In the latter half of 2019, the eyes of the world were on Hong Kong. Racked with internal dissent, and rocked with by civil unrest, conditions in the semi-autonomous territory deteriorated to the point that the University of Southampton recalled its exchange students. Yet 6 months into 2020, Hong Kong still simmers with anger over the actions of its neighbour, which many in the colony consider to be overbearing and in violation of the terms of handover. But how did we get here?
In February last year, the Hong Kong Security Bureau proposed amendments to the territory’s extradition laws. These amendments, characterised by the governing executive of the territory as an effort to plug gaps in the existing legal framework regarding international fugitives, made extradition of suspects/offenders to the mainland of China legal.
Under the terms of the agreement between the old British colonial government and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong was to be governed under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle after the British withdrew. As a ‘Special Administrative Region’ (SAR), it has its own legal and economic system, its own currency and its own government that enjoys substantial powers, although it is not a sovereign state, and is part of China as far as international law is concerned. The legal framework for this system is set to expire in 2047, 50 years after the British withdrawal.
Over the past decade, perceptions of increasing PRC influence in the territory have sparked demonstrations and public outcry, including the 2014 ‘Umbrella movement’, which saw almost 1000 people arrested, driven by claims that Beijing had reneged on an agreement to grant full elections by 2017. At the time of writing, Hong Kong has not had elections for the Election Committee, the electoral college that nominates the Chief Executive, for 15 years. In 2015, 5 members of a Hong Kong independent publishing house disappeared while in mainland China, Thailand and Hong Kong itself. They were later confirmed to have been detained in the PRC. In 2017, a Hong Kong billionaire was abducted from the 4 Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, and detained on the mainland. And in 2019, the proposed changes to the law would have allowed for legal extradition of Hong Kong citizens to the PRC.
The result was months of street protests that increased in strength as the efforts to quell dissent intensified. Between the start of July and early December, Time magazine reported that over 10,000 canisters of tear gas were fired by the police, while in November Bloomberg reported that up to 88% of the city’s population had been exposed to tear gas to varying degrees. June saw the extradition bill delayed indefinitely, only for unsatisfied protesters to storm the legislative council building on 1st July. Unrest continued, through July, August and into September, with the Extradition Bill being withdrawn on 4th September, only for the Chief Executive Carrie Lam to be trapped in a stadium after her first ‘Open Dialogue’ with the community, a conciliatory measure aimed to calm the anger in the city. Despite these measures, 1st October, the anniversary of the PRC’s founding, saw the most widespread disruption to date. October was marked by increasing violence, with 2 people shot and injured by police, a pattern that continued through into November, with the first student death recorded and attacks on politicians. Between the 17th and 29th of November, protesting students barricaded themselves inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University, resulting in a frequently fiery siege as the police attempted to storm the barricades. The siege ended with 1,100 arrests.
Protests resumed on New Year’s Day, with a march dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannon. Thereafter, protests lapsed in intensity and violence, though they did continue.
In March 2020, the PRC indicated that it would impose new national security legislation on Hong Kong, owing to the protracted and violent protests last year. The announcement touched off further protests, with high-profile pro-democracy politicians among those arrested. Unperturbed, the National People’s Congress voted to impose the legislation by 2,878 votes to 1. The legislation is supposed to clarify the details of 4 offences, these including (but not limited to) secession, subversion of the state, and terrorist activities. The legislation also allows ‘national security agencies’ to operate in Hong Kong. It is widely assumed that this refers to the PRC’s security services, giving them untrammelled leave to operate in the city. As such, it appears a distinct breach of the handover agreement.
Within Hong Kong, the attitude has been one of dismay. The Guardian quotes James To, a long-time democratic legislator, as saying that the bill is a “complete sabotage” of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, adding that it will lead to “no more freedoms” in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam, chief executive of the Hong Kong government, urged for the bill’s opponents to stop “smearing it” and branded them the “enemy of the people”.
The backlash has not been confined to Hong Kong. Boris Johnson’s government has said that it will consider offering a ‘path to citizenship’ for 300,000 British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong. This would give BNO residents the right to reside in the UK, something that the handover agreement also prohibits. President Trump has announced that the US will now treat Hong Kong as part of China, ending the preferential travel and trade agreements that have been key to the commercial prosperity of the territory. China has responded by saying it reserves the right to take countermeasures, and a Chinese state-run newspaper denounced the American announcement as ‘recklessly arbitrary’.
Hong Kong enjoys a precarious existence. A capitalist and multiparty outpost on the southern flank of the worlds largest one-party communist state, it resides in a state of limbo – neither fully democratic, nor entirely authoritarian. But with Beijing becoming increasingly assertive, and Hong Kong simmering with anger, the future for the territory is uncertain.