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Is Hong Kong’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Autonomy in the Balance?

FILE - The skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong.
FILE - The skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong.

China’s campaign against five Hong Kong booksellers has raised concerns about erosion of the "one country, two systems" principle that has governed the autonomous Chinese territory’s relations with Beijing.

The "one country, two systems' principle, adopted when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, was intended to safeguard Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years, until 2047. But many of the city’s residents already are asking what might happen when Hong Kong’s future is completely in China's hands.

Banned books, and booksellers

Five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared over three months in late 2015, four of them while they were away from the city. Lee Bo, general manager of the publishing house where the men worked, was the only one who disappeared while in Hong Kong.

All five reappeared in January and February, appearing on Chinese television to say they had been detained by Chinese authorities for offenses including selling books banned in Beijing to mainland readers. China allowed Lee and two others to return to Hong Kong in March on bail, and a fourth colleague, Lam Wing-kee, was released later.

At a news conference in Hong Kong on June 16, Lam said Chinese security agents kept him in isolation in the eastern city of Ningbo for five months, forced him to give up his legal rights and confess to his "crimes" on television.

Lam’s tale of mistreatment for publishing and selling books that were legal in Hong Kong caused public outrage. Pro-democracy parties said Hong Kong's autonomy had been violated; they cited Article 4 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution, which says citizens' freedom of speech and publication must be protected.

In an interview with VOA, a professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Seanon Wong, said the Chinese demand that Lam disclose buyers and authors of his books seriously threatens Hong Kong’s Article 4 freedoms.

“This is a direct attack against the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. People will no longer feel safe to publish or purchase politically sensitive items in Hong Kong,” Wong added.

Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, right, is accompanied by pro-democracy lawyer Albert Ho after giving a news conference in Hong Kong, June 16, 2016.
Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, right, is accompanied by pro-democracy lawyer Albert Ho after giving a news conference in Hong Kong, June 16, 2016.

Hong Kong activists blame China

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said last month he would advise China’s central government about the level of public concern about the booksellers’ detention, and also call for review of the notification procedures Hong Kong and mainland law-enforcement agencies use when Hong Kong citizens are detained in mainland China.

Kenny Wong, a spokesman for Hong Kong political party Youngspiration, told VOA that even if a better notification mechanism is set up, he will have no confidence in its reliability or transparency.

Speaking to VOA’s Asia Weekly podcast, Hong Kong Democratic Party leader Emily Lau called on Chief Executive Leung to go to Beijing to relay the message that the "one country, two systems" principle is in jeopardy.

Hong Kong Professor Wong said China's leaders bear the most responsibility for threats to the former colony's autonomy.

“They are obviously breaking the Basic Law directly,” he said. “Lam Wing-kee is only one of the cases being exposed. How many other cases were left unexposed [undisclosed]?”

Hong Kong’s government also is being criticized for its handling of the issue. Leung's critics accuse him of acting like Beijing's "puppet."

“Every major decision concerning Hong Kong issues actually [is] made by the central government [in Beijing],” said Nathan Law, chairman of Hong Kong’s youth-oriented pro-democracy party Demosisto.

VOA asked pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip to comment on the booksellers issue but received no response.

Beijing blames booksellers

Beijing, which has long pledged to uphold "one country, two systems," says the real threat to the concept comes from the booksellers.

Speaking in Beijing this month, Wong Guangya, director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, accused Lam Wing-kee and his colleagues of destroying the autonomy arrangement by publishing and selling books that attack the mainland's political system.

With 30 years left before "one country, two systems" expires, some Hong Kong residents wonder whether their future lies in becoming just another part of mainland China or in maintaining a separate identity.

“The people of Hong Kong should have the right to determine our own future beyond 2047, so Youngspiration is scheduling a referendum in 2021,” party spokesman Wong said. He added that prior to any Hong Kong act of self-determination, citizens should establish a “sound Hong Konger identity.”

If Hong Kong can achieve real democracy under the current autonomy arrangement, Democratic Party leader Lau says, that should allay concerns in Beijing about whether Hong Kong's people are seeking independence from China.

Because events in Hong Kong are "evolving" so quickly, government professor Wong says he is “very skeptical about whether we can predict what is going to happen next.”