Hong Kong: The Crisis

A Very Brief History: Colonial Hong Kong

Hong Kong, located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta in Southern China, was part of China in the imperial China era. In 1942 and 1860 respectively, the Qing Dynasty ceded Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula to Britain in perpetuity. In 1898, the Dynasty leased the New Territories to Britain for 99 years. Since then, Hong Kong, composed of the above three territories, was developed as a whole under British colonial rule.

Having strong connection with mainland China, Hong Kong became a shelter of Chinese refugees during the Chinese Civil War that begun in the 1920s and after the Communist victory in 1949. With the skills, capital together with a vast pool of cheap labour brought by the influx of immigrants, Hong Kong transformed from an entrepot into an export-oriented manufacturing economy. Since late 1970s, Hong Kong played a pivotal role in China’s economic reform by serving as a gateway for China to establish connection with the outside world and facilitating China’s economic development in various aspects such as transfer of technology and training of professionals. Hong Kong underwent a rapid transition to a service-based economy in the 1980s and later further developed to become a major international financial centre.

Apart from economic growth, Hong Kong experienced rapid development in infrastructure, education system, public health system, housing system, social welfare system and civil societies from 1960s to 1990s. An independent commission was established in 1970s to fight corruption and later made Hong Kong become one of the least corrupt jurisdictions in East Asia. All these helped Hong Kong develop as a highly modernized society. Furthermore, with a largely Chinese population and over 100 years of British colonial background, Hong Kong represented an almost perfect fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. Hence, Hong Kong was recognized as the Pearl of the East.

However, knowing that the 99-year lease would be expired in 1997, more and more Hong Kong people started to feel worried about the future of Hong Kong in early 1980s. Some Hongkongers described Hong Kong as “a borrowed place with borrowed time”.

The Transitional Crisis

In 1982, Deng Xiaoping, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, and Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, began official discussion on Hong Kong future. Deng insisted that the ceding of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula were made under unequal treaties that the Chinese government would not accept. He asserted the Chinese government’s intention to regain sovereignty over the whole of Hong Kong in 1997. During the Sino-British negotiation, the crisis of confidence over the future of Hong Kong escalated. Lots of Hong Kong citizens applied for emigration to western countries such as Canada, the USA, Australia and the UK. Hong Kong dollar depreciated drastically and finally collapsed with speculative attacks in 1983. The Hong Kong government had to link Hong Kong dollar to US dollar so as to resolve the crisis.

To regain confidence from Hong Kong residents and international investors, the Chinese government proposed to establish a special administrative region in Hong Kong, under the principle of “one country, two systems”. The socialist system of PRC would not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and its way of life would continue for at least 50 years. The Chinese government also promised that Hong Kong would be ruled by Hong Kong people and would enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

In 1984, the governments of the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration which was registered by the two governments at the United Nations. It was agreed in the Joint Declaration that the Chinese government would resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong with effect from July 1, 1997. Moreover, the HKSAR established under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the PRC would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which were the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government. The HKSAR would be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication.

After the signing of the Joint Declaration, many Hong Kong people asked for a faster pace of democratic development. When the bloody crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests happened in 1989, a new tide of emigration broke out in Hong Kong. Those who decided to stay demanded more protection of human rights and greater democracy in Hong Kong. However, democratic development remained very slow due to opposition from the Chinese government.

Decolonization or Recolonization?: Increased Beijing Interference

On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong ended her status as a British colony and became part of China again. The HKSAR government was established under the Basic Law that served as the constitutional document of HKSAR. Now, although Hong Kong has already developed as a well known cosmopolitan metropolis, her level of democracy is still very slow. Hongkongers still cannot enjoy their right to universal and equal suffrage despite of the fact that Hongkongers have been fighting for this long before 1997. Moreover, an increasing degree of intervention from the Central Government has been observed since 1997.

The first Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, after being handpicked by Beijing to be the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, was assigned the first mission of “de-democratization”. First of all, Tung tried to push through mother tongue education and Article 23 national security law. He further introduced appointed members in District Councils and could not wait to dissolve the Urban Council and Regional Council, which members were mostly popularly elected. On district matters, public opinion was manipulated by the appointed councilors while resource allocation was heavily skewed towards pro-Communist groups and organizations.

The second Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen saw Hong Kong politics and economy deteriorating, the gap between rich and poor widening, and government policies more in favor of big businesses. The corruption scandals of the Chief Executive and the Chief Secretary for Administration showed how the collusion between government and business has hurt the governance in Hong Kong. This was obviously the result of de-democratization and small-circle Chief Executive election. The political reform proposal in 2005 was even more frustrating. The double universal suffrage (Chief Executive and Legislative Council), which the Basic Law clearly allowed to be implemented in 2007, became possible only after 2007. The timing of Chief Executive universal suffrage was further pushed back from 2012 to 2017. Pro-Communists and businessmen continued to control the government and fool the people.  In the 2010 political reform, the Election Committee was expanded from 800 to 1200 members but functional constituencies were preserved as part of a secret deal between the Democratic Party and the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in HKSAR.  Since then Beijing has become all the more flagrant in violating the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” and interfering in the Chief Executive election. 

The third Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (CY) is widely understood as an underground CCP member and pupped of Beijing, which went on to challenge the rule of law by requesting judges in Hong Kong to be patriotic. In June 2014, the Central Government published the White Paper on the Practice of the “One Country, Two Systems” Policy in HKSAR and made interpretations of the policy very much different from those stated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, by Basic Law, and by previous leaders of the Chinese government. For instance, the White Paper stressed that the Central Government has complete jurisdiction over Hong Kong and demanded local judges of Hong Kong to be patriotic. Hong Kong people are very doubtful whether the promise of high autonomy and judicial independence are still in effect or not.

The 2014 political reform debate is at the forefront of Hong Kong-China politics. Beijing seems to understand the need to keep its promise under the Basic Law to let Hong Kong have universal suffrage. At the same time, it is using national security as an excuse to screen out Chief Executive candidates it does not like. Such an election, which Beijing has full control of its outcome, is a fake universal suffrage.

New Chapter in Hong Kong History: An Era of Peaceful Resistance

On August 31, 2014, the Beijing government rejected demands for free, open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executives, breaching the international agreement it signed on in 1984. OCLP and allies in the pro-democracy camp pledged an era of civil disobedience in defiance of Beijing’s hardline decision over Hong Kong’s political future. More as it develops.

Manson Wong / USP United Social Press

Appendix: International Agreements and Universal Values

Hong Kong is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by virtue of the Bill of Rights Ordinance. ICCPR Article 25 states that:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

For more details on international standards of democracy, see this list of international agreements and declarations.