The imposition of Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill in the summer of 2019 caused dozens of protests during which millions of Hongkongers marched in the name of democracy. And while the world seemed to have its eyes on the political turmoil tarnishing the country, the mass media exposure soon ended, leaving Hong Kong’s people without the international support it had. This article analyses Hong Kong’s relationship with its big brother China and takes a look at the country’s future as the momentous year of 2047 is approaching.
2020 as a year was not only defined by a global pandemic, but also by the global wave of protests that seem to have been taking place in every corner of the world. One of the most prominent movements has been Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests that started in the summer of 2019 and have kept going ever since. Met with teargas, brutal beatings and arbitrary arrests, Hong Kong protesters were keen to continue the fight against human rights violations. Then, suddenly, it seemed as if global media outlets just shifted their spotlight onto other states, leaving Hong Kong without the massive exposure and international support it had in the beginning of 2020. So, what’s happening in Hong Kong right now? Does China still have its grasp on the country? And what awaits these two states in the future? It all comes down to a few variables.
How did we get here?
In order to understand the political turmoil that’s tarnishing Hong Kong, we need to take a quick look at its history. The United Kingdom became the country’s colonial ruler in 1841 as a result of the First Opium War. As Britain was conquering more and more of its territories, it signed a deal with China in 1898 which gave Britain a rightful lease on Hong Kong’s territory for 99 years. Hence, in 1997 Hong Kong was handed back to China, gaining its “special administrative status” that let it have its own currency, a capitalist economy, autonomous legislature and its own laws to protect human rights. This contract was called the Basic Law and it led to the emergence of a One State, Two Systems phenomenon. But the story is much more convoluted than this. The Basic Law was meant to last only for 50 years. Held under the British rule for 150 years, Hong Kong developed great democratic traditions and a completely different culture (easily discernible even from the way tea is drunk). China, on the other hand, has been under authoritarian Communist rule for over 40 years. Fast forward to today: a region that is accepting thousands of Chinese citizens fleeing authoritarianism and is able to shelter them in a small democratic corner of the world might soon disappear and become just another city of the People’s Republic of China.
What is happening right now and what are the protests about?
It all started with the 2019 Hong Kong Extradition Bill. Since Hong Kong’s Basic Law grants the region an autonomous status, it is hard for the Chinese authorities to meddle with its laws and the democratic rights that the citizens are given. This comes as a threat for Hong Kong’s big brother. The democratic protests that have been taking place almost annually since the 2000s pose the risk of destabilization, as they make the future after 2047 unclear and force people in mainland China to question the authorities. In fact, some unrest has already taken place there as a result of political turmoil in Hong Kong. A little known story is that some protests were taking place last winter in a city called Maoming. The Chinese authorities tried to hide this unrest by blocking all messages regarding it on domestic social media giants like WeChat, yet, the news about Maoming protesters reached the outside world. Although small, this protest is of massive significance: while the demonstrators were not chanting in the name of democracy, they took on the famous Hong Kong liberation slogan by shouting “Liberate Maoming! Revolution of our times!”, indicating that regardless of how much China tries to control political dissent within its borders, it clearly isn’t completely successful, since the effect of Hong Kong’s unrest is able to affect this big country too.
China found its way around the system: an opportunity to meddle with Hong Kong’s domestic affairs was to press for an extradition plan – a bill that would allow local authorities to legally detain and send protesters to Taiwan and mainland China to attend trial and face punishment. The problem with this is the fact that China not only doesn’t have legitimate and impartial criminal trials taking place, but all of the judges within the state are susceptible to the strict rule of the Communist Party. Disobedience generally leads to being shipped off to mainland China, where they could receive a completely disproportional and brutal criminal sentencing. “The Chinese legal system is famously corrupt and, too often, a tool of repression. The new extradition law could be used to squelch any form of political opposition or dissent.”, writes Ray Wong.
Even though Hong Kong’s courts need to approve the extradition and could theoretically reject it at any point, such a scenario is unlikely, considering the state’s increasing susceptibility to China’s rule due to the upcoming end of the Basic Law.
The Status Quo
Some of the most influential figures in the rise of the protests are Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and Joshua Wong. The trio of young Hongkongers were a part of the now disbanded pro-democracy group Demosisto and led, alongside others, the Hong Kong protests. They were recently forced to plead guilty to “organising and taking part in unauthorised assembly” and were sentenced to 10 to 13 months in jail. But they’re not the only ones.
The graph above indicates that, despite the fact that the majority of protests weren’t violent and the chaos ensued after authorities took on forceful measures, most of the individuals were arrested for riot and unlawful assembly.
Hong Kong authorities are increasingly rejecting protest proposals, yet people are still showing up. This is clear evidence that the Hongkongese want a full democracy and they’re not willing to give up despite the threats. Hence, it is likely that this wave of political turmoil will only grow bigger.
So, with all these protests, are we getting somewhere?
Despite the risk of getting arrested or brutally beaten, the protests are continuing, but protesters are fleeing their home fearing to be the next ones put on trial. That is, the lucky ones. Chinese authorities recently captured 12 Hong Kong protesters running away. These people have been detained in China and are barred from getting in touch with their lawyers. “In just the past few years, the government has attempted to muzzle critics by making them disappear without a trace, ordering people to physically barge into their houses, or locking up those close to critics as a kind of blackmail”, writes Alexandra Ma. Crucially, the conditions within the prisons are even more terrifying, as “numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse”. Political dissidents are often singled out by authorities and exposed to harsher punishment. As the next graph shows, out of thousands of unfairly imprisoned individuals, the majority’s destiny is not clear, since they often end up getting executed or “missing”.
But leaving the state prior to getting caught is often not an option either, since the government frequently threatens the closest friends and family of those who have become enemies of the state.
“The Basic Law stipulates that a judge may only be removed for inability to discharge his or her duties, or for misbehaviour, by the Chief Executive on the recommendation of a tribunal appointed by the Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal.” Luckily, in the beginning of this year, HK courts were able to justify the actions of some protesters by ruling that the actions of local police instead were unprecedented and went against the protocol. But that is unlikely to be the case in near future. Pro-Beijing forces are already getting involved in all criminal trials taking place in Hong Kong and, as Chinese newspapers continue to call for people to be “patriotic”, the state no longer seems so “free”.
A new policy imposed by China in November 2020 ruled to disqualify all the judges and lawmakers who were not loyal enough. This has already led to the opposition bloc of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council resigning in protest and labeling China’s actions as completely undemocratic.
All of this involvement in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs will potentially lead to two massive consequences. Firstly, it is likely that we’ll see more unfair rulings and oustings of “unloyal” public officials. But secondly, the number of people fleeing the region is likely to skyrocket. Protesters are already seeking refuge in the U.S., Australia, Canada and Taiwan: “Hong Kong residents are increasingly looking to leave the island, with requests for visa application documents leaping by 40% from 2018 to 2019”. In fact, international allies are opening up their borders for Hongkongers, as Australia accepted 136 asylum seekers and Canada accepted 25. The UK is also considering accepting around 300,000 Hongkongers who own the BPO passport.
And lastly, what about the 2047?
On July 1st, 2047 the One Country, Two Systems deal is going to expire. This could potentially leave Hongkongese barred from democracy, freedom of speech and under constant supervision of an authoritarian government. As of now, the contract stays the same as in 1997, and Hong Kong will lose its autonomous status, becoming just another city in China. But locals are hoping to change the future. With the chants that are becoming louder and slowly getting acknowledged in the West, Hong Kong might have an opportunity to make some of its “privileges” stay.
- Community Legal Information Center. “CLIC – Hong Kong Legal System – Court Structure and The Judiciary – How Are Judges Appointed or Dismissed?” Www.Clic.org.Hk. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
- Congressional-Executive Commission on China Political Prisoner Database. “China: List of Political Prisoners Detained or Imprisoned as of November 5, 2017.” 2017.
- Heng, Cheryl, and Jeffie Lam. “More Hongkongers Seeking Asylum Overseas, with Australia and Canada Top Picks.” South China Morning Post, 27 Oct. 2020.
- Ives, Mike. “What Is Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill?” The New York Times, 10 June 2019.
- 江松澗 Kong Tsung-gan /. “Arrests and Trials of Hong Kong Protesters.” Medium, 2 Dec. 2020.
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- Leung, Hillary. “Hong Kong Slogans Heard at Mainland Chinese Protest: Report.” Time, 2 Dec. 2020.
- Ma, Alexandra. “Barging into Your Home, Threatening Your Family, or Making You Disappear: Here’s What China Does to People Who Speak out against Them.” Business Insider, 19 Aug. 2018.
- Perper, Rosie. “Here Are All the Countries Considering Citizenship, Visa Protections, or Refugee Status for Hong Kongers Fleeing China’s Harsh New Security Law.” Business Insider, 9 July 2020.
- Toi-yeung, Ray Wong. “Opinion | The Death of Hong Kong as We Know It?” The New York Times, 4 June 2019
- United States Department of State • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. China: 2019 Human Rights Report. 2019.