There has been much turmoil in Hong Kong over the past year. This is because of China’s influence in Hong Kong’s previously independent legal system. China previously had no authority to arrest people in Hong Kong outside of an extradition warrant. That changed last year when China interfered in Hong Kong’s legal system. Hong Kong’s complicated relationship with China has always been one with loose strings. The strings firmly tightened last week and strangled anything that remained free about Hong Kong.
The History of Hong Kong
In order to understand how Hong Kong got to the point where it finds itself today, some historical perspective is necessary. The people of Hong Kong historically view themselves as Chinese. They also consider themselves autonomous from mainland China. While there are cultural similarities, there are also major cultural differences. Most of this stems from Hong Kong’s 99 years of western rule under Great Britain. During that time, Hong Kong enjoyed a robust economy and entrepreneurship under a capitalist system. Contrast this with over 70 years of Mainland Chinese living under authoritarian communism. This demonstrates the major cultural divide between the two people.
But there was a history prior to the British colony. Hong Kong emerged from the Stone Age under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. Hong Kong went through a number of dynasties. The Qing Dynasty ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain in 1842. Britain signed a 99 year lease in 1848 that allowed Hong Kong to be ruled by the Crown. Hong Kong was occupied by Japan during World War II followed by the continuation of Crown rule after the war.
In 1984, Britain and China began discussions on the transition back to Chinese Rule at the end of the 99 year lease. “In 1984, Britain and China sign Joint Declaration on the conditions under which Hong Kong will revert to Chinese rule in 1997. Under the “one country, two systems” formula, Hong Kong will become part of one communist-led country but retain its capitalist economic system and partially democratic political system for 50 years after the handover.” BBC News, 24 June, 2019
Hong Kong Basic Law
In 1997, at the end of the 99 year lease, Hong Kong was handed back over to China. It then adopted the agreement of Hong Kong Basic Law. This came under the”one country, two systems” model from the 1984 agreement. It essentially states that Hong Kong would continue its capitalist system and way of life until 2047. China would have only minimal involvement in Hong Kong internal affairs. An important aspect of the Basic Law pertains to the legal and political systems. These systems under Basic Law were set up to remain distinct from mainland China until 2047
The Umbrella Movement
In September of 2014, there were protests in Hong Kong that became known as the Umbrella Movement. The name of the movement stems from the umbrellas that were used to protect protestors from tear gas and pepper spray used by the police.
The purpose of the 2014 demonstrations was to protest the Hong Kong Chief Executive candidates. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong replaced what was originally the Governor of Hong Kong Under British rule. The Chief Executive is the head of the government in Hong Kong. The candidates became heavily influenced by the Chinese Communist government which led to the demonstrations.
Tripti Lahiri, Asia bureau chief of Quartz writes, “Hong Kong is in the midst of its second mass protest movement in five years—and there are many differences between 2019’s demonstrations and the street occupation that began on Sept. 28, 2014…The protests of 2014 were about getting the universal suffrage that Hong Kong was promised in the Basic Law…
2019 extradition bill
In 2019, protests returned in earnest. This was because Hong Kong citizens were angered at China over a proposed extradition bill. The bill would allow Hong Kong residents to be brought to mainland China to be tried. The bill was originally titled, Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation. The protests coincided with the July 1 anniversary of 1997 hand-over of British rule. They picked up steam and carried over into 2020.
Enter the coronavirus
The beginning of 2020 was marked with a mysterious new virus that had emerged in Wuhan, China. This became known as the coronavirus. Around this same time, protests continued in Hong Kong and began to grow. Prior to the virus, China was in the news on a daily basis about the methods they were using to crack down on the Hong Kong protestors. When knowledge of the coronavirus became public, attention turned to China’s disinformation about the virus. It became clear that China had suppressed information about the origins, lethality and the contagiousness of the virus.
Virus spread to Europe and the U.S.
As the virus began to spread to Europe and the United States, countries began to look inward. Late January and into February, there were pockets of coronavirus cases appearing in Europe, primarily in Italy. This was soon followed by growing cases in the United States. By late February, cases grew exponentially, and the word “pandemic” became part of the international vocabulary. This resulted in growing condemnation of the communist party of China. The pandemic- not the Hong Kong protestors- became the focus of the world’s attention.
The pandemic served two purposes for China: 1. It forced the Hong Kong protestors indoors, slowing the momentum of the movement. 2. It deflected U.S. and world attention away from Hong Kong.
An article by Antony Dapiran in an April 22, 2020 edition of Foreign Policy states: “When COVID-19 broke out in China this year, Hong Kong was on the front lines. It was not an unfamiliar place for the city that weathered the SARS epidemic in 2003. But with virus news now dominating headlines, it is easy to forget that it was only a few months ago that headlines in Hong Kong were dominated by the protests that consumed the city for seven months last year.”
The end of “one country, two systems”
On July 1, 2020, Hong Kong protestors were denied their application to march on the anniversary of the “one country, two systems” arrangement from the British handover. This created immediate turmoil in Hong Kong. China quickly enacted a broad new law called the National Security Law.
Residents of Hong Kong defiantly came out in force to oppose the harsh new law. The first day saw over 370 arrests by Hong Kong and Chinese law enforcement under the direction of Beijing. Under the new law, even chanting slogans for Hong Kong independence could result in a life sentence. Residents of Hong Kong were quickly granted refugee status by congress. The U.K. is allowing three million Hong Kong nationals to emigrate to the U.K.
The death of Hong Kong
Hong Kong served China as a gateway to the outside world and was patterned after western capitalism. It became one of the world’s major financial hubs, thereby allowing China access to the rest of the world’s markets. It allowed China to take advantage of foreign investment and technology.
The concern among Hong Kong citizens is the expected mass monitoring of phone communications and social media. We are hearing that people are beginning to delete social media accounts out of fear of past posts that could get them imprisoned for life. As in any communist country, there will be a general paranoia of speaking openly to friends, family and neighbors out of concern of being turned in.
Hong Kong’s present situation defines the value of any agreement with communist China. That value is zero. Communist regimes say what they need to in order to accomplish their goals. The fact that China “agreed” to let Hong Kong enjoy self rule until 2047 was a means to an end, and the end has come- long before 2047. The world has seen this draconian move as a betrayal of the agreement with Hong Kong.
The Chinese Communist Party has already received worldwide condemnation for the suppression of information about the coronavirus. This comes on the heels of the worldwide pandemic that highlighted China as deceptive. There are already economic ramifications against China by a growing list of American tech companies. Many companies will be rethinking their investment and relationship with Hong Kong in the days to come resulting from the new National Security Law.
The move to end freedoms in Hong Kong could prove to be a greater miscalculation for China than what they considered to be a clever political and economic slight of hand.
Photo credit: By K.rol2007-P1240680 Umbrella revolution-protest in Nathan road, Hong Kong