Hong Kong has more autonomy since Britain left - ex-leader CY Leung

By Arunoday Mukharji and Lionel Lim
BBC News

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Former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying speaks to the media after a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone on October 14, 2020 in Hong Kong, China.Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
CY Leung is a former chief executive of Hong Kong

Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" form of government has given the city huge autonomy which it didn't have under British rule, a former leader has claimed to the BBC.

In an interview marking 25 years since Britain returned Hong Kong to China, CY Leung - who is known for his pro-China views - said the system had "maintained stability and prosperity".

Mr Leung was Hong Kong's chief executive when huge pro-democracy protests erupted in 2014.

But he told the BBC that the model had "worked really well" for Hong Kong - and that it is a system Taiwan should follow.

While Hong Kong is a former British colony that was formally returned to China in 1997, Taiwan is self-ruled and considers itself as an independent country.

China, however, considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must be reunified with the mainland one day.

The remarks by the former chief executive, who led Hong Kong from 2012 to 2017, will be seen as echoing Beijing's views on the matter.

In arguing that Hong Kong now has more autonomy, Mr Leung pointed out that the city is allowed to elect its own leader, unlike under British rule where it had appointed governors.

Comparing his experience in the past 25 years to the decades before that under British rule, Mr Leung said Hong Kong now has "a robust civil society", rule of law, independent judiciary and "a high degree of autonomy".

Critics have pointed out that the chief executive is elected by a committee that is heavily stacked with Beijing loyalists. Hong Kong authorities in recent years have also launched a widespread crackdown on activists, prompting some civil society groups to shut down.

Mr Leung also told the BBC that "Taiwan is part of China. There's no doubt about that".

"And I think one country, two systems works. And I think, Taiwan should look at how successfully one country, two systems principle has been practised in Hong Kong closely."

The "one country, two systems" principle is the cornerstone of the Basic Law, which governs Hong Kong.

The law, which came into effect in 1997, is valid for 50 years and guarantees Hong Kong freedom of speech and assembly, which are heavily restricted in China.

But critics say the principle cannot be applied to Taiwan which does not see itself as part of China.

Some also argue it no longer applies to Hong Kong as well - they say that China has reneged on the promises of the Basic Law by eroding democratic freedoms in recent years.

Beijing has for decades lobbied for Taiwan to accept the "one country two systems" model in its effort to promote "peaceful reunification" with the island.

Taiwan has consistently rejected the offer, with its president Tsai Ing-wen saying in 2020 they would "stand fast" in their refusal.

Media caption,

Occupy Central founder Benny Tai: "To surrender is not an act of cowardice"

In 2014, when Mr Leung was in power, the city witnessed some of its biggest rallies at that time.

A decision by Beijing to place restrictions on chief executive elections sparked public anger. Many Hongkongers viewed it as China breaking a previous promise of direct elections.

Hundreds of thousands took over the city centre for weeks in what came to be known as the Occupy Central movement, and was fuelled by public anger over the police's use of tear gas to clear the demonstrations.

Mr Leung said "it wasn't easy to resolve the matter".

But he added it was "nothing as serious" as what his successor Carrie Lam faced in 2019, when a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China sparked massive protests and violent clashes with police.

This in turn led to the introduction of a national security law in 2020 which gave Hong Kong's leaders sweeping powers to crack down on dissent or any action deemed to undermine Beijing's authority.

Mr Leung supported the law, which some critics have said marked the "end of Hong Kong" and was in violation of what the Basic Law promised.

Describing the 2019 clashes between protesters and police as "riots", Mr Leung said the National Security Law was "entirely justified" and cited people "throwing fire bombs at police stations".

"As in other societies, there are certain limits on freedoms," he said, adding that freedom of expression is acceptable as long as it was "within legal limits".

In 2019 the police were criticised for using heavy-handed tactics such as tear gas and water cannon on protesters, while rights groups say authorities conducted arbitrary arrests, brutal beatings and torture in detention.

Mr Leung's support for Beijing comes ahead of the 25th anniversary of the handover on 1 July.

Hong Kong's new chief executive John Lee, a former police chief who is seen as being pro-Beijing, will be sworn in then.

His appointment via an uncontested election has been seen as another way for Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

"The fact is, Hong Kong is part of China, and people have to recognise that," Mr Leung said.

Read more of our coverage on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

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