FILE - China supporters march with Chinese national flags during a rally to mark the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, in Hong Kong, July 1, 2015.
FILE - China supporters march with Chinese national flags during a rally to mark the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, in Hong Kong, July 1, 2015.

One Country, Two Systems is the concept implemented by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Hong Kong Democratic Party Chair Emily Lau equates the policy to a firewall between the central Communist government and Hong Kong, designed to preserve local freedoms following the 1997 handoff from Britain to Beijing.

In late 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers were held by Chinese officials for various crimes, some of which dated back more than a decade.

Human Rights Watch China researcher Maya Wang said there had been a campaign to restrict the flow of sensitive political books about China from Hong Kong, and that the detentions appeared to be another step by Chinese authorities to control freedom of expression in Hong Kong.

Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, right, is
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.

Last week, Lam Wing-kee, one of the five Hong Kong booksellers, recounted his ordeal before reporters. Lam spoke of being held without access to an attorney or his family and said that twice during his detention he contemplated suicide. The revelations sparked protests in Hong Kong, with some residents calling for Hong Kong independence.

Lau,speaking on VOA’s Asia Weekly podcast, said if it was true that Chinese authorities had detained citizens abroad, and in the case of bookseller Lee Bo had conducted cross-border detention, Beijing was effectively “driving a truck through One Country, Two Systems” and the firewall would come “crumbling down.”

The system should be preserved but is "at great risk," Lau said. She noted that people in Hong Kong were scared following the detentions, and that the central Beijing government “must come out and assure the Hong Kong people that such things can never happen again.”

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung wrote a letter to the central government, identifying several concerns regarding Lam’s claims.

Lau called that response “woefully inadequate.” VOA attempted to contact the chief executive but was informed by his office that Leung was unavailable for comment.

Nathan Law, chair of the newly formed Demosisto Party, born out of 2014’s pro-democracy demonstrations, called the Hong Kong government a puppet of the central government.

Law believes that many are keeping a close eye on this issue because “Hong Kong [residents] never imagined [something like the detentions would] happen.” He calls the detention of the booksellers evidence of “malfunction and [a] breach of One Country, Two Systems.”

Law believes that it is difficult to change the current system but says he and other civic groups will mobilize to “create pressure to defend what they currently have.”

China's vulnerability

Stratfor East Asia analyst Thomas Vien believes China will have to pay a price as a result of Lam's statements.

“There is long-term interest for China in promoting [an] image that it is a law-abiding country ... that it promotes rule of law. That’s really been hurt by this,” he said.

Vien also says Beijing faces a greater challenge in trying to convince Taiwan of the merits of the system.

Pro-democracy protesters display black ribbons in
Pro-democracy protesters display black ribbons in front of the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, June 17, 2016.

But is One Country, Two Systems broken? Vien says that depends on how one defines things in terms of China’s purposes.

“For the sake of Hong Kong stability, I think that there’s always been the sense from Hong Kongers that China is kind of slicing away One Country, Two Systems in small pieces and [they] are upset, but there’s a limit to what Hong Kong can do to resist China — given that they don’t have their own military,” he said.

However, Taiwan does have a military force and Vien feels its government may re-examine its relationship with Beijing, and that this incident could further damage ties and elicit “greater anxiety over greater cross-strait integration.”