A Tale of Two Systems

Two million people (⅓ of Hong Kong’s population), marched on June 16th against the extradition bill. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Update: In a major development, Hong Kong Chief Executive will withdraw the extradition bill that ignited the current unrest in the region. This move meets one of the major demands of protestors in Hong Kong and is a major step back from Lam’s previous hard-line condemnation of the protestors and their demands. Lam’s concessions make it increasingly difficult for the Chinese government to legitimize their harsh response to the protests, as their major demand has been met. However, the protests are no longer simply about the extradition bill, but encompass overall discontent with Chinese influence. Therefore the concessions do not guarantee unrest will cease and could instead galvanize protests in search of greater concessions. The risk of Chinese intervention remains, but with one major demand met the potential for greater concessions has increased, and hope for a larger protest victory.

October 4, 2019.

In early February 2018 a Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, murdered his pregnant girlfriend, Poon Hui-wing, while on vacation in Taipei, Taiwan. Although Chan was later arrested by the Hong Kong police, authorities were unable to oblige the extradition request made by their Taiwanese counterparts. There is no formal extradition agreement between Taiwan and Hong Kong. To close this supposed legal loophole, the Hong Kong Legislative Council drew up a new bill. Under the proposed law criminals could be extradited not only to Taiwan but to other governments as well - including the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The fear of political persecution by the PRC’s opaque legal system sparked the protests in Hong Kong that have continued unabated for eleven weeks.

Hong Kong’s relationship with China has been complicated, to say the least. For much of its history, Hong Kong was on the fringe. It began as merely a small fishing village situated on rough terrain, but things changed with the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. As part of the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, the British took Hong Kong as a new trading port - a foothold to support their expansion into mainland China. Fifty years later, in 1898, Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories (collectively called Hong Kong) further cementing their presence in the region.

Throughout China’s tumultuous past two centuries, Hong Kong remained a part of the British Empire. It experienced rapid growth and economic change and even became one of the Four Asian Tiger economies during the 1950s. Hong Kong prospered and quickly became a global financial and maritime hub. But uncertainty arose with the expiration of the 99-year lease in 1997. Would Hong Kong remain a part of the British Empire? Or would it be returned to Chinese control? Despite concerns, the PRC and the UK came to an agreement: a Sino-British Joint Declaration was issued in 1984. Under this treaty, China would be allowed to resume sovereignty over Hong Kong, but under the condition that the area be allowed to retain its distinctive legal, political, and cultural structure for a period of 50 years. This system, known as “one country, two systems,” has given Hong Kong a much greater degree of autonomy than any other area of the PRC.

Since 1997, Hong Kong has carved its own niche under the “one country, two systems” principle. It has benefited from massive economic growth while still retaining many of its prized civil liberties. However, as time passes, China has sought to bring Hong Kong firmly back into its fold. Concerted efforts have included substantial investments in infrastructure along with political schmoozing. But this push for integration has brought China too close to comfort for many Hongkongers. In fact, tensions have boiled over in the past, most notably with the Umbrella Movement of 2014. Most protests have targeted China’s increasing political influence.

Indeed, Beijing has significant control over which candidates stand for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, as all candidates for the body must be approved by the PRC government before they are allowed to run for office. In addition, major companies that have a significant stake in friendly relations with Beijing have the exclusive right to nominate and vote for candidates for a number of Legislative Council seats. Also, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (the region’s head of government) is directly appointed by the Central People’s Government of the PRC.

The fear of major political change from the previously-mentioned extradition bill has inflamed the latest tensions in the territory. When the Legislative Council proposed the bill, Hongkongers raised concerns about Beijing’s looming shadow. After all, China could effectively extradite those employing Hong Kong’s civil liberties and try them on the mainland. Since June, marches against the bill have occurred regularly, with attendance reaching the millions on some days. To protesters, Beijing no longer seems to care about the principles agreed in the 1984 Declaration - the 50 year “grace period” has come to an end. Although the bill has been suspended and Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, has apologized, protests have continued. Demands have moved on from the extradition bill, and now include calls for Lam’s resignation and a reform of the democratic system in Hong Kong.

The protests have breathed new life into Hong Kong’s localist groups. While the movement suffered setbacks in the past, anger against Chinese encroachment on Hong Kong has revitalized a number of localist ideologies: greater autonomy, self-determination, and even a potential return to UK rule have all re-entered popular conversation. But China’s central government is wary of these ideas. As protests become more chaotic and demands more vocal, the police response (and Beijing’s as well) has become equally intense. But protesters have refined their disobedience down to a science. They have successfully practiced hit and run tactics by setting up roadblocks with metal gates and concrete slabs, by blocking roads and trains at a moments notice, and by coordinating mass demonstrations in Hong Kong’s most visible areas. Their actions have overstretched and infuriated Hong Kong’s beleaguered police force. However, the Hong Kong police have been accused of being overly brutal in shutting down these protests; numerous videos document the excessive use of tear gas and beanbag rounds on protesters. The Chinese government has labeled protesters “near terrorists”; viral footage and satellite imagery show Chinese paramilitary police hunkering outside of Hong Kong’s boundaries. Both sides have hardened their stances in recent days, and neither side shows any sign of backing down. As tensions continue to grow, how and when might they end?

Since the crisis has really come into its current state in recent weeks, there are many questions about what could be the result of this crisis. As the current situation stands, there are three potential resolutions to the current tensions. The first, and most severe, would be a crackdown by the PRC against the protesters through direct intervention by its forces. However, this would require a direct request from the Hong Kong Legislative Council. While the likelihood of this happening is low on the offset, China’s rhetoric towards the protesters has only grown more intense by the day, showing that the Central People’s Government is starting to lose its patience with the protesters and is restless with the current state of affairs. However, if China were to directly intervene, the protests may only intensify, and could ultimately lead to what some fear could be a “Tiananmen 2.0.” In addition, if China took a heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong, the reaction from the international community would most likely be swift in condemning and potentially even punishing China through political sanctions, like those Russia faced after the annexation of Crimea, or other punitive measures (even though President Trump says he trusts President Xi can “humanely solve the Hong Kong problem.”)

The second potential outcome could be an in-between option, where China allows Carrie Lam to take the fall for the crisis and forces her to solve it on her own. This would more or less keep the current status quo, and not much would ultimately change in terms of Chinese intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs and instead force Lam to use further police force to shut down the protests. Tensions would still remain high in the city, but China would be able to extricate itself from all responsibility for the current state of affairs.

The third possibility for how this conflict could end would be if China were to completely stand down from its harsh stance, potentially as a result of foreign pressure. The longer the current conflict plays out, the greater the chorus of support for Hong Kong among the international community will grow. Therefore, China may ultimately be forced to completely stand down and give the protesters a victory by stepping back a bit from its interference in Hong Kong, although to what extent is difficult to tell. This resolution, while potentially damaging to China’s image on the world stage as a near-superpower, would also boost a current narrative in Chinese propaganda that the protests are the work of outside forces (i.e. the CIA or the U.S. State Department), and might ultimately do more to harden China’s stance against the U.S. in the long run.

Whether or not the ending to this saga follows one of these three models or another unforeseen one, there is no doubt that the events that have transpired over the course of the previous months in Hong Kong will redefine the territory’s relationship with China and have a profound effect on local politics. Whether that leads to closer or further connections to Beijing, the summer of 2019 is a turning point for Hong Kong and its citizens, and the ripple effects will almost certainly be felt long after the protests end.

August 29, 2019

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