By Campaign Agent Will Fawcett
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Hong Kong has once again ignited tensions between pro-democracy protesters and Chinese Government officials and supporters. The former British colony, ruled for 156 years until the eventual concession of the territory to the Chinese in 1997, is a bastion of capitalism and wealth vastly overshadowed by its Socialist neighbour. Under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the UK relinquished Hong Kong to China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), meaning that Hong Kong would retain autonomy from Chinese interference and Socialist practices for at least 50 years. Although foreign policy and defence are provided by the Chinese, Hong Kong retains executive, legislative and judicial authority over itself and many of its 7.3 million residents wish for the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement to continue.
However, whilst Hong Kong’s companion Macau, located across the estuary and another ex-colony handed over by the Portuguese in 1999, has remained obedient to the Chinese, Hong Kong has proved to be the more troublesome sibling. Yet the fact that Hong Kong is one of the world’s most important financial centres and a bulwark of the capitalist world is water off a duck’s back to the Chinese. Instead, it is the growing resentment towards the Communist regime that Xi Jinping has claimed has ‘crossed a red line’, even protesting that attempts of sabotage have been made against the mainland. Most notable was the arrest of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, a critic of the Chinese one-party system and advocate of a free Hong Kong, representing the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime.
Since HMY Britannia departed Victoria Harbour in 1997 with last governor Chris Patten and the Prince of Wales, Hong Kong has had a long and proud history of upholding the democratic process. These included the 2003 1 July Marches which called for the resignation of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, with protestors opposing legislation to limit freedom of speech and the student-led Umbrella Movement in 2014 which reduced Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days. Not only is this issue a great nuisance to the reputation of the Chinese, the Communist regime is continually struggling to retard the growing calls for democratisation amongst its 1.8 billion citizens. Democracy and freedom is a serious threat to the very survival of the one-party system, despite the welcoming of the free-market that China has embraced over the past decades. With China soon to become the world’s largest economy and already enjoying its status as a world superpower, it is likely attitudes will harden to uphold these great expectations.
Hong Kong also represents the humiliation and embarrassment that China endured in the 19th century. During this time the European Empires and Japan carved China into spheres of influence following the First and Second Opium Wars. The Chinese were forced to concede territory and trading ports to the invading powers, and as such regions like Hong Kong epitomise the century of shame that casts a shadow over China’s mostly rich and prosperous history. On the 30th June, preceding Xi’s unique visit, the Chinese foreign ministry officially rebuked the 1984 Joint Declaration, essentially paving the way for increased interference and erosion of freedoms amongst the Hong Kong population, demonstrating that China can act unchallenged and independently.
Despite pro-democracy supporters taking part in ever-greater numbers year on year to mark the 1997 handover, this time the ‘welcome’ of the Chinese premier has truly fanned the flames of creeping authoritarianism in the region. The introduction of Mandarin over the native Cantonese (and English) is a sign of things to come for many Hong Kongers, and recent opinion polls have found that the vast majority of young people do not identify as Chinese, whilst a select few advocate independence from the mainland altogether. The semiautonomous region is also split amongst its own government, whereby 40 seats of the 70-seat Legislative Council are held by a plethora of political parties who support Beijing, meanwhile, various pro-Democracy parties hold only 26 seats. Hong Kong’s first female chief executive was sworn in early this year, Carrie Law, yet Xi’s visit is less a celebration of her appointment but more a display of authority.
With the future of Hong Kong yet again in the balance, many of its residents have looked to the UK to intervene and uphold its responsibility as the other actor present at the 1997 handover. Unfortunately for many, Britain has its hands tied elsewhere and the dominance of the Chinese in economic and diplomatic matters has rendered any UK response meaningless. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson responded with a rather nonchalant response, arguing only for the continued progression of the democratic process, without a sole mention or criticism of the Chinese government. Interviews with Hong Kong residents represent a complete mixture of opinion and paint a rather divided picture. Whilst some advocate a stronger rapprochement with China, others are more pessimistic and believe Britain ‘sold them down the river’ 20 years ago, especially after the weak response from the UK government to the recent developments. Under the Joint Declaration, Hong Kong has another 30 years left until 2047 to enjoy its status as a paradise of wealth and freedom (and economic inequality). Yet with the official reversal of this agreement by the Chinese, met with a lackadaisical response from Britain, perhaps the people of Hong Kong may start to look elsewhere for help.