Pro-democracy protests continue to grip Hong Kong after nearly three months of unrest. The continued rallies even after the protestors' major demand was met show that there is no end in sight to the current tensions.
The protests began over a now withdrawn bill that would have allowed criminals to be extradited to mainland China for prosecution. If allowed, this bill would have effectively torn down the barrier between the rule of law in Hong Kong and rule by law on the mainland, where silencing of dissidents is commonplace.
Protestors have since continued to take on the larger goal of securing greater autonomy and democracy for the Hong Kong people. Amongst their demands beyond its withdrawal are: an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and universal suffrage in elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and legislative council. This includes the resignation of current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China following a handover in 1997. It is run under a “one country, two systems” arrangement to allow certain autonomy and freedoms. This was agreed between British and Chinese diplomats, with the proviso that China would resume total sovereignty after 50 years in 2047.
Allowing Hong Kong autonomous status was a conscious effort to maintain the capitalist financial system and common law system which afforded Hong Kong its wealth, stability and unique position as one of the most democratic cities in Asia. At the time, Beijing was aware that it was neither possible nor desirable to impose a socialist system on Hong Kong.
Hong Kong remains for the most part culturally, politically and linguistically distinct from the mainland. There is a rising “localism” asserting the need to protect this local identity and Hong Kong interests, including civil rights and freedoms.
The Basic Law acts as a mini-constitution, enabling Hong Kong to “exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power”. Although it was drafted with deliberately vague language.
The Law incorporates both socialist and democratic ideologies without defining their limitations. This is problematic as it simultaneously guarantees civil rights and checks and balances, whilst giving Beijing supervisory power and discretion to interpret the Basic Law as it chooses.
China has risen to become the second-largest economy in the world, hence, there are fewer economic incentives to avoid interference in Hong Kong affairs. Given the current and growing influence of Beijing in local government affairs, there remains much confusion as to what “one country, two systems” actually guarantees.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed between the British and Chinese in 1984 to determine Hong Kong’s future. It stipulates that all Basic Law policies “will remain unchanged for 50 years”. The British understood this to mean that China was committed to upholding the liberal democratic values that Hong Kong had developed under colonialism.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a signatory to the Declaration, claimed that “the steady expansion of democracy had already been agreed [in a provision] with China”.
However, other British diplomats, including Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten, described the difficulties enshrining democratic principles in Hong Kong law. They cited the strong pressure to strengthen relations with China as reasons for Britain accepting the lack of democracy safeguards.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2017 described the Joint Declaration, a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”. Beijing’s position is that the declaration has no binding power and that Britain no longer has a say in Hong Kong affairs.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, on the other hand, recently warned China that it could face “serious consequences” for going against the Joint Declaration. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejected this view, describing Britain as “fantasizing in the faded glory of British colonialism” and “looking down on other countries’ affairs”.
As there is no explicit commitment to democracy or universal suffrage there are no consequences to this reversal. As the Basic Law enables the central government jurisdiction over national security and national interests, Beijing can intervene based on its political incentives, without needing to justify itself.
As the “one country, two systems” regime was created with an inbuilt expiry date, Beijing’s growing role in regional affairs can be justified. Given mainland China’s economic success under a socialist system, there is less desire to maintain a common law system and continue the democratisation of the Special Administrative Region. Beijing has never publicly stated what it intends to happen to Hong Kong after 2047, though, Hong Kong’s Basic Law confers it the discretion to do as it pleases.
Beijing will likely want the issue resolved promptly as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is drawing nearer. Yet in light of the perceived rise in separatist and anti-China sentiment, described as “terrorism” compromising may not be an option.
The continuing unrest today is largely a result of ideological contradictions in Hong Kong’s constitution and the lack of institutional safeguards. The agreement to allow the Hong Kong Basic Law to continue “unchanged” for 50 years now appears to be no more than an empty promise.
Beijing must avoid excessive force, as a second Tiananmen Square-like incident would only fan the flames of discontent and invite more intense global condemnation. Additionally, protestors must walk a fine line between pushing for greater freedoms and provoking further clampdowns from Beijing.
Without political solutions, the conflict will only continue to spiral. The mutual lack of trust remains the greatest obstacle to overcome. The ongoing erosion of the “one country, two systems” model will only add to Hong Kong’s insecurity in the coming years.
Alexandra Smith is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.