What happened to Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has long been a cultural beacon of democracy and freedom in stark contrast to the authoritarian regime of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The city was handed over as a British colony to China in 1997. Even though it has never been a complete electoral democracy, up until the 1997 handover, it allowed for democratic voting of about half of Hong Kong’s legislators. Now, only 20 of 90 legislative seats in Hong Kong are elected by popular vote, with the rest of the seats filled through a selection process carefully created to provide maximum support for pro-establishment candidates. What modern problems regarding regime reform led this city to democratic backsliding?
To better understand the democratic problems facing it today, we must look at the Basic Law of Hong Kong. It was essentially a “mini constitution” agreed on by the mainland Chinese government when the city was handed over to them. The constitutional principle behind this document was enshrined as “one country, two systems”, where Hong Kong would be allowed to retain a capitalist system with protected human rights and freedoms for 50 years from its signing, set to expire in 2047.
Under “one country, two systems”, however, democratic development in Hong Kong has stalled and even slid backwards. Therefore, there have been two major instances of public pressure for a more politically equal society.
One of these was the student-led Umbrella Revolution in 2014. The cause of this protest movement began in 2007, when a decision by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) promised the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to be elected by universal suffrage. In 2014, however, there was a proposed reform to the 2007 decision that was widely seen as democratically restrictive. It proposed for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) selection and pre-screening of candidates for the Chief Executive, among other vague and democratically questionable language, such as a requirement that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong must “love the country” and “not insist on confronting the central government”.
This led to a multitude of sit-in protests deemed as the Umbrella Revolution/Movement, due to the protestors’ usage of umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas and pepper spray. Even though there were no formal political concessions by the government, the 2014 proposed reform was voted against in a major embarrassment to the pro-Beijing camp.
Fast-forward to 2019, and we have an even bigger and more significant demonstration of public political unity. This time, it was sparked by the introduction of an extradition bill by the Hong Kong government. The bill would have established a legal mechanism that would allow for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited and tried in mainland China courts, which critics rightfully saw as corrupt and pro-Beijing. Originally, the protest only demanded the withdrawal of the bill and in March 2019, the movement began with a sit-in demonstration at the government headquarters. By June 9th, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers were participating actively in the protests. The extradition bill was due for a second reading on June 12th, which prompted the June 9th march. Very quickly, the Hong Kong government began to characterize the vastly peaceful protests as “riots”, and escalation began from the Hong Kong police, who teargassed protestors at events that were approved by the government itself. On the 15th of June, the extradition bill was suspended, but not fully withdrawn, which allowed for it to be revisited at a later point in time.
However, the movement had evolved. Protestors no longer wanted only the withdrawal of the extradition bill, but now, a new set of “five demands” had been the focal point of the protests:
Full withdrawal of the extradition bill.
A commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality.
Retracting the classification of protestors as “rioters”.
Amnesty for arrested protestors.
Dual universal suffrage (Legislature as well as Chief Executive)
Protests rapidly spread to many different neighborhoods in Hong Kong, but violence began to be shed. A large attack by triad gang members, suspected by protestors to be coordinated with the police, occurred on a subway station, where bystanders were indiscriminately beaten. Following through July and August, many more demonstrations were met with unprovoked violence by the police as well.
In early September, the Chief Executive finally withdrew the extradition bill completely in an attempt to quell the flames, but the city’s protestors wanted all five demands to be met before an end to the demonstrations. The protests intensified throughout September, culminating in sieges of multiple universities and heavy clashing between students and police.
Many deaths, the first use of live ammunition by officers , random/indiscriminate arrests, heavy amounts of organized violence, and a lack of police responsibility were all characteristics of this escalation.
In November, the District Council election saw the pro-democracy camp win by a landslide, fueled by the strength of the protest movement and anger towards pro-Beijing thugs.
The end of the protests was approaching, with a massive electoral victory, and the onset of COVID weakening their numbers greatly. But the final nail in the coffin came in 2020, when the NPCSC passed a new “National Security” law that was a legal framework for clampdown and control of the CCP and pro-Beijing forces. This law completely bypassed local legislation, and very quickly, many candidates for the legislature were disqualified under the new law, almost all of them popular members of the pro-democracy camp. The Chief Executive delayed the election, mentioning COVID as an excuse, and a mass resignation of pro-democracy lawmakers ensued.
Former protest organizers, Beijing critics, students/intellectuals, and local activists were arrested in large numbers under the new draconian law, and a mass exodus from the city followed. Hong Kong saw a record 89 thousand citizens leave within a year of the passing of the “National Security” law. Many independent news outlets, such as the Apple Daily, closed their doors after their employees and journalists were jailed.
Internationally, the US (under Donald Trump at the time) no longer recognized Hong Kong as an autonomous city, and treated it as an extension of the 1984-esque Chinese mainland. Now, the political atmosphere in the city is nearly as stark as in Beijing.
“One country, two systems” was a CCP lie for an ugly transition into authoritarian government. The protests from 2019-2020 illuminated this with an eerie clarity. A city that was once as much a beacon of hope for political liberties in China as the self-governing island of Taiwan, has now been reduced to another pawn in Xi Jinping’s long game of chess against diversity of thought. We should take the events that ruined Hong Kong as a vibrant city and see them as a warning for what the world might look like in the future if the influence of the PRC continues to grow.