In 1997, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred to China, officially ending the city’s status as a British colony. However, in the 150 years Hong Kong was under British rule, people within the region had largely developed an identity independent of China. China recognized that imposing its political system on Hong Kong would have serious social and economic implications. Therefore, it adopted a “one country, two systems” policy that would allow Hong Kong to keep its way of life including a capitalist economic system, freedom of press, and freedom of assembly. The financial hub was even promised the power to elect its own leader in the near future.
True universal suffrage, however, was never granted to Hong Kong. All four Chief of Executives of Hong Kong since the 1997 handover have been elected by an electoral committee currently made up of 1,200 people, supposedly meant to be broadly representative of Hong Kong society. However, critics of the system argue that the committee is comprised mostly of business elites loyal to Beijing. In addition, once a candidate is picked, they must be formally appointed by China’s central government, meaning mainland China always gets the final say. This was reflected in the outcome of the March 2017 election which ended in a victory for Carrie Lam, despite her lack of popular support.
The most recent round of protests escalated in June 2019 in response to a proposed bill that would allow the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to request extradition of suspected criminals from Hong Kong. Critics of the bill fear that it would expose the people of Hong Kong, particularly activists and journalist, to China’s deeply flawed justice system and represents only the next of Beijing’s various attempts to erode the autonomy promised to Hong Kong under “one country, two systems.” The extradition bill was later withdrawn, however, protestor aims have since expanded to electoral reforms and the implementation of true universal suffrage for Hong Kong. These demands build on a movement that originally began in 2014 but largely slowed down after a 79-day civil disobedience campaign, known as Occupy Central, failed to achieve any progress.
Beijing has been accused of responding to the protests with violent crackdowns and arbitrary arrests of pro-democratic activists. An Amnesty International field investigation back in September 2019 revealed, along with the arbitrary arrests, evidence of “torture and other ill-treatment in detention.” In January 2020, Hong Kong authorities denied the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, entry into Hong Kong during his trip to document “Beijing’s deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights.” Previously in December, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official threatened to impose unspecified “sanctions” against Human Rights Watch and several US-based pro-democracy organizations. There have also been reporters of police tolerating assaults made on protesters by a prominent gang in Hong Kong known as the Triads.
“The erosion of [Hong-Kong’s] liberties has happened gradually over a period of years, and has accelerated since General Secretary Xi Jinping took power. In 2014, Beijing effectively ruled out universal suffrage as a means to elect the territory’s leader. Dissidents were spirited out of Hong Kong into mainland China and forced to “confess” alleged crimes. Facing Beijing-backed advertising boycotts and other pressure, local media outlets self-censored their coverage of the CCP. Beijing announced the expulsion of U.S. journalists working from mainland China, and said it would prohibit them from reporting from Hong Kong as well.”” ”
– US State Department
“A new Amnesty International field investigation has documented an alarming pattern of the Hong Kong Police Force deploying reckless and indiscriminate tactics, including while arresting people at protests, as well as exclusive evidence of torture and other ill-treatment in detention.” ”
– Amnesty International
“If we all respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China, and I think there is no doubt about that, then we should consider the situation in Hong Kong as a purely internal matter of China. This also implies our Russian position: we are categorically against external interference in relations between the central government and one of the country’s regions.” ”
– Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova
“In the face of the Hong Kong people’s desire for freedom and democracy, the solution is not bullets, or creating more fear and suppression, but the real implementation of freedom and democracy and the real implementation of the promise of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. This is the only way for Beijing and the Hong Kong government authorities to regain trust and return Hong Kong society to freedom and stability.” ”
– Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan
Critical Thinking Questions
- How does China's 'one country, two systems' policy work?
- Does China have an obligation to provide Hong Kong with true universal suffrage?
- Whose responsibility is it to hold China accountable for promises they made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration?
- Why are sovereignty and territorial integrity important?
- How can the international community promote human rights while also respecting the sovereignty of countries like China?
- Is democracy synonymous with human rights?
- What countries have a vested interest in protecting the political and economic autonomy of Hong Kong?
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Protesters would like to maintain the high degree of autonomy promised to them under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Many protesters have adopted the motto: “Five Demands, not one less!” These five demands include: 1) an independent inquiry into police brutality; 2) amnesty for protestors; 3) for protests not to be characterized as a “riot”; 4) complete universal suffrage for Hong Kong; and 5) withdrawal of the extradition bill (which has already been accomplished).
People's Republic of China
Aggression towards Hong Kong has accelerated since Xi Ping became president of China in 2013. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 was an important symbol of the restoration of China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Losing control over Hong Kong through the implementation of true universal suffrage would resemble a major step backwards. In addition, a complete restoration of China’s territorial integrity requires that Taiwan be fully reunited with the mainland as well. Losing control over Hong Kong would set the tone for any possibility of reintegrating Taiwan in the near future.