By Gian Ellis-Gannell
The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong has long been a central hub of trade for local and foreign businesspeople alike. However, recent student-led protests have driven both investors and expats away from the city that appears to be on the verge of collapse once again.
From a Western perspective, the people of Hong Kong are nobly fighting for freedom and democracy against the People's Republic of China, and whilst in some ways this is not untrue, it is not the whole picture.
Many have the perspective that China is attempting to ‘take over’ Hong Kong. However, contextually, before 1841 Hong Kong was a small fishing port under the power of Mainland China’s Qin Dynasty. It was after losing the First Opium War, that the city was then ceded to the British Empire through the treaty of Nanjing. In 1842, after officially acquiring it, Foreign Secretary of Britain, Lord Palmerston, declared Hong Kong “A barren island with hardly a house on it”. And he was not incorrect at the time, as little more was there than a small coastal community. However, the British would utilise opportunity and location (there was a need for a ‘European-Friendly’ Asian port) and build Hong Kong into the financial centre that it is today.
After initially making the city profitable, Britain also won the Second Opium War which would force the Qing Empire to cede Kowloon to them in 1860, and also allowed Britain to lease the New Territories (Including Hong Kong) for 99 years from 1898. This lease ended in 1997, and thus under international law, Hong Kong is an area officially belonging to China.
Why have the people of Hong Kong resisted this reinstatement of Chinese control?
Whilst being governed by Britain in the 1950s, Hong Kong transformed from a territory of entrepôt trade to one of industry and manufacturing, and as the Chinese economic reform prompted manufacturers to relocate back to Mainland China, Hong Kong was able to develop its own commercial industry. This independence was made possible due to the establishing of British law, including Free Commercial Law. After instating this, a suite of firms from the United States, Europe, Japan, and even PRC set up branches in Hong-Kong’s briskly-expanding free market. The region showed an incredible growth of HK$1.8 billion in 1950/51, and by the 1980’s, Hong Kong ranked at the top of many nations lists of trading partners. In fact, "as enterprises in Hong-Kong rose from 16,507 in 1970 to 45,025 in 1980, employment rose from to 549,000 to 907,000" (W.S Morton, 2005). Thus, many people of Hong Kong view China's efforts to absorb it as financially motivated. The safety of Hong Kong attracts many strong, international partnerships which China is lacking in.
During this period of economic growth for Hong Kong, the British way of life imposed upon the people became ingrained in their culture and identity. Already speaking a different language to the rest of China (Cantonese instead of Mandarin), and the schools teaching a British curriculum, there was a large panic when the people realised that come 1997, the lease on Britain would be over and according to the agreement, Hong Kong would fall under Chinese control again.
The main fear of the people regarding China resuming control stemmed from the enjoyment of freedoms such as religion. British Christian missionaries had assumed many of the Hong-Kong government's responsibilities in offering social-services such as first aid to residents, and fears arose that these practices would be restricted. From as early as 1841, the church had developed a great deal of influence that through the opening of schools and churches had led to a massive increase in Christianity as a religion. The religion also encouraged responsible citizenship and democracy in the later years of British occupation; aligning with the growingly social-justice based nature of Christianity. China traditionally has not supported many democratic or religious processes, however the 1995 Legislative Council Election in Hong Kong is a great example of how Christianity truly shifted their societal attitudes. Voting not being mandatory, the turnout-rate of the election included 71% of Catholics and 63% of Protestants, compared with the general public's turnout rate of just 46%.
This allowed the Hong-Kongese to recognise their power as citizens; providing the nation with a pro-freedom identity that was incomparable to Mainland China’s. So powerful was this identity that when Hong-Kong became a Special Administrative Region belonging to China in 1997, surveys collected in 2000 suggested that only 1/3 of the 7,000,000 population considered themselves Chinese; a dangerous attitude that upset China and foreshadowed numerous conflicts to come. This prevented unification and created the political instability that is present to this day; “China’s endeavours to foist an opposing national identity on Hong Kongers provoked an unceasing identity conflict.” (R Gamer & S Toops, 2003).
Approximately 1,000,000 Hong Kong residents emigrated before the end of 1997 in order to maintain their way of life, and corporations removing their resources sparked fear that the return of authoritarian rule would limit future employment as well as suppress the freedoms which they had become used to. Consequently, Hong-Kong suffered serious loss of human and financial capital in the hands of China’s unfortunately bad reputation on the world stage.
How is this related to the situation today?
In an effort to quell widespread emigration, the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was created and signed by both China and Britain, taking effect from 1997 onwards. This outlined what the handover between the nations would look like, and promised the Hong Kong people a high level of autonomy in their legal and judicial system for a ‘cool down’ period of fifty years. Known as the ‘One country, two system’ policy, it was agreed that Hong Kong would maintain the ability to exercise democratic rights during said period, and promised that its basic policies and electoral system would “remain unchanged for 50 years”. As a result, Hong Kong also had its own borders and protected rights including freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. For example, it is one of the few places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate or even google search the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing.
Despite this declaration being accepted by the United Nations, in November 2014, Ni Jian, China’s deputy ambassador to Britain, told Richard Ottaway, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons, that the declaration was “now void and covered only the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997”. Blatantly untrue, conflict arose when diplomats of Britain firmly argued that the declaration was legally binding and must be honoured. However tumultuous relations were though, each side was reluctant to take military action lest it be viewed as a declaration of war. The threat of another Vietnamese War equivalent was not appealing to the people of Britain.
Specific causes of protests in Hong Kong include the election of leaders, a manipulation of court rulings, and proposed changes to extradition laws. The Umbrella Riots of 2014 began due to an attempt by China to prevent Hong-Kong from self-nominating leaders, despite the region having autonomy. Hong-Kong Basic Law states that “The ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.” However, China attempted to manipulate this wording by only allowing candidates who they nominated to be elected, essentially allowing them to select all leadership options. Pro-Beijing Hong Kong barrister, Alan Hoo found a loophole in the wording of the Basic Law, stating “Universal suffrage, under the International Covenant, means that there are express rights to elect or be elected. There is no express right to nominate.” Many of the protestors of these actions by China were distressingly young, peaceful students who then sparked international outrage as they were arrested and brutalised by police. Whilst blocking roadways, the Chinese police force felt justified in dissolving any riots. Technically, it must be admitted that they were, however the level of force that they used generated fear among people both locally and overseas, as in some cases their actions resulted in lasting, critical injuries.
More recently, a bill attempted to pass that would have altered the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, allowing extradition of any person in Hong Kong to Mainland China to face trial. This has been described as “legalised kidnapping”, and China having governance over non-military matters on Hong-Kong soil would open the door for Hong-Kong residents to be punished for whatever is a crime within China including freedom of speech; rendering separate laws of Hong Kong moot. This would be detrimental to the freedoms enjoyed by people of Hong-Kong, whom in protest of the extradition laws being put in place before the end of the fifty year cool down period “flowed through the centre of Hong Kong like a great, black river; more than a million everyday people united by fear of Beijing, mistrust of their own government and a determination to stop their democratic rights from being taken.” (Sheridan 2019).
While debates arise between China and other Western nations over who is in the right, one side that has not been consulted on the world stage is Hong Kong. In no negotiations over the Sino-British Declaration was a native representative of Hong Kong included, and this has resulted in the frustration of the people today over not being heard (or even recognised) as a having a valid identity. I urge readers to investigate the complex matter further and ensure that all sides of the issue are understood before forming opinions. This is an issue in dire need of our attention- especially with so many Australian expats living in Hong Kong- and we must make a collective decision on whether Australia should play a role in supporting either side, and if we are willing to face the repercussions of doing so. As painful as it is, Australia is a small country, and perhaps for the sake of national security it is advisable for us to wait and see how the current protests pan out before racing to conclusions. Unfortunately, this international issue is not as simple as democracy vs China.
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