Hong Kong and China: Where will it end?

Tensions between Hong Kong and China are at an all-time high in the aftermath of an extradition bill proposal (Image Source: Anthony Kwan)

By Anna Day | @anna_day_

It began as protests over an extradition bill, but it soon turned into something more.

The Hong Kong government proposed in June a case-by-case model to transfer fugitives to any jurisdiction that Hong Kong lacks a formal agreement with, including mainland China; a move that was considered by some as a pro-China push).

This would spell bad news for anti-Chinese, pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong as China’s judicial system has long been scrutinised by critics for its practices.

Although Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam declared the extradition law “dead” earlier this month, the protests have taken on a life of their own.

Now, mostly student protesters have flooded Hong Kong, trying to defend their democratic freedoms against the Chinese government.

As the rest of the world watches on, the big question is: how it will end?

To understand Hong Kong’s current civic turmoil, you have to look back more than 150 years to when the British first colonised Hong Kong Island.

Hong Kong was ruled by the British for more than 150 years when part of it, Hong Kong island, was ceded to the UK after the First Opium War in 1842.

Within 60 years, China also leased the rest of Hong Kong – Kowloon, the New Territories and over 230 outlying islands – to the British for 99 years.

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Protestors take to the streets to campaign against China’s influence over Hong Kong (Image source: Marcio Machado).

During this time, Hong Kong became a thriving, major port and global financial hub, with a bustling urban centre and a skyscraper-studded skyline.

As the deadline for the 99-year-lease approached in the 1980s, Britain and China began talks on the future of Hong Kong, with the now-communist government in China arguing that all of Hong Kong should return to Chinese rule.

Except under British rule, Hong Kong has become a democratic society and a haven for those wishing to escape communist mainland China.

The UK and China agreed to a solution that would see Hong Kong return to China under the principle of “one country, two systems”.

This meant that while becoming part of one country with China, Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs”.

Hong Kong became a part of China, but was allowed to keep its legal system and borders, and was afforded rights, including freedom of assembly and free speech.

However, these rights have been eroded over time.

As Vox’s Alex Ward reports, the Chinese government has worked to limit Hong Kong’s independence: “At China’s direction, the Hong Kong government in recent years has quashed the city’s democratic movement, blocked opposition candidates from running for elected office, and put down nearly all protest movements”.

Another problem for Hong Kong’s citizens is that the “one country, two systems” principle has an expiration date.

In 28 years (in 2047), Hong Kong’s current arrangement with China expires, and it’s unclear what will happen to Hong Kong’s autonomy after that.

This agreement is the legacy the youth of Hong Kong inherit today.

Hong Kong citizens now have two choices: to try and turn the hastening tide on the hand-over of democratic freedoms conditionally bestowed upon Hong Kong 20 years ago, or watch silently as their political way of life, and many of their liberties, are enveloped by Chinese sovereignty.

Hong Kong has shown how China’s Chairman Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian rule – no matter how successful in bringing peace and prosperity to the mainland – has created deep concern, especially among the youth of Hong Kong.

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China’s Chairman Xi Jinping (Image source: Nicolas Asfouri).

The breakdown of trust and faith in Hong Kong’s central government has led these groups down a path of resistance; one that Beijing likely didn’t anticipate. 

Already, China has expressed its fury over Hong Kong’s protests.

In recent weeks, China has made multiple official warnings about the necessity of enforcing a policy of “zero tolerance”, and how protests challenge “the bottom line of the “one country, two systems” formula.

But a violent response leaves China in a difficult position.

A heavy-handed crackdown might just fuel the fire and worsen not only Western perceptions of the situation, but intensify Taiwan’s resistance to their incorporation into mainland China.

This would create a situation of further violence, as China would seek to assert its authority over its ‘compatriots’, first in Hong Kong and then Taiwan. 

The situation in the Xinjiang province hasn’t helped either.

In August 2018, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims could be undergoing “re-education” programmes in the Xinjiang region.

This region is an essential, strategic gateway for China’s access to Central Asia’s vast energy resources, oil and natural gas.

Taiwan and Xinjiang are evidence of China’s reluctance to accept real autonomy for minority nationalities, and shows how China views the incorporation of these regions as a necessary step to maintain security within China’s “natural borders”.

However, Hong Kong is different from Taiwan and Xinjiang Province for two reasons.

As a handover from the UK, Hong Kong has a historical relationship with Britain as an international guarantor (although, how useful the UK will be, while still side-tracked by Brexit, remains to be seen).  

There are also hundreds of thousands of foreigners living in Hong Kong, which means increased international scrutiny.

Beijing, therefore, has to be very careful about what it does in Hong Kong. 

For the rest of the world watching on, memories of the last major protest against China’s government are causing concern for these current protests.

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Concerns have been raised over current Hong Kong protests, given the horror of the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre (Image source: Vincent Yu).

Today’s protests bear some hallmarks of the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre, where some 10,000 Chinese students were killed in horrific acts of state-sanctioned violence against their people.

While young Hong Kongese would lay down their lives to protect their freedoms, China is too savvy to blunder into Hong Kong as they blundered into Beijing 30 years ago. 

When Beijing eventually sets it sights on Hong Kong, its likely to be a sudden, overnight occupation.

A declaration of martial law and Chinese police occupying every major intersection of the streets will allow pro-China thugs to beat any potential protests in the backstreets.

Hong Kong will be brought to a standstill and as the hospitals fill, and reality will sink in that there is no going back.

The exodus of Hong Kong citizens to Australia, UK, Canada and the US would stretch us to the limit, but we would have no choice but to hopefully respond with welcoming arms.

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