A Nation Without a Choice: Hong Kong’s Lost Cause Against Imperialism

Posted in: East Asia, Politics | Posted on

On July 1, 1997, after years of hard-fought negotiations and diplomacy, the British ended their 150 year rule over a strategic territory guarding the mouth of the Pearl River. Despite this, British presence persists to this day. The Noonday Gun still fires at the waterfront of Victoria Harbour, not far from a statue of Queen Victoria, while English can be heard in the shops and at homes. For most Hong Kongers, nothing has fundamentally changed. This is not accidental but baked into the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.1.“Hong Kong: the Joint Declaration”: House of Commons Library. Hong Kong had become something neither British nor Chinese. While the lack of Britishness might have been tolerated under colonial rule, the lack of Sinoness deeply disturbs the hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Hong Kong is a nation within a country that has become more intolerant of its differences with those differences undermining the values and the ambitions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the last 23 years, the CCP has bid its time in annexing Hong Kong, and it becomes clear that the longstanding fight for liberty and freedom is coming to an end.

Under the 1984 treaty, Hong Kong is governed by a constitution known as the Basic Law, with particular attention placed on Article 23, which states:

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.”2.Elson Tong, “Reviving Article 23 (Part I): The Rise and Fall of Hong Kong’s 2003 National Security Bill”: Hong Kong Free Press   

Hong Kong’s governing body, the Legislative Council (LegCo), had not yet passed a security law that had already been implemented in mainland China because it relied on colonial-era laws that were already in effect.3.Elson Tong, “Reviving Article 23 (Part I): The Rise and Fall of Hong Kong’s 2003 National Security Bill”: Hong Kong Free Press To fix this gap, LegCo introduced a security bill in 2003 that would target groups with ties to banned organizations labeled by the CCP, allow the police to search without a warrant, and ban the disclosing of state secrets. Hong Kongers protested in the streets to stop the passage of the security bill. Continued protests eventually had the bill withdrawn.4.“Huge Protest Fills HK Streets”: CNN In 2012, another bill promulgated by China’s parliamentary body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), aimed to control Hong Kong’s educational curriculum.5.“How China Is Ruled: National People’s Congress”: BBC News6.Amy Gunia, “A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong”: Time The changes included a new textbook called The China Model which described the CCP as “progressive, selfless, and united.”7.Joyce Lau, “Thousands Protest China’s Plans for Hong Kong Schools”: The New York Times The same textbook also omitted important events such as the Cultural Revolution and the democratic protests of 1989. Groups like the National Education Parents’ Concern Group, student associations like Joshua Wong’s Scholarism, and the Professional Teachers’ Union argued that the new curriculum was akin to brainwashing.8.Joyce Lau, “Thousands Protest China’s Plans for Hong Kong Schools”: The New York Times Despite this near-universal consensus, there were still supporters of the new educational proposal. Some argued that this new material would only apply to local public schools and would not be required for children educated outside of Hong Kong, thus raising concerns for working and middle class Hong Kongers. After 10 days of intense protests outside the Hong Kong government headquarters, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung allowed schools to decide whether to implement the new curriculum or not; the schools chose the latter.9.“Protest against National Education to End after Government Climbdown”: South China Morning Post

In 2014, the CCP promised universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive, though voters could only elect from a list of candidates vetted by the Nomination Committee.10.Jonathan Kaiman, “Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution – the Guardian Briefing”: The Guardian This committee of 1,200 people is an amalgamation of four groups: professionals; industrial, commercial, and financial personnel; religious organizations and social service; and legislative members from mainland China and Hong Kong.11.Kris Cheng, “Explainer: Why Hong Kong’s Leadership Race Is Neither Free, Fair, nor Representative”: Hong Kong Free Press Naturally, these members were pro-Beijing and would seek to further the goals of the CCP.12.Kris Cheng, “Explainer: Why Hong Kong’s Leadership Race Is Neither Free, Fair, nor Representative”: Hong Kong Free Press Protesters clashed with local police, leading to many protesters wielding umbrellas to stop tear gas from entering the crowds.13.Elizabeth Barber, “’79 Days That Shook Hong Kong.’ 79 Days That Shook Hong Kong”: Time The umbrella became the eponymous symbol for the Umbrella Movement and the symbol for Hong Kong independence.14.Lily Kuo, “The Clearing of Hong Kong’s Democracy Protesters Doesn’t Mean the Fight Is Over”: Quartz Joshua Wong, the student leader from the 2012 protests, became the face for this movement and was later being jailed.15.Amy Gunia, “A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong”: Time Despite protests that lasted 79 days, the bill passed later that year.16.Amy Gunia, “A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong”: Time 2016 saw two major protests: the Fishball Riots and the Independence Rally.17.Amy Gunia, “A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong”: Time The first was a government crackdown on unlicensed food stalls serving fishballs, a well-known Hong Kong staple.18.Amy Gunia, “A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong”: Time Rather than a direct attack on Hong Kong sovereignty and governance, it was perceived as an attack on Hong Konger culture. In August, the Independence Rally erupted when six pro-independence candidates were prohibited from running in the upcoming September elections due to their support for Hong Kong independence and anti-communist beliefs.19.“Hong Kong Makes History With First Pro-Independence Rally”: Time20.Rishi Iyengar, “Hong Kong: Pro-Independence Candidate Barred From Elections”: Time The move sparked protests in which thousands gathered near the government headquarters. In November, after the city elections, two elected candidates were barred from taking office in the LegCo after refusing to declare their allegiance to China.21.Benjamin Haas, “Police and Protesters Clash in Hong Kong pro-Democracy March”: The Guardian More serious protests erupted which prompted the police to disperse protests through anti-riot tactics. Edward Leung, one of the two legislators who refused the oath of allegiance, was arrested in 2018 for his involvement in the 2016 Fishball Riots.22.Kelly Ho, “Hong Kong Activist Edward Leung Loses Appeal against 6-year Jail Term over 2016 Unrest”: Hong Kong Free Press At the time of this writing, Leung is still serving a six year sentence.

Yeung, P. (2015, April 30). Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution [Photograph found in Hong Kong]

Eventually the protests dwindled with Carrie Lam elected in April 2017.23.“Another Hong Kong Election, Another pro-Beijing Leader-Why It Matters”: Brookings Institute Lam, the Beijing-favored candidate, won in a landslide after the pan-democratic coalition failed to nominate a moderate candidate for the selection process. With another pro-Beijing Chief in charge, the national government made its intentions clear. On July 14, 2017, a local court removed four pro-independence legislators from the LegCo.24.Alan Wong, “Ruling Threatens Hong Kong’s Independence From China”: The New York Times The decision caused an eruption of protests targeted towards the once seemingly-independent judicial system. In August, three leaders of the Hong Kong protests, Nathan Law, Alex Chow, and Joshua Wong, were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and incitement.25.Alan Wong, “Joshua Wong and 2 Others Jailed in Hong Kong Over Pro-Democracy Protest”: The New York Times Prior to this arrest, Wong had been the leader of the 2012 student protests and the leader of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. In December, the pro-Beijing legislators passed 24 amendments to the LegCo’s rule book, which included eliminating the filibuster, reducing the quorum, allowing the LegCo president to call same-day meetings, and rejecting amendments without prior notice.26.Kimmy Chung, “Legco Approves Rule Book Changes, after 11 Pan-dems Booted from Debate”: South China Morning Post27.Kris Cheng, “Hong Kong Legislature Passes Controversial House Rule Changes Taking Powers from Lawmakers”: Hong Kong Free Press Additionally, 11 pan-democratic legislators were removed from the LegCo chamber.28.Kimmy Chung, “Legco Approves Rule Book Changes, after 11 Pan-dems Booted from Debate”: South China Morning Post Hong Kong’s unique sovereignty was being stripped away, bit by bit.

The latest upheaval in Hong Kong begins with an extradition bill proposed in March 2019.29.Austin Ramzy, “Murder Case Poses Dilemma for Hong Kong on Sending Suspects to China”: The New York Times The bill was proposed after a Hong Kong man murdered his girlfriend in the nearby island-nation of Taiwan, which did not have an existing extradition treaty with Hong Kong.30.Austin Ramzy, “Murder Case Poses Dilemma for Hong Kong on Sending Suspects to China”: The New York Times While the proposed bill included an extradition agreement with Taiwan, it also included extradition to mainland China. This particular provision was proposed by Chief Executive Lam and the pro-Beijing legislators in the LegCo. Extradition treaties involving Hong Kong have been a longstanding issue, with Taiwan rejecting a proposal in 2009 and Australia doing the same in 2017. For many Hong Kongers, there is a real fear in an extradition treaty with mainland China.31.“United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission”: USCC In 2015, several Hong Kong shopkeepers were extradited for selling political books banned in the mainland. Academics, lawyers, journalists, and human rights advocacy groups have expressed their concerns that the CCP will force the Chief Executive to extradite political dissidents, placing them into a legal system without proper protections.32.“United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission”: USCC 

In April 2019, thousands of Hong Kongers gathered to protest the passage of the bill and demanded it be scrapped.33.“Timeline: Key Dates for Hong Kong Extradition Bill and Protests”: Reuters Protests continued throughout May with pan-democratic legislators publicly condemning the proposed legislation and foreign governments expressing their concerns. On May 30, HK officials made concessions with the bill. This included raising the threshold for extradition from crimes punishable by three years or more to seven or more, and imposing conditions such as open trials and presumption of innocence.34.“Timeline: Key Dates for Hong Kong Extradition Bill and Protests”: Reuters These concessions were not enough. In the weeks following the new draft’s announcement, petitions were signed and protests swelled to record numbers.35.“Timeline: Key Dates for Hong Kong Extradition Bill and Protests”: Reuters Despite this, Lam stood firm and pushed ahead with the extradition bill.36.“Timeline: Key Dates for Hong Kong Extradition Bill and Protests”: Reuters This triggered the most violent day in the protest’s history. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. On June 14, 2019, Lam suspended the extradition bill just days after her refusal to back down.37.Julie McCarthy and Bobby Allyn, “Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam Says Extradition Bill Is ‘Dead,’ But Protesters Press On”: NPR While this was the major demand of the protestors, the goals had increased amid police brutality and Lam’s mishandling of the situation. Protestors of the extradition bill came out with the now famous Five Demands: the withdrawal of the extradition bill (which has been achieved), an independent inquiry into police conduct during the protests, amnesty for protesters arrested on colonial-era rioting charges, ceasing the mischaracterization of the protests as riots, and election reforms such as direct election of the Chief Executive.38.“Why Hong Kong’s Still Protesting and Where It May Go”: The Washington Post

After nearly a year of protests, not much has changed in Hong Kong. Despite the pan-democrats sweeping 17 of the 18 districts in the 2019 local elections, Lam still holds the office of Chief Executive and the pro-Beijing coalition still controls the LegCo.39.Jen Kirby, “Pro-democracy Candidates Dominate Hong Kong’s Local Elections in a Rebuke to China”: Vox To make matters worse, COVID-19 has given the CCP the legal capability to stop gatherings of four or more, despite the low numbers of cases present in Hong Kong.40.Marc Thiessen, “China Is Using Covid-19 to Throttle Hong Kong’s Pro-democracy Movement”: The Washington Post This has now given President Xi the opportunity to push and implement the new security law, which has similar language as the 2003 security bill.41.Keith Bradsher, “China Approves Plan to Rein In Hong Kong, Defying Worldwide Outcry”: The New York Times42.Zen Soo, “Hong Kong Police Make First Arrests under New Security Law”: AP News Over a year of demonstrations and protests have seemingly all been for naught. Within hours of the law taking effect, Hong Kongers had been arrested for carrying pro-independence symbols or unlawful assembly.43.https://twitter.com/hkpoliceforce/status/1278201222457987073 On the first day, at least 370 protestors were arrested on a variety of charges, with some possibly receiving life imprisonment for their actions.44.“Hong Kong Security Law Revealed – Violators May Face Life Imprisonment.” Hong Kong Free Press The Hong Kong Police Department, already known for their brutality, have targeted reporters and medics with water cannons.45.https://twitter.com/rhokilpatrick/status/127827127950251212946.https://twitter.com/joshuawongcf/status/1278263568098635777 Books written by pro-democracy writers have been pulled from bookstore and library shelves with many more under review by government officials. Students, who have traditionally been involved in protests, have been banned from singing the protest anthem.47.“Hong Kong Security Law: Pro-democracy Books Pulled from Libraries”: BBC News Even reformers and protest leaders are afraid of long-term imprisonment with Joshua Wong disbanding his pro-democracy organization and Nathan Law fleeing for his own safety.48.“Joshua Wong’s Pro-democracy Group Demosisto Disbands Hours after Hong Kong Security Law Passed”: Hong Kong Free Press49.“Nathan Law: Leading Young Democracy Activist Flees Hong Kong”: BBC News

Things seem quite grim for Hong Kong. Many countries appear to be preparing for the worst: the complete annexation of the SAR and an impending refugee crisis. Taiwan has issued 5,858 permanent residency permits to Hong Kongers in the last year – a 41% increase compared to the previous year – and has committed to taking in even more.50.Cindy Sui, “As China Tightens Its Grip on Hong Kong, People Are Leaving for Taiwan”: NBC News51.Chris Norton, “Taiwan Braces for ‘surge of Refugees’ from Hong Kong”: Nikkei Asian Review Across the Pacific,the United States Congress has introduced the Safe Harbor Act which would designate Hong Kongers as humanitarian refugees and many national legislatures are seeking to place more sanctions on banks that do business with PRC government entities.52.Alex Fang, “US Bill Grants Refugee Status to Hong Kong Protesters”: Nikkei Asian Review53.Gerry Shih and Shibani Mahtani, “Countries Prepare to Take in Hong Kong Refugees Fleeing China’s Crackdown”: The Washington Post The United Kingdom is considering a path to citizenship for 350,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders.54.Nick Eardley and Grace Tsoi, “Hong Kong: UK Makes Citizenship Offer to Residents”: BBC News As it stands now, BNO passport holders only have six months of visa-free access to the UK and are ineligible to live in the country as a citizen. Australia has automatically extended the visas of Hong Kong citizens and residents by an additional five years with a path to permanent residency and has offered to help companies based in Hong Kong with relocation to Australia.55.“Hong Kong”: Prime Minister of Australia 

With Hong Kongers fleeing and the vice of authoritarianism gripping tighter, what will be of Hong Kong in a few years or even tomorrow? In 2017, former foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang had this to say about the Sino-British Joint Declaration:

“Now Hong Kong has returned to the motherland’s embrace for 20 years, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover.”56.Venus Wu, “China Says Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong No Longer Has Meaning”: Reuters

To the PRC, the Joint Declaration is no longer in effect but the concept of “One Country, Two Systems” seems to echo. The current spokesman, Zhao Lijian, reiterated the PRC’s commitment to the strange arrangement.57.“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Remarks on the Passage of the Law on Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong by the NPC Standing Committee”: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China More important than maintaining the policy was the necessity of law and order. Zhao emphasized this again in his press conference on July 1 along with the clarification that “Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s internal affairs, and external forces should not interfere.”

With the PRC making it abundantly clear that the Joint Declaration is no longer in effect, we can only come to one conclusion: that the Hong Kong SAR will be formally annexed prior to 2047. President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong in 2017 to give a speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover.58.Staurt Lau and Jeffie Lam, “‘Challenging Chinese Sovereignty Crosses a Red Line’: Xi”: South China Morning Post In his speech, Xi stated that any local challenge to the PRC’s sovereignty would be seen as a “red line.” Also contained in his speech were praises of the “One Country, Two Systems” model and the progress made in the last 20 years, which gives insight into how the PRC perceives Hong Kong in a historical and in the new political context.59.“Full Text of Xi’s Speech in Hong Kong”: South China Morning Post Xi talks about the Century of Humiliation, the period of economic stagnation and Western powers influencing China; starting with the end of the first Opium War in 1840 and ending with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.60.Matt Schiavenza, “How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History”: The Atlantic This concept is woven into the founding of the PRC, with many leaders promising to return China back to greatness and prosperity. Xi has used this rhetoric and specifically mentions the British seizure of Kowloon and the New Territories in his 2017 speech. 

The PRC knows Hong Kong is the final remnant of imperialism in China, which explains why the PRC has chosen to integrate Hong Kong so aggressively. President Xi has styled himself as an ambitious leader with grand strategies to bring about Chinese prosperity. An independent Hong Kong, even with a tight leash and neutered democratic system, presents a thorn in Xi’s side. Since 1949, the CCP has claimed to be the sole representative government for all Chinese people, and the existence of a territory with liberal values undermines the CCP’s legitimacy. The CCP has ruled the country under its vision of Marxist-Leninist ideology and dissent against the party presents a threat to their image of beneficial rulership. The protests are less about becoming entirely separated from mainland China but are instead focused on opportunities to seek self-determination and protect their own culture. The last 23 years have seen Hong Kongers push back on draconian security laws, communist propaganda, Beijing intervention, and the erasure of Hong Konger culture. The people of Hong Kong had no say in the handover between the UK and the PRC in 1984. They are a people who have been denied a choice in how they live and will soon be put under an imperial regime by a different overlord. Hong Kongers are in a battle for the soul of their nation, a battle which now seems hopelessly lost.

Andrew Michels

Andrew Michels is a contributor to International Review. He gradated from Xavier University with a BA in Political Science and International Studies. His region of focus is on East Asia and the Pacific."

References   [ + ]

1. “Hong Kong: the Joint Declaration”: House of Commons Library
2, 3. Elson Tong, “Reviving Article 23 (Part I): The Rise and Fall of Hong Kong’s 2003 National Security Bill”: Hong Kong Free Press
4. “Huge Protest Fills HK Streets”: CNN
5. “How China Is Ruled: National People’s Congress”: BBC News
6, 15, 16, 17, 18. Amy Gunia, “A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong”: Time
7, 8. Joyce Lau, “Thousands Protest China’s Plans for Hong Kong Schools”: The New York Times
9. “Protest against National Education to End after Government Climbdown”: South China Morning Post
10. Jonathan Kaiman, “Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution – the Guardian Briefing”: The Guardian
11, 12. Kris Cheng, “Explainer: Why Hong Kong’s Leadership Race Is Neither Free, Fair, nor Representative”: Hong Kong Free Press
13. Elizabeth Barber, “’79 Days That Shook Hong Kong.’ 79 Days That Shook Hong Kong”: Time
14. Lily Kuo, “The Clearing of Hong Kong’s Democracy Protesters Doesn’t Mean the Fight Is Over”: Quartz
19. “Hong Kong Makes History With First Pro-Independence Rally”: Time
20. Rishi Iyengar, “Hong Kong: Pro-Independence Candidate Barred From Elections”: Time
21. Benjamin Haas, “Police and Protesters Clash in Hong Kong pro-Democracy March”: The Guardian
22. Kelly Ho, “Hong Kong Activist Edward Leung Loses Appeal against 6-year Jail Term over 2016 Unrest”: Hong Kong Free Press
23. “Another Hong Kong Election, Another pro-Beijing Leader-Why It Matters”: Brookings Institute
24. Alan Wong, “Ruling Threatens Hong Kong’s Independence From China”: The New York Times
25. Alan Wong, “Joshua Wong and 2 Others Jailed in Hong Kong Over Pro-Democracy Protest”: The New York Times
26, 28. Kimmy Chung, “Legco Approves Rule Book Changes, after 11 Pan-dems Booted from Debate”: South China Morning Post
27. Kris Cheng, “Hong Kong Legislature Passes Controversial House Rule Changes Taking Powers from Lawmakers”: Hong Kong Free Press
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31, 32. “United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission”: USCC
33, 34, 35, 36. “Timeline: Key Dates for Hong Kong Extradition Bill and Protests”: Reuters
37. Julie McCarthy and Bobby Allyn, “Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam Says Extradition Bill Is ‘Dead,’ But Protesters Press On”: NPR
38. “Why Hong Kong’s Still Protesting and Where It May Go”: The Washington Post
39. Jen Kirby, “Pro-democracy Candidates Dominate Hong Kong’s Local Elections in a Rebuke to China”: Vox
40. Marc Thiessen, “China Is Using Covid-19 to Throttle Hong Kong’s Pro-democracy Movement”: The Washington Post
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43. https://twitter.com/hkpoliceforce/status/1278201222457987073
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47. “Hong Kong Security Law: Pro-democracy Books Pulled from Libraries”: BBC News
48. “Joshua Wong’s Pro-democracy Group Demosisto Disbands Hours after Hong Kong Security Law Passed”: Hong Kong Free Press
49. “Nathan Law: Leading Young Democracy Activist Flees Hong Kong”: BBC News
50. Cindy Sui, “As China Tightens Its Grip on Hong Kong, People Are Leaving for Taiwan”: NBC News
51. Chris Norton, “Taiwan Braces for ‘surge of Refugees’ from Hong Kong”: Nikkei Asian Review
52. Alex Fang, “US Bill Grants Refugee Status to Hong Kong Protesters”: Nikkei Asian Review
53. Gerry Shih and Shibani Mahtani, “Countries Prepare to Take in Hong Kong Refugees Fleeing China’s Crackdown”: The Washington Post
54. Nick Eardley and Grace Tsoi, “Hong Kong: UK Makes Citizenship Offer to Residents”: BBC News
55. “Hong Kong”: Prime Minister of Australia
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58. Staurt Lau and Jeffie Lam, “‘Challenging Chinese Sovereignty Crosses a Red Line’: Xi”: South China Morning Post
59. “Full Text of Xi’s Speech in Hong Kong”: South China Morning Post
60. Matt Schiavenza, “How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History”: The Atlantic