Britain left behind a mixed political legacy in 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty. The British had called it a “benevolent autocracy,” a benign form of autocratic colonial rule. Beijing sought to codify that legacy in a Basic Law designed to serve as Hong Kong’s governing constitution for 50 years. The Chinese dubbed their version “one country, two systems.” Its practical aim was to ease fears and achieve a smooth transition to rule by a one-party communist dictatorship that had never been known as benign. But built into the Basic Law were ambiguous caveats and conditions. These anticipated another transition, from two systems to just one. Hong Kong’s contemporary democracy movement originated during the first transition, before the implications of the contingencies were widely understood. The struggle now, 20 years after 1997, is intensifying as the second transition, to one integrated Beijing-directed system, gathers momentum. The second transition, observable in practice but never acknowledged, was confirmed by the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2017.
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