February 23, 2017 10:00 am JST

Editorial: Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' model faces a test

Abductions and a rigged electoral system raise questions over the territory's future

The campaign to choose Hong Kong's next chief executive is in full swing, with the vote slated for March 26. The election, along with the law enforcement activities of the Chinese authorities, offer a good opportunity to examine whether Hong Kong residents enjoy the high degree of autonomy they were promised under the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

The signs have not been good. When Xiao Jianhua, a mainland-born billionaire, was reported to have disappeared from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong in late January, many locals felt uneasy. He appears to have been snatched by Chinese operatives and taken to the mainland by force.

That followed incidents in late 2015 in which five booksellers who sold works criticizing Beijing were spirited out of Hong Kong one after another. The actions of Chinese security officers, taken in defiance of Hong Kong laws, have severely undermined the one country, two systems principle. This has big implications, both locally and internationally.

Hong Kongers, especially younger ones, are worried about the future of the territory. Many observers believe a power struggle among Communist Party factions on the mainland is behind the disappearances. The party will hold its twice-a-decade congress in the second half of the year to select the new members of the leadership. It would be a shame if Hong Kong's autonomy became a casualty in the battle for hegemony among Chinese leaders.

Then there is the question of the election for chief executive. When the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997, the Chinese leadership pledged a one-person, one-vote system for electing the chief executive. But the reform of the electoral system that China unilaterally imposed on Hong Kong citizens in 2014 was designed to bar critics of Beijing from running for the post. Pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, calling themselves the Umbrella Movement, responded by blocking thoroughfares for several months to demand genuine universal suffrage.

China's Communist leadership, headed by President Xi Jinping, took a hard line, categorically rejecting the demands of the protesters. In the end, the electoral reform process went back to square one: This year's chief executive election will be held under the old, indirect election system. Because the 1,200-strong Election Committee is largely made up of pro-Beijing members, the central government will get the chief executive it wants.

The incumbent, Leung Chun-ying, has already announced that he is not running. Former Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and former Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah are among those who have officially announced their campaigns to succeed him.

One country, two systems was an acknowledgment by China that prosperity in Hong Kong is good for the whole country. If the territory's freedoms should fade away, it will lose much of its attractiveness and be less able to attract capital and skilled people from around the world. Hong Kong must try to safeguard its autonomy by working toward territory-wide elections in the coming years.

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