Once known as the last jewel of the fading British Empire, Hong Kong’s democratic future has been shadowed by over three months of ceaseless protests. The region’s concerned citizens demand the preservation of their unique status and way of life in the face of an increasingly assertive China, seeking to reclaim its position as the region’s motherland.
Whilst the protests sprouted from a proposed extradition bill (now formally withdrawn), the persistent demonstrations have come to articulate many residents’ apprehension regarding the future of their democratic rights and liberties. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, created for the 1997 handover states that the region’s way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years, yet an increasing number of members of the Executive Council are aligned with Beijing. China’s growing influence in the political system has made residents increasingly uneasy about the continued viability of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework.
With no clear resolution or even direction in sight, there has also been a distinct lack of foreign intervention throughout the protests. Even Britain, its former colonial power, has sparsely commented on the widespread demonstrations and calls for the preservation of democratic freedom.
Yet it is Britain’s enduring legacy and imbued values that have led Hong Kong to its current predicament. Hong Kong is one of China’s Special Administrative Regions (SAR), however many Hong Kong inhabitants do not identify as Chinese, but as having their own separate identity, forged from 150 years of foreign rule. Its residents consider themselves to be more westernised than much of Asia, possessing strong democratic tendencies, enjoying a strong civil society and the right to protest, whether about baby formula or unpopular laws.
Hong Kong has never been an entirely democratic region. Prior to the handover to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the Governor of the Hong Kong government was elected in London by the reigning monarch. The Governor subsequently chose the majority of the members of both the Legislative Council and Executive Council. But now, Hong Kong residents still enjoy many freedoms not found in Communist China: freedom of expression, religion, movement, of assembly, the right to protest, a free press, and a free and capitalist market.
Since the handover, the Hong Kong government has been headed by the Chief Executive, who is elected by an elite committee of only 1,200 members. The 2014 Umbrella Movement was precipitated when Beijing attempted to change the law so that Chief Executive candidates would be first vetted by a Beijing-approved committee, threatening the region’s political autonomy.
Ultimately this law did not pass, however in the succeeding years President Xi Jinping has grown more assertive in pushing a ‘One China’ model, which we are witnessing in Xinjiang and with Taiwan. Subsequently, the protests not only threaten Hong Kong’s SAR status, but also the PRC’s strategy with Taiwan, whose Prime Minister Tsai Ing-Wen, has publicly supported the pro-Hong Kong movement.
Beijing’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework is currently being challenged, as both a sustainable option for Hong Kong, and for the reunification of Taiwan, which grows everyday more unlikely. Whilst Beijing espouses the supposed success of this system, its troubled execution has left Taiwan and other foreign actors sceptical of its execution.
The protests continue to be a large nuisance for President Xi Jinping and the Party. They directly challenge the legitimacy and leadership of the Communist Party as the rulers of China. The Party’s mandate rests on their ability to bring development to the country and maintain social harmony, which they have accomplished in a very short span of time. Nonetheless, this has also been achieved by prohibiting any sort of resistance to their reforms, which is what the Hong Kong protests are currently doing.
Hong Kong’s uprising threatens this social cohesion and the party’s legitimacy, and the CCP recognises that it needs to be extremely shrewd in how it will resolve the unrest in the SAR. The region must be placated in a way that will not allow them greater autonomy. Nor can it suggest to Taiwan that separation from the mainland is possible.
Consequently, the protests serve to reinforce the essential difference between Hong Kong and China, as Hong Kong is unwilling to relinquish their democratic rights and civil liberties, elements central to their distinct identity. Simultaneously, the way in which China decides to take action will inevitably elicit connections with the enduring issue of Taiwan, and challenge the validity of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ or any chance of a peaceful reunification.
Ludmilla Nunell is a current intern at the NSW Division of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. She has just completed a Bachelor of International and Global Studies (Honours) at the University of Sydney and is a DFAT New Colombo Plan Alumni