Hong Kong, a dependent territory in South Asia, has been making headlines in the recent times for the sustained pro-democracy movement. The political system of Hong Kong is such that it exists as a dependent state under the People’s Republic of China. A former British territory, Hong Kong follows a system commonly referred to as the ‘one country, two systems’ model. The involvement of China in the internal affairs of this region has often created rift and turmoil in the political relations between the states. The earlier protests in 2014 and the recent protests are demonstrations of people’ political aspirations and their support for the freedom that comes with democracy.
Political status of Hong Kong
The political status of Hong Kong has undergone a variety changes in a relatively short period of time. For over 150 years, Hong Kong was British territory under the Crown. In 1997, the sovereignty of the state was transferred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since 1997, Hong Kong has remained as a special administrative region under the People’s Republic of China with autonomy except for foreign affairs and defence. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 stated that Hong Kong would continue to remain a dependent territory under the PRC for at least 50 years post is retrocession.
The government of Hong Kong has been facing a variety of issues ever since it became a dependent territory. These issues essentially have manifested due to the problematic relationship between PRC and Hong Kong. The political aspirations of Hong Kong have for long been shadowed by Chinese interests. China has often tried to assert its dominance in the internal affairs of the region and Hong Kong has been attempting to assert its autonomy. This has created a constant state of political negotiation for the political freedom and autonomy of the region. In addition, the government operates as a repressive dictatorship under the Chief Executive and has been declared as a flawed democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Umbrella Movement of 2014
The Umbrella Movement, also known as the ‘occupy’ movement, consisted of a series of protests in 2014 where the residents of Hong Kong took to the streets against the proposed changes to the voting system in Hong Kong. In the dependent state, suffrage is limited to a certain segment of people. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress wanted to implement a set of procedures that would restrict the process of political representation, allowing the Chinese Communist Party to screen candidates for the position of Chief Executive. These protests took the form of a disobedience movement with students and the public actively engaging in them. The use of police and the courts to resolve this issue has created the impression that the rule of law has been compromised. Beginning with these protests, the interference of China in the affairs of Hong Kong have been increasing and creating instability in this region.
The Extradition Law Amendment Bill
The current agitations in Hong Kong began in June as a response to the Extradition Law Amendment Bill that was introduced by the Chinese government. In an alleged attempt to plug loopholes in the existing law that seemed to have created Hong Kong into a safe haven, this law had brought about many changes to the judicial system. Initially, it was not possible to extradite individuals wanted for crimes abroad. Now, with the passing of this law, the Hong Kong government could respond to extradition requests for criminal suspects even from countries with which China might not have had a extradition treaty. These requests were to be considered on a case-by-case manner by the Chief Executive.
The problem with this proposed amendment was that critics believe this would infringe the judicial autonomy of Hong Kong and expose it to the flawed justice system of China. This would actually pave way for unfair and arbitrary detention of the citizens of Hong Kong by the Chinese judicial system. Many dissidents who have been vocal about the political aspirations of Hong Kong now felt threatened. Many people who worked in areas that potentially questioned the authority of China such as lawyers, activists and even book sellers who sold books that opposed the government could now face the risk of unfair detention. Opposition began to grow and people began to gather in public spaces during weekends to express their dissent. Soon this movement grew to become one of the largest demonstrations since 1997.
Escalation of protests
The protests in Hong Kong have escalated quickly over the course of a few months and were influenced by crucial and defining moments. Initially, the movement began as a peaceful resistance against a law that was perceived to be unfair by the people. The sheer number and magnitude of the protests redefined the future trajectory of the movement. One of the initial protests where people surrounded the Hong Kong’s Legislative Council was met with suppressive measures by the police that was considered to be excessive. Clashes began to intensify, giving this movement a violent character. The debate on the bill was postponed and Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, stated that bill is now rendered powerless.
Police violence was followed by more protests with protesters demanding for an investigation into their actions. On the anniversary of Hong Kong retrocession in July, many people gathered peacefully but a small group vandalised the Legislative Council. Newer demands began to emerge including universal suffrage, amnesty for arrested demonstrators and retraction of official records which considered the June 12th protests as riots. As protests continued, shooting of protesters and using of tear gas in dangerous ways marked increased violence on the part of the police force. Officials from the Hong Kong and PRC government intensified their stance against the demands of the protesters.
On the 4th of September, the Chief Executive announced the formal withdrawal of the bill. However, this was insufficient to address the demands of the protesters. The movement has now come to become a symbol of resistance against the oppressive regime. Within a few days, ‘Glory to Hong Kong’, an anonymously composed song became famous in various online platforms. Many of the young protesters have begun to leave behind messages that would act as their last letters to the families, symbolising the real threat associated with state oppression. With increasing clashes and oppression, the protest took a pro-democracy character, demanding for redressal of the flaws in Hong Kong’s political status.
The future of Hong Kong
Ever since the protests of 2014, China has engaged in activities that seem to endanger the future of the ‘one country, two systems’ approach adopted with respect to Hong Kong. This has, time and again, triggered a series of protests that have portrayed the sheer of people’s will to dissent against oppression and express the political aspirations. At this juncture, the political and even the economic future of Hong Kong remain uncertain. With the protests lasting for a few months, the economy has begun to plunge into a recession. This can have global repercussion in an already slowly growing world market. The magnitude of these protests show that they would continue till the demands have been met, which seems to be highly unlikely.
This situation leaves us with several crucial questions about the future. What is going to be the future of the ‘one country, two systems’ approach? Is it going to last until 2047 as envisioned by the Sino-British Joint Declaration? The future of the role of China in the politics of Hong Kong remains very uncertain and bleak at this point. Any change in this region would eventually lead to massive changes in the balance of power in this region. Apart from this, it is bound to create ripple effects across the global economy. At this juncture, the only possibility available for the global community is to brace for impact, for a change in any direction is going to have global implications.
Picture Courtesy- Bloomberg