In early May this year, Zhang Dejiang (張德江) spent three days visiting the former Portuguese colony of Macau. The mainstay of its economy is gaming but Zhang did not spend his time at the gambling tables. He is the third highest ranking official in China’s Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy and is responsible, among other things, for overseeing all matters concerning Macau and Hong Kong. The latter was returned from British to Chinese rule exactly 20 years ago, on July 1, 1997. The Portuguese colony of Macau made the same transition two years later, in 1999.

Zhang’s visit was billed as an inspection tour but it was actually as much about neighboring Hong Kong as Macau. The itinerary was carefully chosen, allowing him to moralize at every stop by using Macau as an object lesson for Hong Kong’s lapses — praising the very points where Hong Kong had failed and Macau succeeded.

In Beijing’s eyes, Macau is the good child. He called it a “universally recognized success” and a role model in implementing the governing formula that Beijing designed for its two new ex-colonial territories. They are called Special Administrative Regions (SARs) and the formula is called “one country, two systems (一國兩制)." It signifies one country, China, where two different political systems are allowed, meaning Macau and Hong Kong are governed differently than the rest of the country.

But despite their similarities, Macau eased into the new arrangement with little apparent strain and has continued to run smoothly since 1999. Hong Kong, on the other hand, has created one headache after another for Beijing with no end in sight. Although he never actually drew the comparison in so many words, Zhang’s message was lost on no one. Hong Kong editorial writers used an old Chinese idiom to signify the effect — “scold the locust tree by praising the mulberry.”

The visit can thus be used not just as an object lesson for Hong Kong. It can also serve as a means of explaining to everyone else exactly what is at stake and why Hong Kong has grown increasingly determined to resist Beijing’s idealized assumptions about what “one country, two systems” is supposed to mean. If Macau can accept it, why not Hong Kong? And if Hong Kong after 20 years is increasingly inclined to resist, can Zhang’s hope of forcing Hong Kong into the Macau mold succeed?

The 'one country, two systems' model

Both SARs have their own Basic Laws to serve as their governing constitutions for 50 years from the date of their return to Chinese sovereignty.* Both were written under Beijing’s official direction and promulgated by the President of the People’s Republic. Hong Kong’s Basic Law went into effect as of July 1, 1997, Macau’s on December 20, 1999.

They promised almost all the same things. Articles 25 through 41 of both laws promised all the fundamental rights and freedoms. Article 22 in both laws guarantees against interference by mainland authorities including both central and local. Articles in both promise judicial independence and academic freedom. Ditto promises about the application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

During the 1990s, the promises were popularized by several catchy slogans that most everyone can still recite by heart: local people ruling Hong Kong (港人治港), with a high degree of autonomy (高度自治權), and no change for 50 years (五十年不變). The 50-year promise was guaranteed in Article 5 of both Basic Laws. They say that the mainland’s “socialist system and policies shall not be practiced — and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”

The positives, of course, co-exist with some negatives. Most prominent in both Basic Laws is Article 23. This mandates local passage of legislation to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against the Central People’s Government, as well as the theft of state secrets. Foreign entities must also be prohibited from conducting political activities in both cities.

Additionally, the power to interpret the Basic Laws is vested in Beijing, that is, in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Power to amend the Basic Laws also resides in Beijing and is vested in the National People’s Congress.

There are nevertheless two important differences between the two laws. The reason for the differences has never been explained but they need to be appreciated for what they seem to be. They seem to reflect the different expectations that were already being registered within the two Hong Kong and Macau communities when their Basic Laws were being drafted in the 1980s and 1990s.

Article 68 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law says: “The ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.” The equivalent Article 68 of Macau’s Basic Law says of its legislature only that: “The majority of its members shall be elected.”

There was no promise to elect the entire Macau legislature by whatever means. The promise to Hong Kong was that the entire legislature would be elected by universal suffrage.

On the Chief Executive, Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law says: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

The Macau version, Article 47, says that its Chief Executive “shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally.”

Zhang's Macau itinerary

The headline news in Hong Kong as he began his rounds was the phrase “comprehensive jurisdiction (全面管治權)." Zhang praised Macau straight away on his May 8 arrival for accepting without complaint the central government’s comprehensive jurisdiction while simultaneously guaranteeing a high degree of autonomy (Ta Kung Pao, May 9, 2017). He did not try to explain how the apparent contradiction between the two concepts was being reconciled in practice. He said only that Macau was doing a good job of implementing the two key dimensions of the “one country, two systems” model (Wen Wei Pao, May 9, 2017).

The next day he visited Macau’s Legislative Assembly where he praised and exhorted legislators on many points, which just happen to be things Beijing doesn’t much like about Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. He praised Macau legislators for safeguarding national security by passing legislation criminalizing treason, secession, subversion, and the other things mentioned in Article 23. Macau approved this legislation in 2009.

He also praised Macau for adapting to national development trends in order to diversify its economy. And he exhorted legislators to remain attentive on several key points. They should take their oaths-of-office seriously, respect the nation, the law, and the executive-led system. They should focus on economic development and maintain a patriotic nation-loving spirit. They should also respect legislative procedures by refusing to participate in disruptive behavior like filibustering and violence (Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, May 10, 2017).

Since Macau legislators are not known for violations on any of these points, maybe Zhang was just speaking preemptively lest they be tempted to emulate Hong Kong’s much-publicized behavior.

Macau’s assembly is much smaller and has not evolved much beyond its colonial foundations. The 33 members represent a population of 650,000. Of those 33, only 14 are directly-elected; 12 are indirectly elected by occupational constituencies; seven are appointed by Macau’s Chief Executive. In contrast, Hong Kong has 70 Legislative Councilors: half directly-elected and half-indirectly-elected representing a population of 7.3 million.

The law courts were next on Zhang’s agenda. At Macau’s Court of Final Appeal he reminded judges that they were living under the “one country, two systems” model and must respect both China’s national constitution as well as Macau’s own Basic Law, the authority of which derives from the former (Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, May 10, 2017).

Finally, last but far from least, was the younger generation. At the University of Macau, Zhang went on at some length about the value of national patriotic education. He also said that reflecting Macau’s long-standing patriotic traditions, the whole community firmly supports the correct direction of education policy.

Macau, he emphasized, is a role model in the implementation of “one country, two systems.” It has shown that the construct works and has a great future and education is a key factor in its success (Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, China Daily, May 11, 2017).

Hong Kong: Leading by negative example

Much to Beijing’s chagrin, however, it’s not Macau but Hong Kong that is generating all the political energy and attracting so much attention. Zhang’s Macau itinerary had actually retraced the steps of Hong Kong dissent that Beijing deplores.

On the first day when he used the phrase “comprehensive jurisdiction,” it recalled the consternation caused among Hong Kongers when they read the central government’s June 2014 White Paper. The phrase had not been commonly used for public consumption before then. This document preceded and was intended to prepare the ground for Beijing’s Aug. 31, 2014, decision on electoral reform.

Together the two documents set the stage for the Occupy civil disobedience movement that broke out soon after. ** Together they lie at the heart of all that’s wrong between Beijing and Hong Kong. They caused some in Hong Kong to argue that Beijing had changed its mind about the promises originally written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law. More likely, Beijing did not change. Instead, the Basic Law’s words and phrases were carefully drafted so that everyone could read into them what they wanted, the better to put minds at ease in preparation for the 1997 transition.

That mystery about Beijing’s original intent, remains to be solved. But words like “autonomy” and “universal suffrage” carry a range of meanings — depending on whether they are intended for use in Beijing or in countries with diametrically different political traditions.

The 2014 White Paper was meant to be read as a political study document in Hong Kong, where everyone had not yet grasped the nature of its relationship with Beijing, as Beijing defines it, under the one country, two systems formula. The central government is sovereign and exercises ultimate authority. Hence the promised “high degree of autonomy” did not mean what many in Hong Kong seemed to assume. It means, in effect, only as much autonomy as the sovereign chooses to grant.

When the August 31, 2014, decision was issued by Beijing at summer’s end, Hong Kong received a direct lesson in what comprehensive jurisdiction meant. The Aug. 31 decision concerned the reform of electoral procedures for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council. Beijing was carrying through on the universal suffrage promises made in Articles 45 and 68 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Hong Kong’s contemporary democracy movement had actually developed around the agitation for directly-elected Legislative Council seats beginning in the mid-1980s. There had been many previous attempts to introduce some form of elected representation. They extended back to Hong Kong’s earliest days as a British colony and Hong Kong was the only one excluded from that British colonial tradition.

The 1980s campaign was thus not the first but it was the first initiated by Hong Kong Chinese. The culmination of that campaign was to have been this year, 2017, with the direct election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive by one-person, one-vote universal suffrage. Preparatory changes were also to have begun last year, 2016, leading to the direct election of the Legislative Council in 2020.

Instead, the entire movement has ground to a halt. Hong Kong went through all the official government-run consultation exercises — with members of the public from across the political spectrum submitting many different reform proposals — only to be told via Beijing’s Aug. 31, 2014, decision that none of Hong Kong’s proposals were acceptable.

After all the years of preparation and anticipation, Hong Kong was given only one choice. Accept Beijing’s design, for a mainland-style election with Beijing-vetted candidates, or nothing. Nor was approval given for any electoral advance at the Legislative Council level, despite Beijing’s promised timetable sequencing.

It was that Aug.31 ultimatum that sent protestors out into the streets in what would become the 79-day occupation of major thoroughfares throughout the city. It would also become known as the Umbrella-Occupy movement, in honor of the umbrellas protestors used to protect themselves from police tear gas on the first day, September 28. This movement continues to reverberate most dramatically now in the demand by a few of the most disillusioned young dissenters for Hong Kong independence.

Additionally, however, the entire democracy movement has shifted in their direction. All the major parties and groups have, since Occupy, adopted new terminology amending their previous simple adherence to universal suffrage within the Basic Law’s one country, two systems design. The parties have gone on record as favoring self-determination, without defining specifically how they interpret the term.

Back in Macau, Zhang’s message to its Legislative Assembly reflected many more points where Hong Kong is found wanting in Beijing’s eyes. His praise of Macau’s assembly for passing Article 23 legislation on natural security conjured up memories of Hong Kong’s biggest act of defiance prior to 2014.

The legislation aimed to adapt mainland national political security concepts for use in Hong Kong and met with mighty resistance in the form of an unexpected half-million people marching in protest on July 1, 2003. Key members of the pro-government coalition lost their nerve at the sight of the massive angry crowd and withdraw support for the government’s Article 23 bill. It remains shelved while official pressures to revive remain ongoing.

Zhang praised Macau’s assembly for backing national economic development trends. Hong Kong’s legislature has balked repeatedly at approving funds for the Hong Kong sections of Beijing’s cross-border projects most notably the high-speed railway and the Hong Kong-Macau Bridge. Macau, of course, can hardly complain since its new prosperity derives in large part from newly-rich mainlanders trying their luck at the gambling tables — and in other ways.

But probably foremost in Zhang’s mind is the current turmoil in Hong Kong’s legislature. The Hong Kong government is seeking to unseat 10 legislators elected in the first post-Occupy election last September. Half of its 70 members are directly elected. Eight of the 10 are being charged with various violations of their oath-taking last October. The other two have been indicted for crimes allegedly committed during the Occupy movement.

Zhang mentioned the importance of oath-taking in his comments at Macau’s Legislative Assembly. And well he might since the central government has now stepped directly into the Hong Kong controversy with an interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Article 104, on taking the oath of office. ***

This was Beijing’s response to two of the new post-Occupy legislators who declared their loyalty to Hong Kong alone and not to Hong Kong as part of China. Other legislators issued various protest statements while taking their oaths during the Oct. 12 swearing-in ceremony.

The court cases of all eight are underway with the possibility that all eight might be disqualified and lose their Legislative Council seats. Hong Kong’s judges cannot ignore anything as serious as a formal interpretation of the Basic Law issued by the central government and Beijing’s November 7, 2016, interpretation mandates that oaths must be sincerely taken.

Zhang’s message to Macau’s judiciary was not so clearly directed at Hong Kong — perhaps because Hong Kong’s courts have recently shown themselves to be in-step with Beijing’s oath-taking intervention. Beijing officials and their surrogates have admonished Hong Kong’s courts in years past. The legal community here has made much of its British common law traditions including especially the principles of judicial independence and separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.

In response, Beijing has issued repeated reminders that the judiciary should cooperate with the executive. The 2014 White Paper even referred to judges as administrators prompting a rare silent march protest by 1,800 members of the legal profession (South China Morning Post, June 28, 2014).

In recent months during the oath-taking saga, however, Hong Kong appeal judges have gone so far as to slap down lawyers calling them “arrogant and ignorant” for presuming to invoke common law principals in defense of their clients targeted by Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law’s Article 104 (SCMP, Nov. 25, 2016). With this measure of judicial discipline, Beijing has no quarrel.

Zhang’s concluding lecture to the younger generation underscored Beijing’s frustration. Hong Kong’s young activists have become the spearhead of its democracy movement signifying the successor generation that has come of age since 1997. By Beijing’s reckoning they should have adapted to mainland political ways and means by now. Instead they are leading the resistance.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒) symbolizes this generational succession. He shot to local fame when he organized a small group of his middle-school classmates to protest the new national political studies curriculum that was to have been made compulsory, mainland style, for all students at all levels. It was scheduled for introduction at the start of the fall semester in September 2012. But by then his small group had multiplied like proverbial loaves and fishes into a citywide protest movement that included students, parents, and educators.

In Macau, Zhang pointedly commended the entire community for backing education policies that passed on Macau’s patriotic traditions to the younger generation. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s new national political studies curriculum remains on the shelf, where it is collecting dust along with the government’s proposed Article 23 national security legislation.

It was also Hong Kong’s students who spearheaded and led the Occupy protest movement, although the idea for a civil disobedience street blockade originated with Benny Tai Yiu-ting. He is a University of Hong Kong law school professor and spent the better part of two years planning for the event, only to watch it escalate far beyond him in September 2014. But he likes to recall that his ideas date back to his own student days, in the 1980s, when Hong Kong’s current campaign for a popularly elected government was just getting underway.

What is to be done?

Probably the most reliable means of trying to assess the impact of Hong Kong’s democracy movement on the general public is by considering the results of local elections, such as they are. The most recent were for the Legislative Council in September 2016, with half the 70-seat council directly elected. Of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people, 3.7 million had registered to vote in the election for those 35 seats. The turnout rate on Sept. 4, 2016, was a record 58 percent.

Partisan divisions were very clear. Pro-democracy candidates won 59.7 percent of the vote. Pro-establishment candidates won 40.3 percent. The latter include pro-Beijing loyalists and pro-government pro-business conservatives (Apple Daily, Sept. 7, 2016).

According to the South China Morning Post’s breakdown of the pro-democracy vote alone, 27 percent went to traditional democrats and 27 percent to radicals. About 5 percent went to moderate democrats (SCMP, Sept. 6).

The radicals were mostly, although not entirely, post-Occupy younger generation candidates. But by September 2016, the traditional parties had all shifted toward post-Occupy standards to declare themselves for self-determination. Overtly pro-independence candidates were barred from entering the 2016 election. The two — self-determination and independence — are lumped together in Beijing polemics. However, there seems to be some margin for maneuver here that could allow those advocating self-determination to come forward with clearer definitions of what they mean.

Returning to the initial questions as to why Hong Kong is not like Macau and can it ever be, the differing colonial foundations should be taken as the starting point for the differing end results.

Hong Kong may have been the only British colony that was never allowed popular representation in government. But that tradition was always present, as a reflection of Britain’s own 19th and 20th-century electoral reform movements. In colonial Hong Kong, no decade passed without someone raising the issue. By the 1960s, it finally seemed set for a breakthrough — until the 1967 leftist riots provided the powers-that-be, in London and Hong Kong, with another excuse to shelve the idea.

London was then left with the uncomfortable option of leaving its colonial Hong Kong population to fend for itself — without the traditions or precedents or experience that might be used as protection from whatever might follow under Beijing’s post-1997 rule.

Hence the better-late-than-never late-stage political reform project that was what inspired students of Benny Tai’s (戴耀廷) generation in the 1980s. Their agitation, and pressures from London, underlay the differing versions of the two, Hong Kong and Macau, Basic Laws on the key issue of elected representation in government.

Beyond that issue, the Hong Kong community has taken the initiative and pushed back at multiple pressure points where Beijing’s demands have intruded into what was initially thought to be Hong Kong’s own autonomous space within the two-systems model.

The demands are now such that Hong Kongers are considering more carefully what exactly Beijing’s 50-year guarantee means. People at both ends of the pro-democracy, pro-Beijing political spectrum are finally beginning to question what Beijing intended by that vague promise.

This is because — if the Hong Kong community had not pushed back against the idea of comprehensive jurisdiction and against mainland-style national political security, compulsory national patriotic education for all students, and the mainland-style party-vetted practice of “universal suffrage” — if all those measures had been accepted as in Macau, Hong Kong would already be well advanced along to road to full cross-border political integration.

In fact, given their comparative record of implementation to date, the two Basic Laws should be seen not as guarantees for autonomy, but more like transmission-belt mechanisms designed to finesse the passage from one country, two systems, to one country, one system.

Probably if Beijing officials really intend to try and force Hong Kong into the Macau mold, they will have to resort to draconian means, which presumably they want to avoid. The only alternative will be for Beijing to ease its rigid mindset and seek some more creative ways of adapting to Hong Kong’s original understanding as to what the one country, two systems promises were going to mean.

* Macau Basic Law:

Hong Kong Basic Law:

** White Paper:

Aug. 31 Decision:

*** Article 104 Interpretation:


Chalmers Johnson, “The Mouse-Trapping of Hong Kong: A Game In Which Nobody Wins,” Asian Survey 24:9 (September 1984), 887-909.

Lo Shiu-hing, Political Development in Macau. Chinese University Press, 1995.

Ng, Jason Y. Umbrellas in Bloom. Blacksmith Books, 2016.

Pepper, Suzanne. Keeping Democracy at Bay. Rowman Littlefield, 2007/8.

Roberti, Mark. The Fall of Hong Kong: China’s Triumph and Britain’s Betrayal. John Wiley, 1996.

Tsang, Steve Yui-sang. Democracy Shelved: Great Britain, China, and Attempts at Constitutional Reform in Hong Kong, 1945-1952. Oxford University Press, 1988.

White, Lynn T. Democratization in Hong Kong and China? Lynne Rienner, 2016.

Originally published by the Japan Policy Research Institute as JPRI Occasional Paper No. 54, June 2017:

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.

Editor: Edward White