Hong Kong is technically part of China, but along with Macau, has SAR (Special Administrative Region) status. This allows it certain privileges such as an independent government, neatly surmised as “one country, two systems”. While in theory Hong Kong and China are the same country, in practice they are not. There is a strictly regulated border, they have vastly different visa requirements, a different currency, different languages, different governments, laws, passports, and perhaps most importantly – different mindsets.
Until 1997, Hong Kong was under British rule and had been for 150 years. Britain gave Hong Kong back to China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that had been written and signed more than 10 years earlier by none other than Maggie Thatcher and then Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang. The declaration stated that for 50 years (from the 1997 handover to 1947) Hong Kong would remain unchanged, maintaining its democratic, capitalist system and autonomous government, hence resisting the socialist practices of China.
But what has gone wrong?
Fast forward to the present, and it seems as though both China and Britain have neglected their responsibilities to the declaration. China claims that the Sino-British Joint Declaration is now void, while Britain seems to have bigger, more European problems to negotiate.
Increasing Chinese influence over Hong Kong society has been unfavourable and hit a breaking point in 2014 with the Umbrella Movement. The Umbrella Movement was born out of Chinese-led changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, in which Beijing would now screen possible candidates before allowing them to run for Chief Executive of the territory. This compromise to Hong Kong’s democracy was viewed as a paranoid, self-interested move to assert and maintain dominance over the territory. For Hong Kongers, this, alongside the continual encroachment of Hong Kong’s liberties, was the final straw.
The Umbrella Revolution was an act of “civil-disobedience”, occupying some of Hong Kong’s busiest districts, namely Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, effectively bringing Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days. While Hong Kong’s society fought for true democracy, the Chinese government joked that Beijing to Hong Kong was too far to drive a tank, reinforcing memories of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre.
The protesters were eventually cleared by force and Hong Kong returned to relative normality, but the spirit of the revolution and anti-Chinese sentiments have remained, stoked by continual interferences.
At the end of 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers went missing. All five were revealed to be in the Mainland Chinese province of Guangdong, directly over the Hong Kong/Chinese border. Chinese authorities claimed the booksellers had travelled voluntarily to surrender themselves on varying offences committed years earlier, but this is suspicious given some entered the Mainland without the required travel documents. Extrajudicial detentions and forced confessions are known to occur in the Mainland, but abduction is a breach of international law as Chinese authorities have no jurisdiction in Hong Kong. The bookshop sold gossip magazines about Chinese leaders, material banned in the Mainland.
In early 2016, Hong Kong’s TVB television network switched subtitles on selected shows from Cantonese (Traditional Chinese) to Mandarin (simplified Chinese). This provoked 10,000 complaints in three days. Later in 2016, four pro-democracy law makers were disqualified from office. The cited reasons are that while reading their oaths, the four law makers refused, and/or mocked their pledge of allegiance to China when being sworn in.
In all cases, it is claimed the decisions aren’t politically motivated, but Hong Kong society seems tired with this excuse.
Why does Hong Kong tolerate this continual interference?
There are multiple reasons, but one major reason is economics.
Hong Kong is a capitalist, money-centric society whose affluence is maintained in part because of Chinese investments. Chinese tourists strip shop shelves clear of everything from baby formula, to gold to fresh fruits and vegetables. Inward Chinese investment in Hong Kong property has also created the world’s most expensive property market, worrisome when compared to rising rates of inequality within the territory.
Another major reason is that China is simply too big and too powerful.
If Hong Kong was to declare independence, China has warned they will simply take it back by force. One only has to look at Tibet, the contested islands of the South China Sea or recent relations with Taiwan to see China’s lack of respect for its neighbours and international law.
Why does this matter to you?
The world is changing.
Trailing only behind America, China is the world’s second-largest economy. China is growing at a stunted, but an incredibly strong level of 7%; the result of industrialisation and ambitious development projects. While development fixes internal problems such as poverty, China’s ambitions are much greater – it wants that number one spot.
I can’t quite tell you how the world will look if China become the richest, most influential nation in the world, but given the treatment of their neighbours, disregard for international law, human rights violations, lack of climate action, levels of intellectual theft, restriction of civil-liberties and manipulation of its own population, the prospects don’t look good.
America may not be the most popular nation in the world, but American imperialism as a direct action is slowing down. By contrast, China’s is just beginning. If nothing else, America can teach us one very valuable lesson: things can always get worse.
The Belt and Road project is seeing China invest hundreds of billions into developing nations in Central Asia to Africa. Some welcome the infrastructure, others are dubious of China’s true intentions, seeing it as an opportunity to assert Chinese influence with the allure of economic prospect.
But perspective is relative, and Chinese investment does bring economic benefits. Here in Australia, the economy, and by extension, the strength of the AUD is heavily dependent on China’s demand for Australia’s uranium, coal, gas, and iron ore amongst other commodities and resources. Mining may not be the most graceful industry, but it keeps the economy in check and stretches your dollar further when on holiday in Bali. In one way or another, we’re reaping the benefits of China’s investment, and there’s a strong number of influentials who intend on keeping it that way.
July 1st, 2017 marked the 20 year anniversary of the handover and to celebrate, China’s president Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong to both make a speech and give the territory an “inspection”. During the speech, Xi warned challenging China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong “crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible”. What this means exactly we don’t know, but it’s probably bad for the preservation of Hong Kong’s cultural integrity.