Hong Kong has thus far enjoyed the rights guaranteed under a democratic setup given the agreement between the Chinese and the British in 1997.
But that is now under threat from Chinese authoritarian arbitrariness.
Despite a determined fightback by pro-democracy activists, the movement is losing steam owing to Hong Kong’s diminishing economic influence.
Hong Kong, often referred to as Asia’s financial capital, is at the cusp of a political breakdown. Yesterday (July 1), as the city celebrated the anniversary of the ‘handover’, the day when Hong Kong was transferred to China by the United Kingdom in 1997, some pro-democracy protesters stormed into the legislative council building. Damaging the paintings within the premises, these protesters were seen spray-painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls, including a banner that stated, ‘There’s no rioters, there’s only tyranny’.
Uprooting the street signs, breaking the window panes and railings, the protesters took control of the council building for many hours. Before the police could initiate a crackdown, they had to temporarily retreat, given the violent nature of the protests. However, apart from the storming of the legislative council, there were peaceful demonstrations elsewhere to commemorate the handover ceremony.
Hong Kong has been witnessing active protests over the last few weeks over a piece of legislation that threatens the autonomy of its citizens. The extradition Bill, the nucleus of this entire crisis, was going to be up for debate on 12 June 2019 before protesters who had been agitated for weeks took over the streets.
The Bill would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite any ‘suspected’ criminals to mainland China — ruled by the Communist Party, thus preventing dissenters from the mainland from taking refuge in the city. As per the initial draft, the legislation would have allowed for business owners, religious leaders, political dissenters, and anyone suspected of any crime against the Chinese government to be extradited to the mainland.
Given the prevailing dictatorial policies of the Communist Party in the mainland, the opaqueness of the judicial system, the constant abuse of human rights, and state-enabled media censorship, this legislation was seen by the citizens of Hong Kong as a free ticket for Beijing to suppress the rights and erode the autonomy they were promised during the handover in 1997.
Hong Kong’s Complex Political Relationship With China
At the centre of this entire political breakdown is Hong Kong’s complicated relationship which China encompasses the past, the present, and the future until 2047.
Hong Kong’s history goes back to the First Opium War between 1839 and 1842. This is when the Chinese surrendered Hong Kong to the British. Back then, the island had a population of around 8,000 people. In 1860, as per the Convention of Peking (now Beijing), which marked the end of the Second Opium War fought between 1856 and 1858, the British further increased their territory around Hong Kong.
In 1898, as per the Second Convention of Peking, China lost over 200 islands to the British. Enhancing the trade and defence capacities of Hong Kong, these territories were to be held by the British under a 99-year lease that was to expire on 30 June 1997. However, the lease did not include Hong Kong.
Hong Kong and the territories around it, between 1898 and 1997, grew by leaps and bounds, thus becoming one of Asia’s biggest financial centres. However, as the end of the treaty approached, the UK, no longer a superpower, was faced with a difficult choice of retaining Hong Kong while giving up the other territories around it.
Given the integrated nature of these territories, it was decided, in late 1984, that Hong Kong would go back to China in 1997, along with the territories listed under the 99-year lease. The decision came with a promise that the cultural, political, economic, and judicial ways of life in Hong Kong would be retained. It was to become a semi-autonomous region within China.
As a precaution, many companies chose to move their businesses and headquarters to other parts of the world as they were unsure of how this handover from a democratic government to a communist one would play out. The handover was one of the most elaborately planned events in the history of mankind. This event encompassed diplomatic negotiations, revamp of public institutions, and registration and renewal of government identifications for the people of Hong Kong.
Eventually, the handover was completed and the result of it was a system known as ‘One Country, Two Systems’. Hong Kong was allowed to manage most of its internal affairs until 2047, for 50 years after the handover.
The city’s ‘mini-constitution’ allows it to preserve its freedoms that it inherited culturally from the British like the freedom of press, speech, and assembly, the same freedoms that are not allowed in the Chinese mainland. The Beijing government, as per the agreement, has control only over the defence and foreign policy of Hong Kong.
It all began in 2018, when a couple travelled to Taiwan from Hong Kong for a short vacation. They were in Taiwan for nine days. In Hong Kong, a month later, the man confessed to murdering his pregnant partner during the vacation.
However, Hong Kong could not charge the man for murder since the crime was committed in Taiwan, and given the absence of any extradition agreement between Taiwan and Hong Kong, the man could not be deported for a trial.
Thus, in 2019, the government of Hong Kong proposed to have an extradition agreement that would allow it to transfer criminals to Taiwan. The same legislation allowed for extradition to the Chinese mainland, thus unleashing protests that continue to this day.
The Umbrella Revolution
The Legislative Council Complex, the premise that was broken into by the protesters during the 1 July demonstrations is where the Hong Kong government operates from.
In 1997, when the mini-constitution came into force in Hong Kong, the eventual goal was to have the people of the city elect their chief executive and the entire legislature with 70 members. In 2017, Carrie Lam became the chief executive and yet, the absolute power to elect their leaders had not been awarded to the citizens of Hong Kong.
In 2014, the government in Beijing did accept the idea of universal suffrage. However, the city could only vote for leaders who had been approved by a committee loyal to the government in Beijing. The citizens were being given the right to vote for a leader but not to choose them in the first place.
In September 2014, widespread protests against this move occurred. Also known as the ‘Occupy Hong Kong’ movement, the protests lasted for almost three months. In the early days of the protests, police used pepper spray to curb the protesters. To counter this, the protesters started carrying umbrellas and thus the entire movement came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution.
A year later, the negotiations ended in a deadlock with the Bill for Universal Suffrage being rejected by pro-democracy leaders, given it allowed Beijing to nominate the candidates. Thus was lost the only opportunity for pro-democracy leaders to bring about any change in the election of the chief executive or the legislature.
The Hong Kong Government: A Specimen of Pseudo-Democracy
The chief executive of Hong Kong is the head of the government in the city, and in a way, the representative of the Beijing government, elected via an election committee consisting of 1,200 members. In 2017, Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing candidate won this election with 777 votes of the 1,194 votes cast.
Of the 70 seats in the legislature, the people vote for 35 only. The legislature hosts a multi-party system, with parties that are either pro-democracy, independent, or pro-China. Since 1998, across the six elections that were held to the legislative council, the pro-democracy votes have always outnumbered those of pro-China, and yet, the group has failed to garner any majority in the legislature when it came to the seats.
This is because legislative members for the other 35 seats are chosen via functional groups or the business sector, an area where Beijing exercises tremendous influence. This negates the majority vote share of the pro-democracy leaders, enabling pro-Beijing parties to have a greater say in the legislative council.
In the legislative elections of 2016, even though pro-Beijing parties only won 40.17 per cent of the vote share, they ended up with 57.14 per cent of the seats in the council. This illustration is a testament to the autocracy exercised by China in swiftly eroding the legislative autonomy of Hong Kong.
What China Wants From And For Hong Kong
In his visit to Hong Kong in 2017 on the 20th anniversary of the handover ceremony, President Xi Jinping declared that any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security in the region, or threaten the power of the central government in Beijing, or use the city as a base to carry out activities against China would not be allowed.
Jinping’s declaration is being complemented by action on the ground on multiple fronts.
Mandarin, as a language, is now being given preference over Cantonese and English. As per the constitution of Hong Kong, the three languages were to have equal status. However, in 2018, the Education Bureau of Hong Kong called Cantonese a dialect that could not be recognised as the mother tongue. Even the use of English has declined in recent years, thus posing a danger to Hong Kong’s competitiveness as a financial hub in South-East Asia.
The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge, the longest sea-crossing in the world, connects Hong Kong to China via Macau. The bridge links Hong Kong, Zhuhai, and Macau, cutting down the road distance between these three major commercial cities to mere 30-minutes. 55 kilometres long, this bridge is not only an infrastructural marvel but also demonstrates China’s push for greater economic integration with Hong Kong.
China has also been pursuing policies to curtail academic, cultural, media, and judicial freedom of Hong Kong. While the autonomy was said to last until 2047, the Beijing government is now looking to accelerate the political integration of the city. In a paper published yesterday after the 1 July protests, media in China has called for a violent crackdown on the protesters, blaming their rage and arrogance for the political breakdown in Hong Kong.
Final Word: Hong Kong Will Fall In 2047, Or Sooner
In 1993, Hong Kong, at $120 billion, made up for 25 per cent of then China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which was close to $450 billion. Thus, agreeing to the autonomy of Hong Kong in 1997 was favourable for China, given the economic benefit it offered. However, since then, the cities of Shanghai, Chongqing, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen in mainland China have emerged as powerful commercial centres.
Today, Hong Kong makes up for less than 3 per cent of the Chinese GDP, and thus, the government in Beijing no longer has any incentive to keep up with the demands of the citizens of Hong Kong.
The protests against the extradition Bill saw over 2 million protesters on 16 June but as evident from China’s recent political history and muscle, these protests are futile.
Even though the Bill has been suspended, the protesters have been calling for its complete withdrawal. However, going forward, the Chinese are expected to use their influence in the Hong Kong legislative assembly to gradually erase the political autonomy of the city.
The Chinese will be looking to complete their political and cultural takeover of Hong Kong by the second half of the 2020s, a couple of decades before the agreed deadline of 2047. The citizens of Hong Kong are not wrong in asking for their rights, but in the greater Chinese scheme of things, they are too insignificant.
The episode also offers a lesson to the developing world obsessed with Chinese investments, especially regions of Africa and parts of East Asia. While China’s claim to Hong Kong was political, the economic claim of China in the countries heavily debted under the Belt and Road initiative shall witness many nations losing their sovereignty to the Beijing government.
Irrespective of how it ends, these protesters in Hong Kong shall go down in Chinese history as rogue groups looking to threaten the Chinese authority. For the rest of the world, they shall be the last sane voice of freedom against the Chinese dragon of autocracy, assuming the world does not forget these protesters as the Britishers forgot Hong Kong.