Widespread protests have erupted in Hong Kong over the last few weeks. Ostensibly over the implementation of a controversial extradition bill, the protests also reflect wider concerns about the territory’s ongoing relationship with China and preserving Hong Kong’s distinctive political culture and democratic rights. In 2017, on the 20th anniversary of the British handover of the territory to China, Kerry Brown spoke to Jason Naselli about what the future holds for the territory.

Chatham House
Jun 21 · 4 min read
Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong, China on 18 June 2019 apologising for her mishandling of the controversial extradition bill. Photo: Getty Images.

(1) Given the recent protests, how sustainable is the ‘one country, two systems’ framework between Hong Kong and China? Will the arrangement last the full 50 years, until 2047, as originally envisioned?

It is questionable whether the arrangement that exists today was the one envisioned in 1997 when the handover happened. It was always a very abstract, flexible system, granting Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy where it could maintain its capitalist system. Of course, in the lead up to 1997, all these things were broadly seen as being in Beijing’s interests to preserve.

Interestingly, the one thing that few said in 1997 has come to pass, which is the People’s Republic has maintained one-party rule as a political system but become one of the world’s great economies too.

Hong Kong therefore has diminished in importance over the years, maintaining at least some semblance to the one country, two systems framework. But it has been nibbled at, compromised and seems to grow weaker by the day. Most in Hong Kong would say there is a system: one country, one system. That’s the deal.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attend a flag raising ceremony on 30 June 2018 in Hong Kong to mark the territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty from British rule. Photo: Getty Images.

(2) The central government’s deepening involvement in the territory’s politics is a subject of intensifying controversy in Hong Kong. Does the Chinese government need to alter its approach?

Not particularly. It doesn’t want to see Hong Kong fail as an economy. That doesn’t suit its interests at all. But nor does it want a truculent, disobedient polity that is meant to be part of its sovereign territory.

So it has increasingly set political parameters. Hong Kong can have its unique system — as long as it is obedient. And, on the whole, that is the deal that all of the city’s chief executives until now have internally understood perfectly.

Legislators attend a meeting in the chamber of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on 19 June 2019. Opposition lawmakers pressed Hong Kong’s security chief on whether police had used excessive force on protesters during a week of historic demonstrations. Photo: Getty Images.

(3) As part of the 1997 handover, the UK has ‘a continuing moral and political obligation’ to Hong Kong. How will this relationship play out as Brexit shifts Britain’s place in the world?

The UK Foreign Office offers a six-monthly report to parliament updating them on how the handover deal is going. As the years go on, however, it becomes increasingly illusive how the UK has any real locus to say much about the situation in Hong Kong. And with dependence on creating a new kind of relationship with China now foremost in people’s minds because of Brexit, and other economic pressures, it is not surprising that the priority increasingly lies elsewhere.

With direct management of Hong Kong gone, the UK was always going to be more and more irrelevant. That has happened. And in any case, relations with China have had to become more complex and multifaceted. Hong Kong was always the tail wagging the dog for the UK relations with China. Now there has been a rebalancing, the calculation always has to be how much unilaterally supporting Hong Kong will damage relations with Beijing. This has become an increasingly asymmetrical question: in a playoff, preserving links with Beijing will always prevail, that’s just the reality of the new world we are seeing come into being.

Chinese and Hong Kong flags are seen ahead of Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s, arrival in Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the handover from Britain to China on on 27 June 2017. The occasion marks 20 years since the territory was handed from Britain to China after more than 150 years of British rule. Photo: Getty Images.

(4) Hong Kong has played an important financial role for China over the past 20 years but where will it fit as markets and financial institutions on the mainland mature?

It maintains its role as a major RMB hub and as a finance centre. But it is surrounded by competition. Singapore, Sydney, and other places in the region have RMB deals. Shanghai and Tianjin aspire to be portals for entry to the domestic Chinese market. Hong Kong every day has to think of new ways to maintain its relevance and beat back competition. So far, it has done well, but this is an issue it can never be complacent about.

A man walks past an electronic board displaying exchange rates in Hong Kong on 14 May 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

(5) What has been the most significant change in Hong Kong society since 1997?

The rising cultural and linguistic influence of the mainland on Hong Kong. Hong Kong has maintained its difference — but it has had to change. It is clear that Hong Kong is now in the hands of Hong Kongese — they cannot rely on others to stick up for them now.

The culture, identity and future of the territory are in their hands. In that sense, they have autonomy.

Buses drive through crowds of protesters as they demonstrate against an extradition bill on 16 June 2019 in Hong Kong. Large numbers of protesters have continued to gather despite Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, announcing that the controversial extradition bill will be suspended indefinitely. Photo: Getty Images.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

Written by

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade