Hong Kong’s relationship with China has always been complicated. Both the more recent protests against the extradition bill and the ones that took place in 2014, sparked by a decision regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system, are not fully comprehensible to an external eye, unless they are being read in the context of what is a much more rooted issue than single protests.
Back in 1898, Hong Kong, a small peninsula and group of islands jutting out from China’s Guangdong province, was leased by China to Great Britain for 99 years. During this period, which had its fair share of inconveniences – such as the temporary Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II -, Hong Kong flourished economically and got used to certain liberties.
What Hong Kong developed during its British ruling was a strong protesting tradition, based on pacific protests and demonstrations that were allowed by the British government thanks to the latter’s liberal legacy. That led, in 1982, to many worries in what would be the upcoming return of Hong Kong under Beijing’s wing.
Those worries eventually brought China and the U.K. to sign a Joint Declaration which, defining the ‘One country, two systems’ principle, had the goal of securing Hong Kong’s capitalistic economy and partially democratic political system, for 50 years after the handover.
The fifth subparagraph of Art. 3 of the Joint Declaration clearly states: “Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”.
Since 1997, the date in which Hong Kong was returned to China’s jurisdiction, many protests started to take place, for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to Hong Kong population’s fear of being fully subjected to China’s rigid ruling, despite the fact that theoretically Hong Kong could rely on a number of additional forms of freedom given by the ‘One country, two systems’ principle due to it being a so-called Special Administrative Region.
In more recent times, what seems to be the spark of Hong Kong’s protest is the infamous extradition bill, whose birth was instigated by the murder of a pregnant woman, killed by her fiancé on a romantic getaway in Taiwan.
This situation forced Hong Kong’s court to face quite a challenging problem because both the killer and the victim were citizens of Hong Kong and given the absence of any joint agreement between Taiwan and Hong Kong regarding the extradition of criminals. That eventually led Hong Kong’s government to propose a bill that would serve as a regulation in all the situations in which there’s a lack of an extradition treaty, including China.
Hong Kong’s population has though interpreted this bill as a step further towards Chinese full ownership of Hong Kong, which is set to happen in 2047, the date of the eventual expiry of the ‘One country, two systems’ principle.
The protests haven’t stopped yet, despite the assurance of the suspension of the bill made by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on July 9, who pronounced the extradition bill dead. The affirmations made by Carrie Lam have caused many people to worry about the nature of the act of suspension itself. The refusal of the Chief executive to formally and definitively withdraw the extradition bill has been seen as an intention of proposing that same bill once again sometime soon.
If the bill were to be proposed again, fighting back against its success would be a much harder task, especially given the structure of Hong Kong’s legislative body. Despite the nature of the ‘Basic law’ of Hong Kong, which is to eventually make all the seats that form Hong Kong’s legislative council eligible by universal suffrage, today that is yet to be the case.
During the ‘Sixth Legislative Council’ (2016-2020), for instance, out of a total of 70 seats, only 35 are eligible via direct elections. The remaining 35 seats are eligible through the so-called ‘functional constituencies‘, who represent different sectors of the community, such as the medical field, the financial services field, the accountancy field and so on, and are mostly elected by small groups of elites and companies.
Given the strong influence of companies in the election of the functional constituencies, one could fairly assume, due to the irresistible interest that the Chinese market sparks all over the world, that Beijing would manage to affect the work of Hong Kong’s legislative council (LegCo).
Despite the strongest popularity of pro-democracy political parties over pro-Beijing parties through Hong Kong’s citizens, the structure of its ‘LegCo’ would alone pre-determine the fate of the proposal of another extradition bill.
That seems to be the exact reason of the ongoing protests made by pro-democracy parties, regardless of the suspension of the extradition bill due to the failure of the second reading of such act, which took place on June 12.
“It’s time for her to end her political career” affirms Joshua Wong, in regards to Carrie Lam’s involvement. Wong is currently one of the most relevant faces in Hong Kong’s political revolution, and according to him, pro-democracy parties won’t back down until the extradition bill will have been fully withdrawn.
The dramatic nature of Hong Kong citizens’ fear of being overruled by Beijing seems to be also having its effects on one of the main aspects that has always characterized the dynamics of Hong Kong’s protests, its pacific nature.
The latest demonstration at China Liaison office, which took place on July 21, might mark an important shift in pro-democracy groups’ modus operandi due to what appears to be a significantly violent turn.
During this occasion, in fact, protesters expressed their anger through the use of eggs, projectiles, laser lights and graffiti in order to vandalize Beijing’s office in Hong Kong, causing a shocked reaction from Carrie Lam herself, who on the other hand doesn’t seem willing to satisfy any of pro-democracies groups’ requests.
As the situation gets more and more critical, Beijing’s aim to further expand its role in Hong Kong’s liberal and capitalistic economy is revealing itself to be quite the double-edged sword.
In fact, while it’s apparent that the very same dynamic struck China’s interest, due to the augmented ties that the total control over Hong Kong’s economy would allow China to have with the capitalistic world, there is also another matter that Beijing’s government consequently has to face: the freedom that Hong Kong’s population is used to being able to exercise, which is not something that they will back down on fighting for anytime soon.
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