HK 2047: Terra Incognita

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2047, recently seen a far off milestone, is suddenly on everyone’s lips. Fear of its arrival is being driven by the loss of faith in ‘One Country, Two Systems’. Deng Xiao-ping’s successors may kill his dream of a happy Hong Kong ending with China.


When former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang (李國能) raised the issue of 2047 for public discussion in 2012, it had hardly caused ripples in the Hong Kong society. Not surprising perhaps. With the 50-year lifespan of the policy of “one country, two systems” barely a third expired, the well-intentioned idea of Justice Li had understandably been greeted with a degree of indifference and bewilderment. Simply put, it sounded too remote.

What a difference four years have made.


Fast-forward to 2016

The past few weeks have seen 2047 become a “buzzyear” in the city and the post-2047 future of Hong Kong is already on the political agenda. Not yet. But the year 2047 has emerged on a list of buzzwords, including independence, self-determination, and localism, that are altering the political landscape.

Evolving from the secondary students group Scholarism, Demosisto, inaugurated in early April, said in its manifesto that the party would hold a referendum in 10 years to let Hongkongers decide their own fate beyond 2047. Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒), former convenor of Scholarism and the new group’s secretary, stopped short of backing independence, but stressed it should be one of the options listed in the plebiscite.

Last week, a group of young pan-democrats issued a joint statement on Hong Kong’s future. They called for “internal self-determination” for Hong Kong people after 2047. “We believe Hongkongers should unite and fight for ‘internal self-determination’ so Hongkongers can govern the city’s affairs themselves,” the statement read, adding that continuing Hong Kong’s autonomy would be a suitable solution for the future.


Real independence

If Demosisto and the young democrats have refrained from calling for independence, the Hong Kong National Party is more explicit. In its manifesto, the new party, which has not yet completed company registration, has vowed to gain the status of a sovereign state with United Nation recognition after 2047.

The emergence of calls for independence, self-determination and “internal self-determination” after 2047 by the new groups may have surprised Justice Li when he reflected on his attempt to put an early marker on the issue of 2047 in 2012.

Speaking at a University of Hong Kong Law School function in November 2012, Justice Li said the future of “one country, two systems” after 2047 should be resolved at an earlier time, or “around 2030.” Li went on to say that in about 15 to 20 years’ time, the future of Hong Kong after 2047 would have to be discussed and settled. In an interview with the South China Morning Post in May 2013, Li said a 25-year mortgage taken out in 2022 will expire in 2047.

“Our next generation of leaders will have to shoulder this responsibility,” Li said. “I am optimistic that as long as all concerned appreciate that one country as well as two systems are integral parts of the formula, we can continue after 2047 to maintain our own separate system based on respect for human dignity, with our own core values and our freedoms.”

The top judge did not elaborate the issues needed to be resolved at an earlier time. But he appears to be in favour of the preservation of the “one country, two systems” policy beyond 2047 with the caveat that “as long as all concerned appreciate that one country as well as two systems are integral part of the formula.”


Basic Law forever

Under the Basic Law, there is no specific provision on its lifespan. Speaking at a Basic Law drafters’ meeting, late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has reportedly said the policy of “one country, two systems” could continue after 2047 if everyone was happy with it. Up to now, there has been no official statement on the post-2047 arrangements for Hong Kong.

Basic Law Article 5 says “The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.” It does not specifically say what happens after 50 years. Similarly, provisions relating to land leases are not clear about the relevant post-2047 arrangements.

The uncertainty about land lease that expired after 1997 had apparently prompted the then British government to initiate talks about the city’s future in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The rest is history.

It is unclear whether some pressing issues such as land lease may have prompted the central government to put the issue of 2047 on their work agenda. There are no sign of such a move by Beijing.


Not abstract

The irony is that the question of Hong Kong’s future after 2047 has been raised by the younger generation, who feels increasingly insecure and anxious about the present shape of the SAR, not to mention the post-2047 scene.

In their joint statement, the young pan-democrats said: “The fact that discussion about amendment and re-drafting of constitution, self-determination and independence has been raised recently is because Hong Kong people are losing their confidence in ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law.”

Beijing’s repressive policies, including the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision curbing universal suffrage, have shattered people’s confidence in the existing constitutional framework, they said. The result is that various attempts have been made to “imagine” political ideas that could do away with the established constitutional framework, they said.


Please mind the gap

When Deng broached the idea of allowing Hong Kong to preserve the capitalist systems unchanged for 50 years, he had envisaged the gap of developments between the former British colony and the mainland would have been narrowed by 2047. Differences between the “two systems” would have become insignificant.

In some aspects, he was proved to be right. Shenzhen has surpassed Hong Kong in terms of total gross domestic product. Shanghai aims to become an international financial centre by 2020, the second on the mainland after Hong Kong.

In other aspects, the visionary statesman was wrong. Differences between the two systems remain vast – and fatal. Deng would not have envisaged the alleged failure of his imaginative “one country, two systems” formula would prompt calls for early talk about the future of Hong Kong, with some aiming for separation after 2047, not the 1997 reunification planned in the 1980s.
Genius, it seems, has its limits.