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A Background to the Hong Kong Protests

Dylan Robertson (3L)

    Since June, the city of Hong Kong has been paralyzed by protests and clashes between pro-democracy citizens and the Hong Kong Police. What originally started out as opposition to a proposed law which would have allowed for the extradition of citizens and foreign nationals to the Chinese mainland has blossomed into a wider movement that is seeking significant political reform, including the implementation of universal suffrage and the resignation of the current Beijing-loyal Chief Executive.

With the recent increase in violence against protestors by the police and Beijing-aligned Triads, increasingly hostile rhetoric from Beijing, and constant fears of intervention by the Chinese military, it is impossible to predict what the situation may be when this article is printed. I will not attempt to do so. What I will try to do is provide a bit of background into the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing. These protests are not the expression of a new sentiment, or the creation of foreign interference. They are but the latest in a decades-long struggle by the people of Hong Kong to oppose the erosion of their constitutionally guaranteed rights and to protect their distinct way-of-life from interference by the mainland government.

On July 1, 1997, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in accordance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration. That document was signed in 1984 when it became clear that the UK would be unable to extend its lease on the New Territories, which comprise 86% of Hong Kong’s total area. In that document, the PRC agreed to allow Hong Kong to continue its capitalist system and way-of-life until 2047. This pledge is also included in the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which enshrines in Chinese law that Hong Kong is to, among other things, be granted a high degree of autonomy in domestic affairs and maintain its common law legal system (including individual freedoms not seen anywhere else in the PRC). The unfortunate reality in Hong Kong, however, is that the mainland government has never respected this pledge, and, alongside the pro-Beijing city government, has continuously attempted to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. A 2014 white paper from the mainland government summed up its stance on the matter perfectly: Hong Kong’s autonomy is granted to it by Beijing, and it is not absolute.

To their credit, Hong Kongers have been quick to stand up for their rights and place pressure on the government to respect the “one country, two systems” principle. In 2003, over 1.5 million people protested a proposed anti-subversion law that would have had a severe negative effect on freedom of the press and freedom of association; the law was withdrawn. The same occurred in 2012 when the Education Bureau proposed a new curriculum that would emphasize “moral and national education” (meaning pro-Beijing and anti-democratic teachings). Unfortunately, as Hong Kong’s economic importance within the PRC shrinks relative to cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, so too has Beijing’s willingness to concede to protestors. No example demonstrates this better than the Occupy Central movement.

Article 45 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong is to have universal suffrage, but there have been disagreements between Beijing and pro-democracy Hong Kongers over what this entails. In 2014, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decided that all candidates for Chief Executive would have to be vetted and approved by a Beijing-organized committee, which many felt were an attempt to deny Hong Kong genuine democracy and ensure its subservience to Beijing. In response, thousands of protestors – mainly students – launched a civil disobedience campaign in support of full democracy. Despite lasting over two months, the protests ultimately did not result in any political concessions from the government and led to an increase in hostility from Beijing towards the protestors that can be seen today. In many aspects, the protests today are a direct continuation of what was started in 2014; the latest in what is often referred to as the Umbrella Revolution.

Despite the rhetoric, at risk in this conflict is not just Hong Kong’s economic prosperity. It is the distinct society that Hong Kongers have developed over 177 years of cultural and political separation from mainland China. Today, Hong Kong is a vibrant city that is proud of its distinctiveness and the values which underpin its way-of-life. It is the continued erosion of what makes the city “Hong Kong” instead of “Xianggang” that fuels the current protests.  Make no mistake, Hong Kong is not a sovereign entity. Its place is within the PRC. But where exactly that place is remains up for debate, and if Hong Kongers do not speak up now in support of what they were promised they might soon find they no longer have a voice.