The “One Country, Two Systems” concept that governed the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 was a testimony to the ideological flexibility, and one might say, creativity, of Deng Xiaoping’s China in the 1980s when the formula was devised and negotiated. It was also a powerful symbol of the hopeful expectations that the PRC, unlike the other Leninist power of the day, the USSR, could overcome political rigidity and find a way to integrate itself into, indeed “converge” with the liberal international order. The world seemed flat, for a while.
However, Deng’s contradictory formula could not survive the sharp turn back towards Leninist orthodoxy under Xi Jinping. For Xi, just like for Mao, “the Party leads everything” and cannot tolerate autonomy, let alone a high degree of it. The fundamental contradiction of the arrangement, until recently papered over by “convergence” optimism, resurfaced again as conflict between the PRC’s one-party system designed to control the population top-down and the free and decentralized society in Hong Kong.
It is no coincidence that the demise of the “One Country, Two Systems” concept has been brought about by the issue of “state security”, often (mis)translated in English as “national security”. In Leninist systems, “state security” does not mean the security of the “nation” or the population at large, but rather that of the state itself, conflated with the Party into a Party-State. The security of the Party-State does not necessarily align with that of its citizens; in fact, it mostly implies the security of the Party from the country’s own citizens. There is a reason why the PRC spends more on internal security than on national defense. In Hong Kong, the meaning of state security manifested itself in a graphic way in 2015 with the kidnapping to the Mainland of the five booksellers whose publications were deemed offensive to the CCP leadership.
Extending PRC state security into Hong Kong puts an end to the city’s autonomy and its separate way of life. There doesn’t seem to be much the outside world can do about it. That chance was missed back in the 1980s during the Sino-British negotiations, and again in the 1990s during the Most Favored Nation status and WTO debates when the democratic world still enjoyed enough leverage to try and rectify China’s ways. After more than two decades of unchecked behavior, we now have to live with the bully we’ve helped to create. Hong Kong in particular has been rendered effectively defenseless.
Offering refuge to fleeing Hong Kong residents can help save individuals or groups at risk. More generally, we should let Beijing know that we may not be able to counter its actions in Hong Kong today, but they further undermine the goodwill and the trust the PRC once enjoyed. China may not be given the benefit of the doubt, next time around. What that means, if anything, will depend on the actual historical circumstance of the next time. This time, repression wins and freedom loses.