Can Beijing and Hong Kong Rejuvenate ‘One Country, Two Systems’?

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Can Beijing and Hong Kong Rejuvenate ‘One Country, Two Systems’?

The “one country, two systems” principle has structural limitations that merit addressing.

Can Beijing and Hong Kong Rejuvenate ‘One Country, Two Systems’?

Protesters wave black version of the Hong Kong flags to against government during the demonstration in Hong Kong, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Hong Kong has reached a state of political pandemonium – with deeply rooted concerns surfacing through one of the most turbulent periods it has endured in its political history. What started out as a protest against an extradition bill has evolved into a fundamental challenge – and set of questions – posed over the tenability of “one country, two systems” (1C2S), a constitutional principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping in articulating strategically an ideal modus vivendi as the People’s Republic of China regains sovereignty over Hong Kong and Macau, two former colonies. Under 1C2S, Hong Kong and Macau (alongside, hypothetically, other selected regions) would retain their economic, political, and administrative systems that are distinct and separate from the rest of the mainland, but would be governed under the overarching sovereign entity of China. 

The 1C2S is unparalleled as a normative ideal. First in its extensiveness, given its mandate of prescribing the mode of governance shaping the relationship between 1.4 billion mainland Chinese citizens and 7.4 million residing in Hong Kong. But also in its ambitiousness, in temporally extending for at least “50 years unchanged” and normatively serving as a model which, if successful in Hong Kong and Macau, could become a functional arrangement for China with regards to other comparable territories – with significant cultural and institutional differences from the mainland populace. Deng’s vision was indubitably built upon foresight and a recognition that solidarity and unity could be found in the embracing of dualism in cultures, values, and bureaucratic structures. 

The Intellectual Dangers of Monolithic Intentionalism 

Existing explanations for the past summer’s events in Hong Kong have often been fixated upon identifying the intentions of particular actors as the ostensible root causes for the crisis. Those who identify themselves with the establishment view the destructive, trenchant acts by violent radicals as the products of youth who intentionally caused chaos; or see the protests as influenced by Western-backed individuals who sought to undermine the Chinese order within Hong Kong. On the other hand, elaborate conspiracy theories have surfaced, accusing both Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her cabinet of harboring ulterior motives in propelling Hong Kong into a bottomless abyss through inept governance. Some protesters even view the summer as an intentional move by particular parties to further undercut Hong Kong’s structural and political autonomy, so as to undermine the city’s international competitiveness and economic tenacity.  

There are many reasons as to why such narratives have blossomed, but from a purely politico-historiographical point of view, there are substantial dangers with a reductively intentionalist interpretation of events – that is, the view that any and all major events in politics can be attributed to human intentions and agency in exercising actions with clearly foreseeable consequences. Intentionalism mistakes moments and windows of individual decisions as evidence that active, informed agency underpins any and all decisions – thereby glossing over the ability of bureaucratic or political structures in distorting information dissemination, preference creation and formation, beliefs and values construction (through echo chambers or discursive communities). It also over-individualizes its diagnosis of problems, fixating on which individual allegedly did or said what – as opposed to the circumstances that shape their expectations. Finally, it overestimates the extent to which individual agents could have acted otherwise, and unduly downplays the constraints on decision-making in contexts of crises. 

A concrete instance would be the following: When discussing the continued reluctance to set up an independent Commission of Inquiry (COI) over allegations of police abuses and brutality, the predominant public discourse typically frames it as evidence for the wanton nature of Carrie Lam and her cabinet. Such narratives highlight her agency in potentially acting otherwise, and connect her inability to do so with personality-centric flaws. Yet such  a diagnosis also fails to recognize factors such as: i) endemic flaws in existing protocol with regard to how large-scale mass mobilization ought to be handled; ii) how the police and the Hong Kong government (supposedly with legitimate rights to monopoly over violence, per Weber) interact in a symbiotic and co-dependent manner, and iii) the inherently intractable perceptual disagreements over what constitutes permissible violence between pro-police and non-pro-police populations. Neglecting these factors is problematic because it means that intentionalist diagnoses are fallacious by omission; recognizing these factors does not excuse the inertia of responses – but instead suggests that something greater is at stake than merely the moralities of individual actors.  

On Structuralism and 1C2S

For all its strengths, the past 22 years of implementation of 1C2S does have structural limitations that merit genuine addressing. These are neither inherent (in that they do not necessarily follow from the 1C2S concept), nor intractable (in that they can be and ought to be fixed). 


The lines between “one country” and “two systems” are structurally far less clear-cut than politicians – Hong Kong and mainland, pro-establishment or pan-democrat alike – should be comfortable with. The preservation of two disparate, completely non-converging administrative and economic systems is easy in theory, yet highly difficult in practice. From cross-border migration to infrastructural alignment (like the High-Speed Railway, which instigated significant controversies over the co-location custom arrangements), from bilateral economic interactions (such as tourism and trade, as kickstarted by the 2003 CEPA agreement) to increasingly tight financial ties between Hong Kong and mainland markets (Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect) – these economic interactions, while beneficial for many in Hong Kong, have also meant a heightened level of demographic turnover and exchange, as well as dissolution of areas or segments of Hong Kong’s economy that remain exclusively “Hong Kong-only.” 

These changes would be reasonable and expected, but for the implicit yet substantial effects they induce upon the legal and sociocultural dimensions of Hong Kong-China relations. Under the former, the sizes of legal grey areas – in which no clearly right and uncontentious answers are possible – have only expanded as cross-border interactions take on increasingly complex, diverse, and frequent forms. As for the latter, with the changes to Hong Kong’s demographics (through schemes such as the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme and up-to-150 daily single-way permits issued to mainland Chinese seeking to migrate to Hong Kong) and resultant surge in competition over resources and employment opportunities between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, it was only a matter of time before unfettered economic integration would culminate at undesirable – but plausibly predictable – cultural tensions and identitarian flare-ups.

The problem with an excessively rigid understanding of 1C2S is that it offers no helpful answers as to how such de facto system convergences should be managed – if at all. Many Hong Kongers thus perceive these to be signs of the “1C” dominating over the “2S,” whereas the central government is induced by the promise of 1C2S to view such sociocultural tensions as merely expected transitory costs as the “2S” become subsumed under the “1C” flag. Neither interpretation does the complex reality justice. 


A related concern is the intangibility and resultant disputability of the “core values” governing 1C2S. Most theoretical political arrangements – ranging from federalism to highly centralized unitary states, from representative democracy to participatory democracy – tend to be founded upon sets of clearly delineated values that manage and synchronize all participants’ expectations through tangible “test cases.” Consider, for instance, the values of state autonomy governing how the states of the United States’ relate to one another; or how libertarian decentralization maps onto Switzerland’s political structure in a way that is uncontested (if not decontested) by its citizens.

In contrast, the values underpinning 1C2S are not particularly conspicuous or universally agreed-upon between Hong Kong and Beijing. Beijing views the arrangement as an instrumentally effective means of preserving national stability while retaining the “best of both worlds” – ensuring the reabsorption of Hong Kong and Macau into its sphere of governance, while allowing Hong Kongers autonomy under the auspices and generosity of policymakers in China. In contrast, many Hong Kongers are under the impression that it serves as a de facto buffer for 50 years – prior to the total dissipation of formal barriers separating the ways of life in Hong Kong and in China. At the arrangement’s core remains a clear lack of normative or imaginative justification, which means that when it comes to propositions such as “The rule of law must be upheld” or “Hong Kong must be governed by Hong Kongers”, even well-intentioned Beijing bureaucrats and the Hong Kong public would struggle to see eye to eye over the meanings and prescriptions arising from such first principles.

Where this problem of intangible values arises – where both sides’ values are not “tangible” to the other – over how the ongoing crisis is interpreted by individuals on either side. While many in the Hong Kong opposition view the protests as fuelled by quasi-post-materialist desires for greater political autonomy and transparency in governance, many in the establishment deem this to be the direct product of socioeconomic woes and pent-up frustrations about social mobility. The truth is probably a mixture of all these factors, yet 1C2S’s lack of clear guidelines on how interpretive and appraisive disputes ought to be settled suggests that the arrangements alone are inadequate in resolving the “deeply rooted conflicts” embedded within the Special Administrative Region. 


The promise of “50 years unchanged” runs into issues in light of two constraints. The first is the empirical reality that Hong Kong and the mainland’s economic disparities and political asymmetry are only likely to increase in light of the former’s continued astonishing rates of growth. The second is that while “unchanged” is a powerful statement at first glance, it is unclear how norms, values, and expectations of either party could be “unchanged” with some miraculous convergence suddenly emerging from the process. If the mainland and Hong Kong are to be fully united by the end of the 50 years in a peaceful, mutually beneficial, and non-destructive manner there must be adjustments made by all sides in embracing the eventuality of 2047.

For perhaps far too long for the city’s good, many of Hong Kong’s politicians and leaders have adopted “50 years unchanged” as a mantra at face-value, without ever attempting to identify ways in which Hong Kong should adapt so as to maximally preserve its competitiveness in light of the rapidly rising motherland. The “do less, get less wrong” mentality has left the city ill-prepared for the structurally induced frictions, disillusionment, and uncertainty caused by the city and its country heading into untraversed territory. Beijing sees Hong Kong’s failure to “return in hearts and minds” (「民心回歸」) as an imperative for it to accelerate cultural and political integration of the city; whereas Hong Kongers view any attempts on Beijing’s part to do so a fundamental infringement upon their core liberties and autonomy. Thus the knot tightens, and the room for maneuvering continually closes. 

The Case for Rejuvenating 1C2S

Hong Kong is at an unprecedented level of polarization today. On one extreme are individuals who are keen to see Hong Kong’s immediate reabsorption into the mainland, bringing the two systems into one; on the other, individuals attribute a plethora of problems – from police misconduct to lack of transparent governance, from socioeconomic inequalities to stunted progress on the front of universal suffrage – to the central government. The idiosyncratic “middle” is rapidly dwindling, as political radicalism surges.

There remains a case for rejuvenating 1C2S, to revamp it in a manner that addresses the loopholes and confronts the obstacles outlined above. Any argument for Hong Kong’s political progress and structural reform – as it should be made – must combine the cognizance of the empirical constraints of 1C2S, as well as standing productively and adamantly by the values and features that make Hong Kong special. It behooves those sensitive to both Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s needs to elucidate what has gone wrong, and to make the case for rejuvenating 1C2S. The case for 1C2S must be made such that both Beijing and Hong Kongers alike see a mutual future in its maintenance.   

Philosopher John Rawls argues for realistic utopianism – the extension and stretching of what we take to be the practical limits of politics in a manner that is sensitive to our current political and social conditions. What Hong Kong needs today is neither self-destruction nor immediate absorption, but a realistic utopianism of its own kind. 

Brian Wong is an MPhil in Politics Candidate at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. They are the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, Founding Director of Citizen Action Design Lab, and a frequent contributor to the South China Morning Post, the American Philosophical Association, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, having also written for the Asia Times and Fortune Magazine in the past.