‘One country, two systems.” Those four simple words sounded like a good idea 40 years ago, when China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, was meeting with visiting British dignitaries in Beijing, trying to chart a future for their last major colonial outpost in East Asia. Hong Kong’s lease was set to expire in two decades’ time, and Deng was attempting to bridge an impossible divide. His proposal would allow China to take ownership of the territory and erase a century and a half of humiliation, while leaving Hong Kong’s open, liberal free-market system intact under a “high degree of autonomy.” If the nebulous formula worked, it might pave the way to solving other similarly intractable divides — in Northern Ireland, the two Koreas, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and eventually even China and Taiwan.

In hindsight, this untested idea was always doomed to fail.

Never before had an autocratic, communist-run, single-party dictatorship peacefully absorbed a modern, sophisticated, quasi-democratic capitalist territory. Never before had a people who had enjoyed free speech, freedom of assembly, a free flow of information and limited free voting voluntarily relinquished those rights to merge with a country where such freedoms were often ruthlessly suppressed.

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The increasingly violent confrontations between police and protesters that have rocked Hong Kong since June 9 are an inevitable result of the inherent and unresolved contradictions in that “one country, two systems” concept. Key details of how the formula would work were left deliberately vague and up to future interpretation. Its success depended not on any ironclad enforcement mechanisms but on the faith and goodwill of the key party implementing it, China. The idea that Britain or even the United States could retain some residual sway over Hong Kong’s fate was always a matter of hope, not reality.

And the formula’s success rested entirely on a willing suspension of disbelief — that China’s control-oriented communist rulers would allow Hong Kong to maintain the status quo undisturbed for 50 years after the British handover in 1997. The “one country, two systems” blueprint became a kind of global Rorschach test, with everyone seeing precisely what they wanted to see. People in the territory heard, Our lives won’t change much. Beijing heard, They will submit.

China wanted Hong Kong’s economic prosperity but not its politics, and after 1997, the government considered all Hong Kong matters an “internal affair.” According to the Chinese view, they were reabsorbing a region that had been improperly seized in an earlier era. Hong Kong’s leftist pro-China faction saw the reunification as the achievement of its patriotic dream. The pan-democratic camp believed that it would have five decades of autonomy, during which time it could unlock universal suffrage. The British believed they had orchestrated an agreement that would allow a dignified handover with protections for their former colonists and a continuing role for themselves in monitoring things. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that laid the groundwork for the handover was an international treaty with binding effect — even though there was no specific enforcement mechanism in case of violations.

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These contradictions were on full display in the speeches before and during the ornate handover ceremony in 1997. President Jiang Zemin welcomed Hong Kong’s 6.4 million people “to the embrace of the motherland.” He promised that the territory “shall gradually develop a democratic system that suits Hong Kong’s reality,” without elaborating. Prince Charles, who attended the ceremony inside the new waterfront convention center, intoned: “The solemn pledges … in the 1984 Joint Declaration guarantee the continuity of Hong Kong’s way of life. For its part the United Kingdom will maintain its unwavering support for the Joint Declaration.” Tung Chee-hwa, the Shanghai-born shipping tycoon who became Hong Kong’s first chief executive, replacing the colonial government, referred to the untried experiment and promised, “We will make it work.”

But it wasn’t long after the pomp and fireworks before Beijing began aggressively exercising its new sovereignty — and before Hong Kong’s people began pushing back to protect their freedoms the only way they could, by taking to the streets in huge numbers. First, at Beijing’s behest, Tung tried to push through a draconian national security law in 2003 that would have given the police broad powers for warrantless searches and arrests in cases involving treason and sedition. Many in Hong Kong feared that it would be used to stifle political dissent and criminalize free speech. More than half a million people filled the streets in protest. The bill was withdrawn, and Tung ignominiously resigned midway through his second term, citing health reasons. (He was given a face-saving sinecure in a Beijing advisory body.)

Students and parents took to the streets in 2012, when the local government tried to introduce Chinese “patriotic” education into Hong Kong schools. The proposed curriculum whitewashed controversies like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, while extolling the virtues of the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united.” In the wake of a massive public outcry, the plan was withdrawn and another chief executive, C.Y. Leung, was hobbled.

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Young protesters again blockaded streets and government buildings in what became known as the “Occupy Movement” of 2014. They demanded political reforms and the right to elect their chief executive. Police eventually cleared out the protesters, who had dwindled to a rump core after 79 days, and Leung, discredited, dropped his bid for reelection to a second term as chief executive.

The proximate cause of the latest uproar was the effort by Leung’s successor, Carrie Lam, to ram through a new extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects arrested in Hong Kong to be shipped across the border for trial in mainland China. Lam has tried to claim that the bill was just closing “a loophole.” But she is being disingenuous. There’s a reason Hong Kong has extradition agreements with some 20 other countries and not China: The mainland’s judicial system is a legal black hole, where the Communist Party controls the courts, torture and false confessions are rife, prosecutors have a 99 percent conviction rate, and prisoners are often denied medical treatment.

Hong Kong now appears to have reached a crossroads. China under Xi Jinping seems less interested in preserving “two systems” and more interested in aggressively asserting control over its wayward territory. The protesters seem to know they have no other way to stop Hong Kong from becoming, in their view, “just another mainland Chinese city.” The unstoppable momentum of the protest movement is crashing headlong into the immovable object of the Communist Party.

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However the current confrontation ends — crushed by heightened police repression and eroding public support, or with intervention from mainland security forces — the “one country, two systems” formula now seems dead. It will certainly never be accepted by Taiwan as a blueprint for reuniting with mainland China. The concept was ill-conceived, unrealistic and never fully fleshed-out. It was a fool’s errand from the beginning.

Twitter: @keithrichburg

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