“One country, two systems” was the formula adopted for integrating Hong Kong into the People’s Republic back in 1997, as the territory returned to Chinese rule. It recognised that a century of colonial rule, with its specifically British contributions of legal and educational systems and a late and partial admixture of democracy, had fashioned a place very different in sensibility from the mainland which was so near and yet in many ways so far.
But from the outset it was plain that Beijing, with its allergy to democracy in all its forms, would not in the long run allow this tiny half-foreign entity to move ahead and – as China’s leaders had promised – get a government that the people wanted and had voted for.
Instead the opposite has happened. Over the past 17 years, the Chinese Communist Party has played a surreptitious but ever-expanding role in the former colony, interfering in the selection of leaders in every field. Finally last month, the democracy movement was dealt a major blow when it was announced that only three candidates could stand for election as Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive in 2017, all chosen by Beijing.
The result was the amazing scenes of the past few days: in this formerly most apolitical of places – where business came first, second and third – large and angry crowds are besieging government headquarters, facing down tear gas assaults and vowing to stage an indefinite sit-in. Their courage is remarkable. Their aims are entirely just and valid. Hong Kong today is China tomorrow, with its affluent, culturally sophisticated and highly educated population. Beijing’s leaders would do well to listen to them.