China and an independent Hong Kong have had an uncertain relationship since the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong from Britain to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997, which was an experiment with the concept of “one country, two systems” designed and proposed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
For most of history before the British conquest of Hong Kong in 1842, it was under direct Chinese rule and incorporated in mainland China.
Hong Kong is now what China calls a special administrative region, enjoying a great deal of autonomy that has made it a key business and media hub in the region. Despite this, it remains subject to pressure from mainland China, and Beijing remains responsible for defence and foreign affairs.
In this Video we will be examining the historical relations between China and Hong Kong, as well as looking at the latest political developments in Hong Kong placing them in the larger context.
China’s influence on Hong Kong as a British Colony
Hong Kong became a British colony after Britain’s victory against China in the Opium Wars in 1842, when the Queen of England and the Emperor of China signed the Treaty of Nanking; the first of a series of so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ between East Asian states and western powers.
Rule was established by a Governor who was appointed by, and subordinate to the British Crown but who was largely autonomous and whose power was practically almost unrestrained.
In most cases, the Governor was a senior official from the British Foreign Office with long years of China experience and knowledge (so-called mandarins). The British government in London allowed the Governor largely a free hand in the execution of his duties and did not meddle with Hong Kong’s autonomy, limiting itself to setting the guidelines for foreign and defence policy.
This led to the establishment of a period of silent relations between Qing China and Hong Kong, as China was shaken and economically affected by the defeat in the first Opium War.
This ended with the outbreak of the second Opium War in 1856, which China lost as well, as a result of which the Kowloon Peninsula was ceded to Hong Kong under the Convention of Peking.
Since this loss China had remained less aggressive towards the Hong Kong territory, and in 1898, China leased the rural New Territories the mainland area adjacent to Kowloon and 235 islands to Britain for 99 years of peace.
In 1979, Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on his first official visit to China.
Deng said China would reassert sovereignty over the “special region” after June 30, 1997.
This led to a period of negotiation between Britain’s government under Thatcher,
and in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty agreeing that all of Hong Kong would be returned to China at midnight on June 30, 1997, was signed in Beijing after four months of talks.
Negotiations on the technicalities continued until the British flag was lowered and the Hong Kong and Chinese flags raised at midnight of June 30, 1997 to signal Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule.
Hong Kong as administrative region of China
On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong changed from a colony formally completely under British control but which was for all practical purposes largely autonomous into a Special Administrative Region of China, which formally enjoys a ‘high degree of autonomy’ but in practice has to live with a number of influences exercised by the mainland which undermine its autonomy or bear a longer term potential to that effect.
More than 4,000 troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army cross the border into Hong Kong in the early hours of the morning. Until 2003, the perspective through which Beijing assessed Hong Kong was one that was put together using traditional ideological construct of how China saw its relations with the outside world.
It was based on the belief of British colonial trickery that would attempt to foil China’s exercise of sovereignty post-1997. It feared that the people of Hong Kong could be stirred into becoming “anti-China”. The oppositionist forces were seen by China as nurtured by the British colonialists to stand up for the values of freedom and democracy, leading to disharmony among the people and the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (HKSARG).
The first government of the HKSARG, under the politically conservative leadership of former shipping tycoon Tung Chee Hwa, largely excluded pro-democracy politicians from appointments to the Executive Council-Hong Kong’s equivalent of the cabinet, as well as to chairmanship positions of important advisory and consultative bodies.
To dilute the popularity of the democratic camp, Beijing’s strategy has been to build up the patriotic forces in Hong Kong by actively supporting pro-government politicians and political parties to ensure the Legislative Council is dominated by them.
Beijing also found it crucial immediately after the events of 1989 to include Article 23 in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s post-handover constitution. Article 23 requires Hong Kong to pass its own laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government, theft of state secrets, and foreign political bodies from conducting political activities in Hong Kong.
Even though the colonial administration failed to pass legislation for this law, various pre-existing colonial laws and post-1997 amendments to the Societies Ordinance made by the HKSARG already provided the government with strong powers to act in the event that national security was felt to be at risk.
China tried to impose the law once again however, and after a period of mass rallies and demonstrations, the HKSARG no longer had enough votes in the Legislative Council to push through the controversial bill. Tung Chee Hwa was forced to defer passage with no set date once again.
On JuIy 1, 2004, despite the SCNPC interpretation, democracy activists organized a march specifically for the people to show support for political reform. While there were disputes as to how many people participated, a large number (as many as 200,000 to 250,0000) did show up. This contributed to the start of a more relaxed attitude toward Hong Kong.
In December 2004, the HKSARG published its fourth constitutional development task force report to highlight the reform choices they had made. tension has arisen between Hong Kong residents and the mainland, and in particular the central government, in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Since 2012, there have been a vertiginous increase in mainland parallel traders coming to the northern parts of Hong Kong to import goods and export them back to mainland. Products that are popular among these traders include infant formula and household products.
On November 19, 2015, an anti-mainlandisation motion was voted down, with 19 in favour and 34 opposing. The motion sought to defend local history and culture from the influence of mainland China. Supporters argued that mainlandisation leads to fakeness, rampant corruption and the abuse of power, while Hong Kong risked becoming another mainland city. This was another example of a recent attempt by Hong Kong to increase their autonomy from China.
2019 HONG KONG PROTESTS
Hong Kong is in the middle of the most significant protests since a 2014 pro-democracy movement known as the Umbrella Revolution. After the announcement of the drafting of an extradition bill that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, Hong Kong witnessed two of its largest ever protests, as well its most violent protest in decades.
The changes would have allowed for extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects accused of criminal wrongdoings, such as murder and rape. Officials said Hong Kong courts would have the final say whether to grant such extradition requests, and suspects accused of political and religious crimes would not be extradited.
After several days, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has apologised for an extradition bill that sparked mass protests, acknowledging it is now “unlikely” it will pass, stating “I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility. This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society, For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong.”
Despite this, protesters have reacted angrily to her press conference, saying that she’s not met either of their demands: that she formally withdraw the bill, and step down as leader. Ms Lam, a former civil servant with little political experience prior to becoming chief executive, has long been accused of being out of touch with the public. The detrimental economic effect of the recent protests can be seen as several large firms and banks like Standard Chartered have closed quarters in the past days.
Considering the mounting pressure being mounted by the mass protests, as well as the economic slump it has caused, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has been given two options by the protesters, either to formally withdraw the bill, or resign from her position, while Lam’s reluctance to do so despite this pressure displays the strong grip Beijing holds over the Hong Kong government, acting as a familiar reminder, that it is, and has been firmly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs since 1997. Will the persistence of these mass protests encourage Beijing to retract its hand in Hong Kong’s affairs, or is this just a hurdle that will not alter the current geopolitical setting? Let us know in the comments below