Violent HK protests threaten the future of 'One Country, Two Systems'
Henry Litton QC

Editor's note: Henry Litton QC is the ex-judge of the highest court in Hong Kong. He retired in 2015. The article was first published on on August 29. It reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

There are few certainties in life. One of them is this: The common law system underpinning Hong Kong's "core values" is destined to expire in 27 years. The "One Country, Two Systems" formula was designed to last for 50 years and no more. Hence Article 5 of the Basic Law.

There is no mechanism in the Basic Law for the system to continue beyond June 30, 2047. All the calls for freedom, democracy, etc., have no meaning if the common law crumbles. If the protesters truly value their professed aims, their focus should be on demonstrating to Beijing and to the rest of the world that the "One Country, Two Systems" formula works, and to promote an atmosphere in which Beijing feels comfortable with the system – and when the time comes, to extend the Basic Law for another 50 years, 100 years. Then liberal democratic norms and values might have a chance to flourish. 

Crunch time is not 27 years away. It is just round the corner. For Hong Kong to continue as one of the world's greatest financial and trading centers, planning for the future must necessarily look 20-30 years ahead. So the hard question will soon be asked: Is the common law system to continue beyond June 2047? The answer lies in Beijing and nowhere else.

The last time this issue arose – back in 1982 – Hong Kong had the backing of Great Britain. This time Hong Kong stands alone. And, up to this point, Hong Kong has demonstrated for all the world to see that the "One Country, Two Systems" formula is extremely fragile. If the unrest continues, it would surely fracture beyond any hope of recall.

Hong Kong officials held a press conference on September 2, 2019. /CCTV Photo

Hong Kong officials held a press conference on September 2, 2019. /CCTV Photo

It is beyond the power of the Hong Kong SAR government to devise the governing model for the future. Pressing the Hong Kong government to promote greater democracy is futile. Rightly or wrongly, that power lies in Beijing. Nowhere else.

Hong Kong enjoys freedoms found nowhere else in China. To think that unlawful assemblies and demonstrations, and violence in the streets, would soften Beijing's attitude towards Hong Kong is absurd. Common sense suggests it would have the opposite effect.

However, there are deep social issues which the SAR government can redress, having regard in particular to the huge foreign currency reserves it holds: 425 billion U.S. dollars – by far the largest in the world, enough to guarantee public servants' pensions hundreds of times over and yet Hong Kong's social services are crumbling, hospitals are understaffed, public education is poor, teachers are ill-paid, young people cannot afford to rent even the most substandard apartment, and the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening.

The laissez-faire policy of the colonial government has been carried to extremes by the SAR government in the past 20-odd years. The rich have prospered while the bulk of the people suffered. The influx of mainlanders under the One-Way Permit system has caused great strain on all services. The people's needs have been neglected. The young see little prospect of a fulfilling future and even university graduates find difficulty in meaningful employment. These, I suggest, are the deep-seated ills which sustain the fire of discontent in the wider community, and bring hundreds of thousands to march in the streets. These are not matters which a commission of inquiry can resolve.

The media here is full of Hong Kong stories, and of course, footage of the riotous behavior on the streets: What empty slogans, meaningless rhetoric the protesters display. In watching these events I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Saint Francis: Pray God give me the courage to change the things I can change, the fortitude to bear the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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