The China Factor in the Hong Kong Public's Changing Perceptions of "One Country, Two Systems"*

Article excerpt

This article depicts changes in the public's perceptions in Hong Kong of the implementation of the "one country, two systems" policy following the handover in 1997 and discusses the role of the China factor in shaping such perceptions. It finds that the Hong Kong people's rating of "one country, two systems" was quite positive in the first two years after the handover, but the rating started to fall after April 1999 and reached its record low in April 2004. Although the rating has since risen somewhat, the Hong Kong public has not regained all the confidence it previously had in the policy. Beijing's Hong Kong policy is the most powerful variable shaping the public's perceptions of the "one country, two systems" policy, followed by trust in the Hong Kong government, the government's performance in mainland-Hong Kong relations, and the government's political performance. Since all four variables are largely politically related, it seems that the public's perceptions of "one country, two systems" have largely been shaped by political affairs related to maintaining Hong Kong as a highly autonomous system in the "one country, two systems" plan.

Key words: Hong Kong, China, East Asian politics

Introduction

Nine years have passed since Hong Kong was handed over to China by Britain on July 1, 1997 and became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under Chinese sovereignty. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the SAR is to be governed under the principle of "one country, two systems." Under this arrangement, the socialist system and policies of mainland China will not be practiced in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong's pre-handover capitalist system and way of life are to remain unchanged for fifty years.1 The Basic Law also promises a high degree of autonomy to the SAR and a gradual and orderly progress toward full democracy.2 However, despite these promises, the anti-communist mentality of Hong Kong people and their long-held mistrust of Beijing naturally meant that, initially, they lacked confidence in Beijing's policy of "one country, two systems."3 In addition, the last days of the run-up to the handover were clouded by a struggle between the Chinese and British governments over the future political arrangements for Hong Kong.4 Seeking to protect their interests, Hong Kong people were also drawn into the struggle.5 As a result, on the eve of the handover in 1997, there was a great deal of skepticism locally and in the international community over Beijing's commitment to the "one country, two systems" arrangement. Although the sociopolitical situation in Hong Kong in the first few months after the handover turned out to be unexpectedly stable,6 the SAR soon suffered the blows and challenges of a rapidly deteriorating economy triggered by the Asian financial crisis and the bursting of the local real estate bubble. In addition, during this period the new SAR government headed by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa continued to experience rising public discontent over its frequent policy and executive errors and over the political conservatism it shared with Beijing in responding to calls for a faster pace of local democratization and other political issues.7

The accumulation of public discontent eventually exploded in a massive demonstration on July 1, 2003 involving more than half a million people protesting against the SAR government and demanding greater democracy. The incident attracted much international attention and strained people's confidence in the "one country, two systems" arrangement.8 It also heightened Beijing's sense of political crisis with regard to Hong Kong, prompting it to employ both economic and political measures to stabilize the political situation in the SAR and to appease the people of Hong Kong.9 These measures included permitting a sharp increase in the number of mainland tourists allowed to visit Hong Kong (the Individual Travel Scheme); the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland (CEPA), which gives Hong Kong better access to the China market; and the eventual removal in March 2005 of the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa. …