Hong Kong’s Fragile Autonomy

Hong Kong’s Fragile Autonomy

The current crisis has exposed how little remains of the “one country, two systems” framework.

Carrie Lam (center) at a COVID-19 press conference on March 21 (Xie Lei/China News Service via Getty Images)
Read more of our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here.

Will this year mark a major turning point in the history of Hong Kong? The way that the territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam handled the first stages of the coronavirus crisis and the recent moves by Beijing to expel American journalists from both the mainland and Hong Kong suggest it could be. Taken together, these developments have delivered a powerful blow to the already badly battered “one country, two systems” framework that was supposed to protect Hong Kong’s special characteristics after the 1997 Handover made it part of the People’s Republic of China.

In January, Lam made it clear that she would stay firmly in step with Beijing in dealing with COVID-19. She turned a deaf ear to advice about closing borders coming from her city’s medical professionals and brushed off the concerns of residents of some neighborhoods about locations near them being chosen for quarantine sites. Beijing’s latest push against U.S. reporters, meanwhile, broke with precedent in specifying that targeted employees of the New York Times and other high-profile American outlets could not relocate to Hong Kong, as some who found themselves in similar situations had done in the past.

Hong Kong has not been garnering nearly the number of international headlines it did months ago, when crowds were taking to the streets in large numbers. The struggle goes on, though, between those determined to defend all that is left of the 1997 framework, under which Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047, and those working to make the city more and more like a mainland urban center. There have been some small-scale expressions of collective dissent, even at a time when fear of spreading infection limits group actions, which have been met with new rounds of tear gas.

While Hong Kong is often cited, quite rightly, as a place where the coronavirus has caused less damage than might have been expected, this positive result has not redounded strongly in Lam’s favor. Many local residents are convinced that the limiting of the spread of the coronavirus was more the result of bottom-up actions by the general populace (quick to don masks and take other preventative measures) and medical professionals (determined to make use of everything they learned during the earlier SARS crisis) than top-down government intervention. A short-term decline in coronavirus numbers is not stemming the steady decline in approval for Lam.


To place the current situation into perspective, it’s worth looking back to three earlier years that shaped or revealed important features of the Hong Kong’s relationship to Beijing—all Years of the Rat, which began at the Lunar New Year of 1840, 1984, and 2008.

The historical significance of the first is obvious. In its final weeks, in early 1841, the British first raised the Union Jack in Hong Kong. The First Opium War ended the following year with a treaty that made Hong Kong a colony of Britain.

The Year of the Rat that began early in 1984 marked the beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s colonial era. London and Beijing agreed on the basic contours of the “one country, two systems” notion. Ever since, it has remained unresolved whether the idea should apply just to economic activity or to other areas of social and political life, from journalism to elections.

By 2008, China’s Olympic year, Beijing seemed determined to rein in Hong Kong’s distinctiveness. Yet there were good reasons for many in Hong Kong to be at least relatively optimistic about the situation. Just one cycle of the zodiac ago, it was easy to make a case that “one country, two systems” was working as well or perhaps better than expected. During the so-called “Beijing Games,” equestrian events took place in Hong Kong, allowing the city to share in the nation’s glory. Five years earlier, a wave of protests staged to block tighter controls on Hong Kong, via an anti-sedition bill, had succeeded in getting the local authorities to reverse course. The fact that this hated bill was stopped in its tracks suggested that Hong Kong’s leaders were listening to the local populace in a way that marked a contrast from how government worked on the mainland. The ability of the local press to cover the SARS crisis of the early 2000s much more freely than outlets across the border had also underscored that the “two systems” side of the equation had real meaning.

The current crisis, which began with protests last June against another hated bill, casts a dark shadow over the prospects for maintaining this system. Lam’s response to the massive demonstrations of 2019 infuriated many local residents. Especially galling was her unwillingness to condemn police brutality and appoint an independent commission to investigate such things as the use of tear gas in confined spaces.

Lam’s initial response to COVID-19, which began to spread in Wuhan at the end of 2019 but was the subject of a deeply damaging CCP cover-up for months, struck those who had protested in 2019 as comparably out of touch. It also alienated some people in Hong Kong who had previously been critical of or at least ambivalent toward the protests. At times Lam has come across as out of touch or patronizing, like when, after a new surge of coronavirus cases in a part of Hong Kong known for its bars, she called for eateries there to stop selling alcohol, lest imbibing encourage infection-spreading intimacy, while continuing to provide food via table service rather than following globally common social distancing strictures.

Lam ignored early local calls to tighten control of the border to the mainland to limit the spread of the disease into Hong Kong. (She later showed that she was not against all border closing, though, imposing a block of travel into Hong Kong by South Koreans once their country had a significant number of people infected by the virus.) More generally, when it came to the selection of quarantine sites in residential neighborhoods, her government did little to seek input from or even inform those affected, and when it came to policies on the border, they paid little attention to the views of medical professionals in the city, some of whom went on strike to show their displeasure about this.

Lam’s unwillingness to listen to those she is supposed to represent is widely seen as a sign of the diminishing distance between government in Hong Kong and on the mainland, at the same time that Hong Kong residents were blocked from traveling abroad, even when the city had relatively small numbers of afflicted residents, because of its association with the PRC.

Her decision to go along with Beijing on the removal of journalists needs to be understood in this context. It will not directly affect nearly as many people. But a greater degree of press freedom has been a key marker of difference between Hong Kong and cities on the mainland since the Handover. The fact that the CCP is insisting that journalists who displease them cannot work there is yet another sign that, in this Year of the Rat, only the first half of the “one country, two systems” formulation really matters.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author, most recently, of the Columbia Global Reports book Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. He is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.