm create more favorable conditions for restarting the political reform process?

Richard Bush: This is the critical question. And to my mind the two types of change are interactive. Economic inequality reinforced the views of those who wanted political change and in fact you heard the argument that the economic inequality is so profound that it is only by reducing the political inequality through a democratic system that we will be able to correct the economic inequality.

I think that reducing economic inequality is a longer term project. It requires a legislature that works, which Hong Kong does not currently have. And so, it may be the case that there has to be a burst of political reform first to create a better environment for addressing sort of deeper issues of economic inequality and moving through some reforms in that realm. Doing political reform first or soon doesn’t guarantee that the consensus will exist to do the right kinds of economic reform, but it may at this point be a necessary condition for it.

Kristian McGuire: Xi Jinping is expected to visit Hong Kong around July 1st to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the territory’s handover to the PRC. Is there anything in particular that you will be watching for during this trip?

Richard Bush: I think the main thing is how the authorities deal with the likelihood of some sort of protests and demonstrations surrounding Xi’s visit. And there will be some on the antiestablishment side who are probably hoping for some sort of clash. They want to go beyond exercising freedom of expression and assembly in a proper way and want to create some sort of conflict with the forces of order that paint China in a bad light. How you minimize the possibility of that is a very tricky thing. I suspect the Hong Kong government has thought long and hard about it. I’m sure the Hong Kong government does not want a situation where Xi Jinping goes away feeling he’s been embarrassed and that the party that he thought he was going to attend turned into something very different.

Kristian McGuire: Now 20 years after the handover, what do you think the local government and Beijing can point to as major successes that Hong Kong can build upon in coming years?

Richard Bush: The first major success is that although the Hong Kong economy was in serious trouble in 2002-2003 because of the global recession at the time and because of SARs, Beijing was willing to take steps to ensure that the Hong Kong economy survived. And it did. And so real estate markets improved and the economy stabilized.

Another success is simply that Hong Kong remains for all its problems a fairly stable and civilized society. It’s a good example for what any Chinese city can and should be. Obviously, it is a case study in how globalization and technological change can slow growth and exacerbate inequality. There are probably policy steps that can be taken to correct those.

But still I think that if the success of the last 20 years is going to be sustained, it probably requires a return to significant political reform, a serious effort to reduce the worst forms of economic inequality, and housing is one of those. But I think that Hong Kong has some cushion and in the right sort of political environment can probably take corrective measures.

Kristian McGuire: As you mentioned, on July 1st, Carrie Lam is going to be sworn in as Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive. Are you aware of any policy areas where she might chart a different course from her predecessor?

Richard Bush: Well first of all, she is reported to have told leaders in Beijing that localism and a Hong Kong independence movement are not the dangers that at least some in Hong Kong believe them to be—that let’s not sort of exaggerate what’s going on here.

Second, there have been times where she has talked about the need to return to the political reform project. I hope she still believes that and can convince leaders in Beijing of its value. So I think that if this is correct, her instincts in that regard are different from those of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung.

Her challenge will be to find ways to appeal to young people and gain confidence in young people and convince them that she understands their situation and has ideas about how to improve the situation of the younger generation.

Kristian McGuire: Since the conclusion of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, many of the Umbrella Movement’s participants and young leaders have remained active. Some have taken their cause abroad to places like Taiwan and the U.S. Some have even been elected to LegCo. Has Beijing and the Hong Kong establishment essentially written off what may be the most politically active segment of Hong Kong’s youth, or does this recent talk about engaging local youth apply to them as well?

Richard Bush: Well I certainly hope it applies to them as well.

As I’ve suggested, Carrie Lam has a proper perspective on the threat that these people pose – or don’t pose.

I worry that Beijing’s instincts are either heavy-handed or miss the reality of what it’s like to be the Hong Kong younger generation. On the heavy-handed part, we have the episode of a couple of localists deliberately mangling their swearing in oath at the time that they were to be sworn in. This became an issue and the Hong Kong government took it to court on the grounds that they had refused to be properly sworn in. And it seemed that the action was moving forward in the Hong Kong courts and I think there was confidence that the court would find in favor of the government. But then, before the court was allowed to act, Beijing preempted it in directing the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to in effect dictate in a different and more authoritative way what the law was. And so this disrespect of the Hong Kong judicial process and the rule of law, I think, sent a very bad signal.

On the part about not really understanding Hong Kong youth, they tend to view this through a lens of whether you’re patriotic and loyal to the one country even as you care about the two systems. I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s partly based on young people’s views of social mobility or lack of it, partly a desire to act on a rather postmaterialist view of society and their position in it. And unless you address young people on their terms, Beijing is unlikely to make any headway. To try to buy them off in very materialist terms may not have an impact. To assume that Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities and the Hong Kong education system have not been effective in propagandizing the virtues of one country, two systems and the necessity for patriotism is probably going to be ineffective as well.

And one could argue that it’s really important for Beijing to get this right in Hong Kong because sooner or later the same problems are going to emerge in major metropolitan cities on the mainland, probably Shanghai first of all. And so, Hong Kong becomes a test bed for how to cope with the profound impact that globalization and technological change has on younger generations who don’t necessarily believe that they will have the opportunities that their parents have had for social advancement.

Kristian McGuire: You already mentioned Article 23 and the national security legislation. There’s been a lot of speculation that Carrie Lam is under pressure to enact Article 23. What do you make of that? You’ve spoken about the consequences of if that were to be enacted, but do you feel like that and the patriotic education is something that would come from Beijing or is it something that the Hong Kong government would try to do? Some people have said it would be better if the local government did it, going through the motions as if it were their decision rather than Beijing’s just because of the, I guess symbolism of Beijing reaching in through the one country, two systems arrangement.

Richard Bush: Well, I think if this were to move forward, no one would have the illusion that this somehow was being done at the sole initiative of the Hong Kong government. Everybody would understand that this was coming from Beijing. However, I think that, in terms of the rule of law in Hong Kong and confidence in the rule of law, and Beijing’s respect for the rule of law, it’s far, far better that this be done through the legal process there—debated in LegCo, voted on in LegCo—rather than imposed by the National People’s Standing Committee or by action by the National People’s Congress.

This is connected with a potential trend that may be occurring and that goes to the heart of the one country, two systems approach. And Hong Kong under one country, two systems was a hybrid political system where not all major positions were subject to popular elections. But the Basic Law guaranteed the rule of law and political and civil rights. And up until the end of 2015, one could say that, on balance, Beijing respected that deal, it respected the commitments that had been made. There was nibbling around the edges particularly in terms of the media, but after the failure of political reform you started seeing episodes that suggested that Beijing might no longer respect the deal that it had originally made. And the first episode was the detention by people from the mainland side of the bookseller Lee Bo. By my calculation it was a violation of three provisions of the Basic Law and went to the heart of the civil rights commitments, the due process commitments, respect for the rule of law. So that boundary, I think, needs to be revived and reestablished and any temptation that the central government has to restrict political and civic freedoms needs to be resisted in spite of the difficulties of managing the Hong Kong system.

So, we’ll see. At this point, it may be important to ensure that what Hong Kong had from 1997 on gets preserved. It would be good to move on to electoral reform and the things that it was promised, but preserving what they had may be the first priority.

Kristian McGuire: Finally, in your book, you list a number of appropriate ways that the U.S. might be able to support democracy in Hong Kong. However, questions have been raised about the current administration’s willingness to promote democracy abroad. And, President Trump has indicated that he will deal with China on a transactional basis. If you were to explain to the president why supporting democracy in Hong Kong might be in the US’ interest, what would you tell him?

Richard Bush: First of all, we may find that the transaction that Donald Trump thought he made with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April isn’t working out the way he thought. And so, the ground under the China-US relationship will shift in a direction that is negative for US-China relations.

If the president were to ask me why this is important, I guess I would say that Hong Kong to some extent is the canary in the mineshaft. What happens there, particularly for democracy, has broader strategic implications because it tells us what kind of great power China is going to be. If Beijing is willing to some extent to accommodate to Hong Kong realities and craft a political system that sort of allows the Hong Kong people to finally have a true say in all the senior people who govern the SAR, that’s a good thing. If we’re moving in a direction where the central government is more heavy-handed and restricts civil and political rights, that has some broad implications for how China is going to deal with Taiwan, maybe how it’s going to deal with some of its neighbors when it doesn’t get what it wants.

How you try to promote democracy in Hong Kong is a subtle thing for the United States because of the temptation of people in Beijing to believe that this is all a plot by the United States to bring about a color revolution starting with Hong Kong and then spreading to the mainland. That is not what the United States is about in Hong Kong. You know, I think that we can place the right kind of priority on this in ways that are good for Hong Kong and good for US-China relations and even for the relationship between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.


Richard Bush is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Co-Director of its Center for East Asian Policy Studies. He came to Brookings in July 2002, after serving almost five years in Washington as the Chairman and Managing Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the mechanism through which the United States Government conducts substantive relations with Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic relations. Bush has a Ph.D. in political science and China studies from Columbia University. He worked for six years at The Asia Society, before joining the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July 1983. In July 1995, he became National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. He left that position in September 1997 to become the head of AIT. Bush is the author of several books on Taiwan, most recently Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations (2013). In September 2016, the Brookings Institution Press published his Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan.

Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. You can reach Kristian at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @KrisAMcGuire and read some of his previous interviews and articles at