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Understanding the Situation in

Hong Kong

By: Ryan Lafferty

For several months, there’s been significant discussion about protests in Hong Kong. But, what is being protested? Who’s behind these protests? What’re the aims of these protests? What’s happened more recently to further aggravate the situation? What does the future of Hong Kong look like? These questions may not have singular or all-encompassing answers, but several significant events within the past several years give us some information that might help us to answer them. 

But first, some brief background: in 1997, in what was known as “The Return” in mainland China and “the Handover” throughout the wider world, Great Britain, in what is often seen as the definitive end of its status as a global empire, returned all administrative and political control of Hong Kong to the Chinese government. At the time, Hong Kong was declared to be a “special administrative region” of China – a legal phrase that simply meant that Hong Kong would retain a relatively high degree of political, economic, and social autonomy, even though it would technically be under Chinese control. 

This retainment of political and economic independence was initially suggested in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping, a political leader referred to as the “Architect of Modern China” for his proposal of wide-reaching economic reforms, advocated for the principle of what he called “one country, two systems.” Under this principle, Hong Kong would be considered a part of China – “one country” – but would retain a great degree of administrative privilege and power – “two systems.” This policy was intended to allow mainland China and Hong Kong to possess their own legal and governmental systems, as well as to enable Hong Kong to control its own financial and trading affairs. And indeed, under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong has, for the most part, been able to retain a meaningful degree of political autonomy, such as through the “Basic Rule,” which serves as the de facto constitution of the Hong Kong government. Additionally, when Britain agreed to transfer control of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, China pledged to keep this system of “one country, two systems” in place until 2047 – or fifty years after the agreement between Britain and China. 

Now, if the story of Hong Kong’s relationship with China was a fairytale, everything would end “happily ever after.” Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out like that.

Although there were various instances of disagreement between Hong Kong and China throughout the early 2000s – such as in 2003, when China sought to mandate a new set of educational curriculum that praised Chinese-style communism – tensions between the two began to rise within the past several years over the matter of extradition. For instance, in 2015, in what became known as the Causeway Bay Book disappearances, several journalists who had been critical of the communist government in Beijing disappeared and were confirmed to have been extradited to mainland China. In early 2018, the issue was re-aggravated when a Hong Kong resident murdered a woman in Taiwan before returning to Hong Kong. Problematically, there was disagreement over how to handle the situation – the crime had been committed in Taiwan, yet there were no agreements between Taiwan and Hong Kong that would allow for Taiwan to handle the criminal proceedings. In response, a prominent Hong Kong party sympathetic and supportive of the Chinese Communist Party pushed for the passage of new legislation that would allow for the extradition of Hong Kong residents to virtually any jurisdiction within China. Unsurprisingly, the government in mainland China became a fierce supporter of the bill, as its passage would allow for the Chinese government to limit the legal and judicial autonomy of Hong Kong. A prominent Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam, advocated for the addition of an amendment to the bill that would allow criminals of Hong Kong residency to be tried and punished in mainland China. In response to this development, thousands of Hong Kong protestors gathered in the streets to highlight the moral hazards of the bill. Primarily, protestors feared that, if China had the power to extradite suspected criminals, China would have immense power to stifle free speech and crack down on pro-democracy advocacy.

By June of 2019, over five-hundred thousand Hong Kong residents gathered to protest the bill and Lam’s proposed amendment. Just a month later, several dozen protestors were arrested for their actions, triggering further anger at the Chinese government. As the protests continued throughout July, August, and September, Lam – the original proponent of the amendment to the bill that would allow for extradition of Hong Kong criminals to mainland China – formally withdrew the amendment from the bill. Problem solved? Not exactly. Pro-democracy Hong Kong activists argued that Lam’s action was “too little too late,” and as protests continued, universal suffrage increasingly became an aim of many protestors. By October, protests began to turn violent. On October 1st, a protestor was shot, and later that month, Jimmy Sham, a major LGBTQ and political rights activist, was violently attacked, leading to his hospitalization. As the fight spread, Hong Kong students increasingly became central advocates in the fight for freedom and autonomy. In response to the growing strength of the protests, police became increasingly violent and abusive; for example, in mid-November, a student protestor, Chow Tsz-lok, died in the midst of the protests. Protests continued throughout November, December, and into the new year, 2020. 

That brings us, roughly, to where we are now. But, what is happening in Hong Kong right now?

Within the past several weeks, China has sought to pass a national security law that would grant it the power to lock down protests and speech in Hong Kong that the Chinese government disagrees with. Clearly, this poses a major and significant threat to the stability and protections of the “one country, two systems” policy. Many critics wonder that, if China has the power to actively meddle with affairs in Hong Kong, and to pass laws that supersede the authority of local legislatures in Hong Kong, what does the future of Hong Kong’s ostensible “autonomy” really look like? In response to this newly proposed law, tens of thousands of Hong Kong protestors have gathered in the streets, once again in a fight for their life, liberty, and rights.

Ultimately, no one truly knows that the future of Hong Kong will look like – but what we do know is that “one country, two systems” may very well be a policy of the past.

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