Under the English, technically the people of Hong Kong had no voice—the trade-off for the continued protection of a free way of life. When China moved to reclaim the territory—the lease of the New Territories would expire in 1997 and there was no practical way to maintain those parts of the region which had been ceded in perpetuity without the New Territories; and, in any case, as Deng Xiaoping early made clear to Margaret Thatcher, China could easily take back the colony any time it wanted (it wouldn’t even have to invade: Hong Kong relied on the mainland for its water supply).
The people of Hong Kong could not be certain that the personal and civil liberties they enjoyed under Elizabeth would be able to continue under the PRC. The Chinese side attempted to address this fear. Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty under the formula of “one country, two systems”—China was one unified country; but Hong Kong (and, potentially, Taiwan) would retain their own social and economic systems: ordinary life would go on as before; the police and courts would continue to function as before; the economy would function in accord with the principles of a free market; the Hong Kong government would have control over foreign trade policy and over the region’s borders, controlling as it saw fit not merely immigration from abroad but from the mainland as well. Hong Kong would be governed by Hong Kong people (that is, not by functionaries sent by the mainland). Deng Xiaoping said that Hong Kong should primarily be ruled by “patriots”—that is, persons who accepted that Hong Kong was part of China and gave their primary political loyalty to China. But, he said, patriots did not necessarily imply “leftists”—that is, pro-communist figures—and primarily by patriots did not mean that everyone had to be a patriot. And, Deng said, none of this would change for 50 years (and, he later added, that did not mean that things had to change after 50 years).
At the same time, there were some less reassuring indications. During the process of negotiation, some on the Chinese side said that no units of the People’s Liberation Army would be stationed in Hong Kong. This was immediately contradicted by Deng Xiaoping: there would indeed be PLA forces in Hong Kong (presumably replacing the British military presence in the colony). In the course of the negotiations, delegations of Hong Kong residents went to Beijing with the demand that they be consulted during the process. This was not allowed by the Chinese side. Rather, they were told that as Chinese citizens they were already adequately represented by the Chinese government. The authorities did offer specific assurances to the more powerful interest groups (for example, big business), but the population as such were put on notice not to expect much “voice” in determining their future.
Hong Kong’s governors were typically old China hands from the Foreign or Colonial Affairs Office, and tended, with full recognition of Hong Kong’s precarious position, to go out of their way to avoid anything that might offend the Chinese authorities. Whereas in their other colonies the British took at least some steps to put into place democratic procedures prior to independence, no such action was taken in Hong Kong—again, because the Chinese would not welcome anything that might imply some sort of autonomy or self-determination by the inhabitants. After the 1984 agreement on retrocession, though, and especially after the brutal suppression of the democratic movement on the mainland in 1989, there was increasing pressure from civil society for greater opportunities for democratic participation, seen basically as insurance against arbitrary actions by the mainland. The last governor, Chris Patten, did not fall into the usual mold: he had been a prominent Tory politician. He hoped to devote his tenure to preparing Hong Kong for the Chinese takeover, and this included a certain measure of democratization, increasing the opportunities for ordinary citizens to have some say in how their lives would be ordered. Beijing thwarted all of Patten’s efforts, repaying him with obscene invective.
On July 1 1997 Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, to be governed under a “Basic Law” negotiated between China and the United Kingdom. The position of governor was replaced by a “chief executive,” with the vague promise in the Basic Law that eventually this personage would be elected through “universal suffrage” of all Hong Kong citizens. In the meantime, however, an electoral system of sorts was set up which pretty much guaranteed that the Legislative Council would be dominated by persons sympathetic to Beijing, or at least wary of doing anything that risked Beijing’s displeasure. Previously, Hong Kong had been ruled through consultation among bureaucrats in London, the professional Hong Kong civil service, and the Hong Kong business community, especially the big business community. . After 1997 the London bureaucrats were replaced by cadres in the Communist party’s United Front Work department.
The population, though, was increasingly mobilized, especially younger educated people and a professional business class—doctors, lawyers, teachers, and the like. The business middle class tended to be more passive and more inclined to let Beijing have its way—because Beijing was capable of making things difficult for them if they did not.
The conventional expectation in 1997 was that economically Hong Kong would continue to prosper, but that politically it would become more repressive. In the short term it was the reverse. The Chinese did not interfere with the existing rights and liberties of the population, but almost immediately after retrocession the economy collapsed (possibly coincidentally). The economic hardships of the late 1990s and early 2000s sharpened social and economic differences in the region, feeding into a growing discontent and undermining the inhabitants’ traditional passivity and complacency.
The political consequences began to show up later. There were rumors that the local Hong Kong press were beginning to exercise self-censorship, avoiding material the rulers in Beijing might consider sensitive. The Hong Kong government itself also seemed committed to a kind of self-censorship, avoiding anything that might antagonize Beijing. The mainland media increasingly featured commentary to the effect that the one country, two systems formulation gave priority to the “one country” bit—that there were distinct limitations to the “autonomy” Hong Kong could expect to enjoy. Older residents began to lament that Hong Kong was on the way to becoming just another large Chinese city. In a series of cases involving the right of abode in Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal ruled in 2000 that while the courts had the power determine whether local ordinances conformed to the Basic Law, ultimate interpretation of the Basic Law itself rested with China’s National People’s Congress—in the end Beijing would determine the scope of autonomy allowed Hong Kong.
The Basic Law provided that Hong Kong would enact a law prohibiting sedition, treason, and the like, and in 2002 the region’s government initiated moves to pass such a law. It is not clear whether this was at the bidding of the Beijing authorities, or whether the local authorities were anticipating what Beijing would like. Aroused public opinion judged this “anti-sedition law” as a move toward introducing police-state controls, and the proposal provoked large public demonstrations. In the face of the demonstrations the Hong Kong government withdrew the bill, perhaps after being told to do so by Beijing.
There was a more protracted set of demonstrations beginning in 2014 and lasting for 74 days, protesting against the Hong Kong government’s disinclination to move toward full universal suffrage and the Chinese authorities attempts to predetermine the outcome of local elections scheduled for 2017. This “umbrella movement” (named for the use of umbrellas to counter the effects of the pepper spray used by the police to disperse the crowds) involving several tens of thousands of protestors, “peacefully” occupied Hong Kong’s Central Area, the locus of administrative and commercial activity, and soon after other parts of the city as well. The occupation itself was non-violent, but the police responded with force, including the use of tear gas. Protestors were also harassed by local gangsters sympathetic to (or in the pay of) Beijing.
The protests of 2019 were set off by the Hong Kong government’s proposal (maybe or maybe not at the behest of Beijing) to enact an Extradition law. The ostensive need for such a law came from a case wherein a Hong Kong resident, while in Taiwan, allegedly murdered his girlfriend, returning to Hong Kong before he could be arrested by the Taiwan police. Taiwan demanded that he be sent back for trial. Hong Kong, however, was not allowed to have any formal governmental relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be an integral part of China. The Extradition law was proposed as a way of allowing Hong Kong to extradite criminals to territories with which it does not have, or cannot have, formal agreements.
The kicker here was that this would allow Beijing to demand the extradition of Hong Kong residents to the mainland for crimes (or “crimes”) which somehow violated mainland laws (or inconvenienced mainland rulers); and this, the Hong Kong people suspected, no doubt accurately, was the real reason behind the proposal. In the months prior to the proposal for the law mainland agents had kidnapped bookstore owners who published and sold volumes purporting to give the inside dope on the corrupt doings of various Communist bigshots, taking to the mainland and holding them for trial. The Extradition law would allow the same thing in a less messy way.
The proposal provoked the mobilization of thousands of Hong Kong residents, mostly students but also ordinary people as well. The protests were conducted in a peaceful manner, although, given their size, they could not but be disruptive to traffic and daily life. Despite the inconvenience occasioned by the protests, they clearly had the sympathy of the great majority of residents of the territory. The government stonewalled and the police response was unprofessional and brutal. Police brutality served only to increase the popularity of the protests, the protestors themselves increasingly becoming more deliberately disruptive (harassing passengers arriving at the airport, for example).
In response to police actions and governmental immovability, the demonstrations began to take on a more violent color. On July 1 huge crowd moved to occupy the Legislative Council complex. At this juncture the government actually did give some, tabling the Extradition bill and later withdrawing it altogether. Too little, too late—although it would seem that the demonstrations had achieved their purpose. But the popular response was to escalate their demands: now it became necessary for the government to institute a full inquiry into police abuses of power and to move toward instituting full democratic suffrage. Once more the government dug in, and both police and demonstrators (again, mainly students and ordinary citizens, but also attracting a portion of thugs and rowdies) became increasingly violent. Despite the disruptions and inconvenience of the demonstrations, the crowds—increasingly mobs— seemed to enjoy popular sympathy, although one could wonder how long that would last.
Hong Kong held District elections on November 24, resulting in a humiliating rout for the pro-Peking representatives and a sweeping victory for the democratic coalition. The outcome was perhaps a little more ambiguous than the numbers of those elected would imply, since the first-past-the-post electoral system resulted in proportion of representatives elected much greater than the number of votes received by their party. In terms of the popular vote the outcome was almost the same as it had been in previous elections, although the rate of participation was much higher than before. The election outcome did show that substantial numbers of Hong Kong residents continued to back the opposition, and refuted the belief ascribed to the rulers in Beijing that the population of the territory, the silent majority, had become fed up with the continuing disorder.
The situation does not allow for a resolution. The demonstrators, to be harsh, will not take yes for an answer—and from their perspective, rightly so: the authorities may yield temporarily on any particular issue, but the basic irritant remains, the lack of control by the residents of Hong Kong over their own lives and circumstances. The government, for its part, can’t give in either, whether the Hong Kong government or the Chinese overlords. A concession allowing for full democratic elections might serve to pacify the demonstrators, but, especially when coupled with “autonomy,” would ultimately be tantamount to a Hong Kong independent of China (which, one suspects, is what the residents of the territory would desire, if only it were possible).
There are other sad complications: The demonstrators sacrifice some measure of international sympathy when they turn to violence; but the threat of violence seems to be the only incentive for the authorities to make concessions. And the demonstrations themselves are an example of “leaderless resistance,” a concept developed on the fringe of the American right wing but adapted by Muslim terrorists and others. Rather than a united movement, individuals (or groups, or mobs) act on their own initiative and with their own tactics, motivated by a shared interpretation of the predicament they are in. Leaderlessness is also a strategic choice, since after the pacification of the Umbrella Movement the police proceeded to arrest those who had been identified as leaders. A leaderless movement is hard to suppress, but also not conducive to victory for a cause. It is destructive rather than constructive. It hinders the operation of authority, whether just or unjust, but provides no alternative to the current power structure. Because there is no leader, there is no one to negotiate with, to strike a deal. And those who do attempt to make an agreement or compromise can be shouted down by the more radical on their own side.
The mid-term result is more likely to be a destroyed Hong Kong than a democratic Hong Kong. It will be the end of Hong Kong as a bastion of law and stability. For China it will mean the end of those advantages that an autonomous Hong Kong gave to the country as a whole, but those advantages are becoming less relevant than they had been. There are no doubt powerful interests, say in Shanghai or in China’s state-owned sector generally that would not mourn the demise of Hong Kong. The loss of Hong Kong’s service to China would mean that the reason for allowing the territory a limited autonomy will also end. Hong Kong will become just one more Chinese city.
Speculation here is obviously subject to correction by events. The best guess at this point is that the protests will peter out, both the activists and the general public growing tired of the whole thing and more convinced of its futility. The petering out will certainly be followed by continued arrests and imprisonments of those who had been most active. An alternative would be a violent, probably bloody crackdown.
China has so far relied on the Hong Kong police to carry out the repression, and the overall consensus is that the Central government is reluctant to sending in the PLA both on principle and for risk of a repeat of the 1989 massacres on the mainland. Fear for their reputation in the world also, it is assumed, deters the rulers from an exertion of maximum force. This is certainly plausible, but perhaps should not be taken simply as a given. Prior to the closing down of the democracy movement in 1989 Deng Xiaoping is reported to have said (in effect): If we move harshly to restore order foreigners will make a big fuss, but after six months or so they will have forgotten all about it. He was prescient. Major effusions of blood in Hong Kong might have a broader and deeper effect on China’s reputation than the massacre in Beijing and other Chinese cities, given Hong Kong’s role in the general global economy. But it would not take long for the globe to adjust, and expediency and business-as-usual will in the longer term trump moral outrage.