Most people already knew that ‘one country, two systems’ was a sham, at best a temporary smokescreen meant to facilitate the recuperation of Hong Kong. Now the illusion has been lifted.
The most shocking thing about Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang’s remarks on Friday, to the effect that the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong of 1984 is no longer relevant, isn’t so much Beijing’s dismissing of a binding UN treaty but rather the outrage from around the world by individuals who should have known that China never committed to abiding by the treaty to begin with.
“Now that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 20 years, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any realistic meaning,” Lu told a press conference on Friday.
With those words (Chinese officials were already saying similar things back in 2014, when much less attention was being paid to Hong Kong), Beijing irreversibly made two things crystal clear. First, the “one country, two systems” framework was never meant to be fully “two systems.” Or rather, the definition of two systems, and the extent to which the “second” system (Hong Kong) is permitted to differ from that in China proper, is solely determined by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing. Second, it spelled the end of any pretense on Beijing’s part that it was committed to upholding an agreement it signed — and submitted to the UN — with Great Britain, Hong Kong’s former colonial power, during negotiations leading up to retrocession in 1997.
Responding to Lu’s remarks on Friday, the British Foreign Office countered that the declaration is “a legally binding treaty, registered with the UN and continues to be in force” and that “ as a co-signatory, the UK government is committed to monitoring its implementation closely.” (Whether London will follow through and confront Beijing on its obligations remains to be seen.)
Self-assured, expansionist and increasingly hubristic, Beijing now feels confident it can rewrite the rules — rewrite history, even — as it sees fit and do so with impunity. Besides sending a chilling signal to those in the Special Administrative Region who continue against all odds to aspire to democracy and rule of law, this development should make governments worldwide wary of signing any agreements with China lest the latter decide at some point in future that it is not bound by their stipulations. (This is especially true of agreements signed between China and weaker parties, particularly real estate it regards as part of its territory.) Beijing’s contention that “nothing can restrict Chinese judicial sovereignty,” its occasional reneging on bilateral consular agreements, and more saliently its decision last year to ignore a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea dispute, were already indication that the global legal system is now being challenged by Chinese revisionism. Thus, Friday’s statement shouldn’t have come as a surprise: Beijing has been telegraphing its intentions for a while.
No doubt Beijing’s decision to renege on the treaty stems from the idea that the agreement, like human rights and other issues of international law, was imposed by the West when China was weak, and that it is now strong enough to alter existing frameworks. (The notion that a rising China does not intend to change the rules of the game, as some analysts continue to argue, is a myopic one.) It is also very much part of a trend whereby foreign influences in China, past and present, are to be countered (Beijing has since made it clear the UK has no say whatsoever in how China governs Hong Kong).
The Hong Kong example, whose success was ostensibly meant to persuade the Taiwanese that their future lies with China, now proves beyond doubt that the terms, whatever they are and binding though they may be under international law, would be changeable or expandable, subject to revisions or elision by the CCP.
Besides serving as a warning to states, like Canada, that are considering entering into treaties and agreements with China, Friday’s bombshell should dispel any notion, if such notions still exist today, that “one country, two systems” is a formula that Beijing would honor should it ever be applied to the “peaceful unification” of Taiwan. Beyond that, it should alert anyone who believes that Taiwan and China can sign a peace treaty, as former president Ma Ying-jeou once was keen on doing, of the risks of doing so. It is now perfectly evident (Friday was simply a reminder) that agreements with Beijing often are not worth the paper they are written on, and that any arrangement between Taipei and Beijing — even one that is far more “generous” than the “one country, two systems” offer extended to date — could be reneged upon at Beijing’s whim and therefore is bound to have additional negative effects on the way of life of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people, just as retrocession has been whittling away at the freedoms that already existed in the SAR.
The “one country, two systems” experiment in Hong Kong now makes it clear that negotiated “peace” in the Taiwan Strait, in a way that is agreeable to both parties, is illusory. Not only would “peaceful unification” be on Beijing’s terms, the Hong Kong example, whose success was ostensibly meant to persuade the Taiwanese that their future lies with China, now proves beyond doubt that the terms, whatever they are and binding though they may be under international law, would be changeable or expandable, subject to revisions or elision by the CCP.
Most people already knew that “one country, two systems” was a sham, at best a temporary smokescreen meant to facilitate the recuperation of Hong Kong. By lifting any lingering illusions that Beijing can be trusted to abide by agreements it has entered into, Friday’s blunt statement by the Chinese foreign ministry was terrible public diplomacy, self-defeating in China’s future engagement with the international community, and in its continued attempts to win the trust of the Taiwanese. It also opens the door to countries that have signed agreements with China to treat them no longer relevant historical relics — among them the three Sino-US Communiqués.