July 1 of this year marked the twentieth anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the world was optimistic that it could remain a free city, retaining a “high degree of autonomy,” even in a communist country. After two decades, that hope is receding. Hong Kong is being taken captive.
For Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, July 1 was no anniversary to let elapse quietly. He visited Hong Kong and delivered a major speech. A security crackdown preceded him. 11,000 police were deployed amid a lockdown on the city. Banners and images critical of Xi or advocating for democracy were banned. And just to make sure nothing spoiled Xi’s big day, 26 protestors were arrested and a pro-democracy activist from Macau was blocked from Hong Kong.
Xi’s speech pushed the national sovereignty angle hard. Any attempt to question China’s sovereignty, said Xi, crosses a “red line.” He emphasized Hong Kong’s integral place in defending Chinese national security. And he reiterated that any attempts by foreign powers to interfere with the city—that is, to protest human rights abuses—are “impermissible.” The purpose was to make clear that Beijing is in charge. And just in case the message didn’t get across, Xi’s speech was accompanied by the largest military parade in twenty years, and a few days later, the visit of a flotilla of warships. Xi’s speech lauded the “one country, two systems” principle by name, while eviscerating its content.
The territory of Hong Kong was acquired by Britain during the 19th century through a mixture of treaties and leases (notably a large 99-year lease expiring in 1997). By the 1970s, Beijing made clear that in 1997 it intended to reestablish control over all of Hong Kong—and fiercely opposed any suggestion that Hong Kong would remain British or become independent. Government-to-government talks between London and Beijing resulted in a 1984 “Joint Declaration” according to which China would take back Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, but allow it to stay free and capitalist, with a “high degree of autonomy,” for 50 years. This was the so-called “one country, two systems” principle. Hoping to lock in democratic principles before the handover, the British rushed through electoral reforms.
Subsequent events have shown that agreements on paper are one thing, carry-through another. Theoretically, post-1997 Hong Kong would be in charge of all policies outside foreign policy and defense. Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang promised that only the “flag and national anthem” would be different. But after the handover, Beijing ousted the Hong Kong legislature that had been elected in 1995 and appointed a new group, which immediately passed laws that tightened the rules surrounding political protest. In addition, a proviso called “Article 23” inserted into Hong Kong’s basic law required the city to pass laws prohibiting “treason, secession, sedition, [or] subversion against the Central People’s Government.”
This became a flashpoint. When the Hong Kong government moved to introduce the laws required by Article 23 in 2003, people rose up. Hundreds of thousands marched on July 1 against what they feared would be new tools of repression. Since then, the July 1 marches have become yearly demonstrations for universal suffrage. The protest that followed Xi Jinping’s visit this year boasted more than 60,000 participants.
Over the last few years, Beijing’s actions have stirred up even more opposition and protest. China has ensured that the elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and Chief Executive return only Beijing-friendly candidates—by limiting actual popular votes, banning unfriendly candidates, and even ousting legislators who have already been elected. The communists’ blatant attempts to circumvent democracy led to the huge protests of 2014’s “Umbrella Revolution.” Now, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, three young pro-democracy activists who already served sentences for their actions during the Umbrella Revolution, are being threatened with further punishments and possible jail time on the grounds that their previous sentences were “too lenient.”
Communist authorities are also cracking down on free speech and dissent. Police abducted five booksellers in Hong Kong who specialized in “politically sensitive books” and transported two of them over the border into mainland China. Although this violates the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong’s new Beijing-friendly Executive Carrie Lam has thrown up her hands and claimed that she has no right to question the action of mainland authorities.
Beijing’s active suppression of Hong Kong’s democratic rights has provoked a debate about the city’s overall identity. Is Hong Kong part of China in a cultural sense? For Beijing, there’s no question about it. Carrie Lam recently expressed her intention to teach the lesson “I am Chinese” from kindergarten on. But a generational divide is emerging. After the events of recent years, many young people now desire outright independence for their city.
In the two decades since 1997, there have been few real checks on the PRC’s rule. The UK’s cautious diplomatic complaints have been brushed aside. Even gentle statements like Boris Johnson’s “hope” that Hong Kong will make “more progress toward a fully democratic and accountable system of government” are roughly rebuffed by the Chinese foreign ministry: “outsiders should not make incorrect remarks.” Furthering the humiliation, foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang referred to the 1984 Joint Declaration as a “historical document” with “no practical significance.”
As the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress approaches, Xi Jinping is cementing his arbitrary power over China—and despite the fine-sounding words of the laws on the books, that arbitrary power is ever more a reality in Hong Kong, too.
Picture by Wikimedia user Estial.