The past couple weeks have seen tremendous political unrest within the small semi-autonomous region of China known as Hong Kong. You may have seen the impressive social media posts or heard on the news about the hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets. But what is the story behind the sudden (and mostly unexpected) turmoil? And what is the status of Hong Kong anyway? Is it part of China, or something else entirely? This week, we’ll explain the situation in Hong Kong and why it matters to you.
The history and current status of Hong Kong is (like so many things throughout modern history) tied to British colonialism. Throughout the early 1800s, the British looked to expand their naval empire throughout much of Asia. By the early 1840s, the British had successfully taken control of the island of Hong Kong along China’s southern coast. Hong Kong was very important to the British due to its location along critical trade routes with India and because of its excellent naval harbor.
The United Kingdom managed to maintain control of Hong Kong throughout the turmoil of the Second World War and Chinese independence. But as the British empire waned in the second half of the 1900s, an increasingly dominant Chinese government negotiated a deal with the United Kingdom to return Hong Kong to Chinese control. On July 1st, 1997, Hong Kong became a semi-autonomous region of mainland China. But since the people of Hong Kong had lived for over a century under Western influence, most of Hong Kong’s residents wanted to distance themselves from the absolute control of the Chinese communist party. As such, Hong Kong’s inclusion deal included provisions to allow the region to enjoy political and economic autonomy outside of the communist party control in domestic matters (known as the “one country, two systems” solution). The final status of Hong Kong was left open, to be negotiated within fifty years of Hong Kong’s readmission to China.
Why is this a problem now? Well, China is increasingly pushing its weight around throughout Asia. In foreign policy, China is looking to dominate the region using its Belt & Road Initiative and measures to claim ownership over the South China Sea. In domestic policy, China has accelerated its push towards authoritarian domination by clamping down on dissent throughout the country. China views the openness of Hong Kong as a liability for the communist party’s control. After all, political dissent is tolerated within Hong Kong. Since 1997, the Chinese government has attempted to assert more control over the region in violation of the spirit of the “one nation, two systems” agreement. In 2014, an effort to reform Hong Kong’s political system (seen by many as a way for China to pick Hong Kong’s leaders) was met with major protests in what became known as the Umbrella Movement.
So what are the current protests about? They all stem from a proposed extradition bill that would essentially allow the Chinese government to arrest anyone within Hong Kong who violates the laws of mainland China. Since China outlaws nearly every form of political dissent, this would functionally end the autonomy of Hong Kong. Prior to this proposal, there were still significant risks for political dissidents within Hong Kong. Protesters often went missing, only the turn up in prisons on mainland China. But this law would essentially normalize this practice and legalize the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress political freedom and expression in Hong Kong. So far, over two million of Hong Kong’s seven million residents have taken to the streets to urge the government to rescind the proposed law. Hong Kong’s regional government temporarily suspended the proposed law as of June 15th, but the protestors are demanding the permanent suspension of this proposal and the resignation of the current leader of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam.
What does this mean for the average American citizen? The success or failure of Hong Kong may serve as an indicator for the success or failure of other democratic societies throughout Asia. If Hong Kong can keep some distance from the Chinese communist party, there is at least some reason to believe that the spread of Chinese authoritarianism could be slowed or halted in some areas of Asia. The preservation of democratic rights is generally not just good for human rights, but tends to also favor American businesses. This is because it is much easier for them to partner with businesses in democratic nations than it is to compete for market share against entities controlled by the Chinese communist party.
For now, the proposed law will not go into effect. But it remains unclear what the next steps will be for both Hong Kong and the Chinese government in Beijing. China naturally views the incorporation of Hong Kong as one of its vital strategic interests, so there is little reason to believe that China will suspend its efforts to assimilate Hong Kong. But for now, the people of this tiny island region have shown they are aware of their power to advocate for political change. This is a power that an authoritarian government like China will likely not tolerate for long.