How has China broken the ‘one country, two systems’ rule for Hong Kong and what have been the repercussions?
HK was given to the British Empire in 1842 from China, after they lost the first Opium War. Originally the colony was just the Hong Kong Island, but its area was expanded twice (after further battles) to include Kowloon, then The New Territories in 1897. It was returned to China in 1997, when the 100-year lease for the New Territories expired. HK is made up of 263 islands, some of them tiny.
As part of the negotiations with the UK to peacefully return the whole of HK to China (rather than just the New Territories), China agreed to allow Hong Kong to retain some of its uniquely British characteristics after the “handover”.
So, whilst it is owned by China it is officially a “Special Autonomous Region” (SAR) and not the same as the other 31 provinces in China. China calls it “one country, 2 systems”.
My uncle has lived in Hong Kong since 2010 and he has told me some examples of things that are different in Hong Kong compared to the rest of China:
- Cars drive on the left; in China they drive on the right.
- The plugs we use are UK style, China’s are different.
- HK has its own international dialing code +852 vs China +86
- There is a border between HK and China, with passports visas etc. needed.
- The school curriculum is different and English, Cantonese and Mandarin languages are taught in schools. In China it is mostly Mandarin.
- In HK there is a free Press (freedom of speech), in China newspapers cannot write what they want.
- In HK there is no restriction on internet access, whereas in China, for example Google, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook are banned.
- HK has its own currency, the Hong Kong Dollar, which is linked to the US$, meaning the exchange rate doesn’t change. In China they have the Yuan.
- HK’s legal system is mostly unchanged since the handover and it is very similar to the UK’s. It is a Common Law System, that is independent from the judiciary. In China, The Communist Party is technically above the law, it is not a separate body. Torture to achieve confessions and political crimes still exist in China.
- In HK, they have an open capital account, meaning money can be transferred freely internationally with no restrictions. In China you cannot transfer money out of the country.
- HK has its own stock market (HKEX) and banking system with International banks (HSBC, Standard Charter etc.). China’s banks are controlled by the government and they have 2 separate stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen (with different rules and regulations).
- HK has separate trade and customs agreements with other countries. For example, in the US lower taxes are charged to HK than China and for importing and exporting goods, and they have different restrictions.
- HK has some elections when the people can vote for government officials – there are district elections every 4 years for half of the parliament’s seats. The other half are chosen by business sectors, but heavily influenced by China. China also chooses the head of HK, its Chief Executive. In China there are no free elections.
This all made Hong Kong a much nicer place to live than China.
Why did Hong Kong residents start to riot?
The riots started in 2019 because the problem with the “deal” with China, ends in 2047 and people living in HK started to get scared that in just 27 years, all these freedoms and benefits were going to change.
Local people were also afraid that this was starting to happen even faster than 2047, with changes being proposed by the Chinese-influenced politicians. One of which was the introduction of a Bill to allow HK people to be deported to China. This was the last straw for many HK residents and started the protests.
People were angry with the government but had no way to change them. They did not get to vote for them, and they did not choose them. So, they started to protest, but the government did not listen and pushed forward with processing the Bill. As it grew closer to the final parliament vote – 1million HK people marched in protest, the government still pushed on with the Bill, so 2 million people marched the next weekend. 1 out of 3 of the entire population (not including the young/elderly) marched in protest and still the government would not listen.
So out of growing frustration there started to be more aggressive clashes between the protestors and the police: throwing bricks, invading the parliament buildings and Police beating up protestors and using tear gas when petrol bombs were thrown at them. The protests became a daily event in HK.
On 4 September 2019, the leader of HK, Carrie Lam, announced that the law had been dropped. However, the protesters said it was ‘too little, too late’ and continued throughout the year, as citizens demanded greater freedom and rights and calling for Carrie Lam’s resignation. In October 2019, HK experienced one of its most violent days – the airport was shut down and flights cancelled. Streets were full of demonstrators throwing petrol bombs at the police who retaliated with live bullets.
In November, a standoff between police and students barricaded on the campus of HK’s Polytechnic university became another defining moment. Later that month, HK held local council elections which saw a landslide victory for the pro-democracy movement with 17 or the 18 councils now controlled by pro-democracy councilors. The stand-off developed into the worst violence HK had seen in decades. Miraculously only two deaths were reported, but over 6,000 people were injured and several thousand were arrested. Protests supporting the HK movement spread across the globe with rallies taking place in the UK, France, US, Canada and Australia. The Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against separatism, saying any attempt to divide China would end in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder”.
The protestors had 5 very clear aims:
1) Withdraw the extradition bill – this is the only one the government agreed to;
2) An independent investigation into police brutality (so many unjustified beatings);
3) Do not classify protests as riots (rioters get up to 10 years in jail);
4) Amnesty for arrested protestors (7,000 arrested – mostly university and school pupils);
5) Allow HK people to vote for their government.
What have been the effects of the 2019 riots on residents?
1) People were inconvenienced by the protests with roads, MTR stations or airport closed causing disruption.
2) Schools were closed and all outdoor activities cancelled.
4) My uncle was tear gassed at lunch time by police.
5) Residents were sad to see how many businesses have been affected with many shutting for safety.
In 2020, with the Coronavirus pandemic resulting in lockdown restrictions and an end to protestors being able to riot on the streets, China continued to introduce a controversial national security law in Hong Kong. It criminalised secession (to withdraw from a political federation), subversion (undermining of power of an established system) and collusion (secret cooperation in order to deceive others) with foreign forces. The Beijing government, increasingly worried that dissent in Hong Kong was growing and could spread into the mainland, brought in new hard liners to run the “Hong Kong Liaison office”, effectively the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. Led by Luo Huining, appointed secretary to the Party’s Shanxi Committee. They decided to crack down hard on any protests by implementing a new “Security Law”.
For example, acts like damaging government buildings or vandalising public transport are now viewed as terrorism and can be dealt with a penalty as harsh as life in prison. People holding literally blank signs in protest have been arrested for “subversion”. Journalists have been arrested for articles written about the protests charged with “separatism”. Politicians who organised the peaceful protest have also been arrested with charges pending.
The new law also gave the government the right to try people in China. In Hong Kong like most democracies, we like to think that no one stands above the law. In China this is not the case as the Communist party is above the law. In China suspects can be locked up for 6 months without trial, subject to torture, confessions coerced, no access to legal counsel, family or friends. This is a scary concept for Hong Kong residents that were immensely proud of their renowned fair common law process. There is also no international barrier to the law, meaning it applies to everyone on the planet. Even people in foreign countries deemed to be advocating Hong Kong independence, such as for example, lecturers at a University in the UK teaching a class about it, could theoretically be arrested and deported to China for trial. (From a country with a deportation treaty with China).
Beijing also knew that the National Security Law was not enough to control Hong Kong, so in March this year, they also amended the constitution to change its electoral process too. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong is no longer the most senior politician. Legislative candidates now must be approved by the Party before they can stand, effectively eliminating all real opposition. Even after vetting all candidates, the number of directly elected politicians has been reduced to less than 50%. Previously 35 out of the 70 seats would be directly elected, it is now 20 out of 90. Constituency boundaries have been re-drawn to facilitate this, with more electoral districts created. Hong Kong nationals that live in mainland China will be allowed to vote during elections. Leaving ballots blank as a protest, has been outlawed. Books have been purged from libraries and the school curriculum is being changed to accommodate more nationalistic teachings. The CCP will also now appoint University presidents and council chairs.
The current opposition party members have now all resigned from their positions within the government. Most prominent pro-democracy lawmakers have either fled into exile, or been jailed. Prominent lawyers, newspaper owners, politicians and community leaders have been arrested awaiting trial. A new pro- Beijing party had to be made up to provide some “opposition”. The authoritarian power of Beijing has systematically crushed all dissent within Hong Kong. There will only be pro-Beijing representation throughout the government now.
In response to these changes, over 30 countries have condemned the changes. The UK government has offered anyone living in HK at the time of the handover the right to a UK passport and to come and live there. The US government has imposed sanctions on HK leaders and on China’s economy. The US also revoked Hong Kong’s “special status” changing its economic and political privileges. Taiwan is increasingly wary that China could look to use force to re-take it now that they have been seen to so clearly break a peaceful treaty.
This law was enforced by Beijing in June who said it would ‘target sedition and bring stability’ with a maximum life sentence in prison. Since then, over 100 people have been arrested, including the 73-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon, Jimmy Lai, the founder of the Apple Daily tabloid who is a fierce critic of Beijing. He was sentenced on 16th April 2021 to 14 months in prison after being found guilty of unauthorised assembly. Other activists were also sentenced for participating in demonstrations – the most senior barrister in the city Martin Lee, 82 is the oldest defendant, who is often called the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, and lawyer Margaret Ng, 73. After discharging her lawyer during mitigation, she said: “I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.” adapting a quote from Thomas More who was executed by King Henry VIII. There was a round of applause from the audience after her speech.
During sentencing, the judge said: “Actions have consequences for everyone irrespective of who they are.” When the campaigners left the dock, many audience protestors shouted, “Stay strong!”
This new law has been viewed by most as a clear reduction in what the West would view as basic civil rights.
Ultimately with China cracking down on Hong Kong’s freedoms and rights, many residents have lost respect for the government and police officers that have used excessive violence (they wear masks and have no numbers on their uniforms, so they cannot be caught). Many ex-pats are proud of how brave the protestors have been, and most people are appalled by the incompetence of the HK leaders. People are scared of losing their freedom and my uncle is sad that he might have to leave their home and return to the UK after 10 years of living in HK, if it gets much worse.
The four major offences the law focuses on at first pass sound fair: punishing collaboration with foreign countries, actions they deem terrorism, subversion, or intentions to separate Hong Kong from the mainland. Much of the new law is deliberately unclear and ambiguously worded; it clearly gave the unpopular government much more power. The depth and breadth of the law is the most chilling, without any bounds it gave the government the authority to punish a variety of what could be classed as “political crimes”.
To conclude, my uncle told me, “As a Hong Konger, we are very aware our rights have changed. There are no more protests anymore, no disruptions to day-to-day life. But there is a strong feeling we have lost part of our liberty and are yet to see how far and widely the new security law will be applied. One is certainly far more cautious now to have any political views, or especially to express them on social media.”
China can certainly be seen to have broken its pact for ‘one country, two systems’ and the rest of the world watches in disbelief and at times horror, at what is next to come for Hong Kong and in turn the wider global community.