The Situation In Hong Kong Explained
Hong Kong has been in the headlines a lot in the past couple of years. This week, Beijing passed a new national security law regarding Hong Kong, which has worried many around the world. The situation in Hong Kong is complicated and steeped in history, going back to the days of the British Empire. What is happening today in the island city has direct lines of causation to events that occurred long ago. Many people do not understand the complicated and unique situation Hong Kong is in regarding mainland China.
Is Hong Kong a part of China? Do the rules passed in Beijing apply to the city? These are just a few questions people may have about the ongoing political situation unfolding in the special administrative region.
The Opium Wars
In the mid 19th century, the British Empire fought two wars in China to secure trading rights in the far eastern empire. The First Opium War was disturbingly a fight to maintain massive exports of opium to an addicted Chinese population. British merchants were smuggling illegal drugs into China from India in lucrative trading routes. Fed up with the illicit trade, the Qing attempted to seize and destroy the illegal goods from the British traders. This ultimately led to a breakdown in relations between the two nations, and a conflict ensued.
The British forces were far superior to the Qing forces. After a couple of years of fighting, the British occupied multiple important Chinese cities and forced a negotiation. The resulting Treaty of Nanjing in August of 1842 initially ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British Empire as a territory to be held “in perpetuity.”
The Second Opium War was more of the same. Fifteen years after the Treaty of Nanjing opened up China to more British influence, the British Empire once again found an excuse to interfere in the far eastern country. It forced another conflict with the hope of gaining more concessions from the rapidly weakening Qing Dynasty. They got their wish.
The end of the Second Opium War saw more Chinese territory around Hong Kong ceded to the British. As a result, it led to creating a 99-year lease of large portions of the area surrounding the island of Hong Kong. That lease was to begin in 1898 and last until 1997.
The British Empire Fades
Following the devastating results of World War II, the influence of the British Empire began to fade. Financial strains from two world wars, a growing overseas nationalist movement, and a diminished British military led to the beginning of the end of British overseas territories in the world. From the 1950s onward, Britain began ceding control of many of its most prominent overseas colonies and territories. As this process continued throughout the middle portion of the 20th century, China began to get hopeful that Hong Kong would eventually appear on the territory shedding docket. In the 1980s, it finally did.
Late 20th Century Negotiations
In the 1980s, China and the United Kingdom sat down to negotiate the future of Hong Kong and the leases of Chinese territory set to expire in 1997. Margaret Thatcher negotiated the original “one country, two systems” policy regarding Hong Kong. The policy states that Hong Kong was to hold a high degree of autonomy. Also, the brand of socialism practiced in mainland China could not be exercised in Hong Kong for 50 years following the transfer of the territory back to Chinese control.
The Chinese agreed to the terms of the agreement, which were to go into place in 1997, following the official hand over from the British back to the Chinese.
The negotiations were concluded, and in 1997, as scheduled, the territory officially was returned to Chinese control as a Special Administrative Region, which was to adhere to the one country, two systems policy negotiated in the 1980s.
That should give Hong Kong a degree of autonomy and economic freedom that should last until 2047. But Hong Kong is not entirely free. They are still a part of China with special privileges. They are not their autonomous entity like some people believe.
21st Century Incursion and Unrest
Regarding Hong Kong, as well as Macau and Taiwan, the Chinese policy is explicitly clear. These are sovereign and rightful parts of China, and they will be integrated, eventually, one way or another. There is no political mysticism regarding this position. It is explicitly clear what they believe when it comes to their sovereignty.
Hong Kong is already under the Chinese umbrella, but the Chinese are hampered in their ultimate goals of reintegrating Hong Kong fully by the negotiations made in the 20th century policing the treatment of Hong Kong. The truth of the matter is, these freedoms had a hard time limit to them, but they are not due to expire until 2047.
However, in recent years China has been looking to accelerate the timeline by beginning reintegrating earlier than expected. This has not gone over well with the population, especially the young people who believed they had another three decades of freedom to enjoy. This has led to widespread unrest in the city, which has intensified in the past couple of years, resulting in the legislation that is in the headlines today.
Extradition and Security Laws
This latest round of unrest was kicked off by the proposal of a controversial extradition law which tried to make it legal for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China for trial for certain crimes. The population saw this as an attempt to legalize the brand of political terrorism and totalitarianism frequently seen in mainland China in Hong Kong.
Protests kicked off in 2019 and have been, at times, violent and widespread and are still going on today. The law was shelved, but the protestors continue to see Beijing as a continual threat to their freedoms. As a result of the protests and violent Beijing drafted and passed, a new security law targeting Hong Kong.
The new law imposes, even more, policing and enforcement from Beijing in Hong Kong. It has raised fears that it will be used to crush pro-democracy movements in the territory. China is notorious for using obscure and minor offenses to punish those it sees as dissidents or threats unevenly.
From the BBC’s reporting on the law:
“A new office in Hong Kong would deal with national security cases, but would also have other powers, such as overseeing national security education in Hong Kong schools.
In addition, the city will have to establish its national security commission to enforce the laws with a Beijing-appointed adviser.
Hong Kong’s chief executive will have the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases, which has raised fears about judicial independence.
Importantly, Beijing will have power over how the law should be interpreted. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.” (Bolded by me for effect)
Basically, it gives Beijing a new and powerful foothold in Hong Kong, which will allow mainland Chinese officials and officers to silence and prosecute further protests and dissent as they arise.
A Complicated Situation
Britain and the United States have not been shy about condemning China’s stance towards Hong Kong. Both nations have denounced their actions in the territory but have very little legal ground to stand on. In recent years, the Hong Kong assembly and the assembly in Beijing have been more intertwined with stronger cross ties between the mainland and Hong Kong. The new security law was added to Hong Kong’s official Basic Law, the 50-year agreement set to expire in 2047. That makes it official in Hong Kong.
However, the domestic and international arguments stem from one of the first clauses of Hong Kong Basic Law, which reads:
The socialist system and policies shall not be practiced [sic] in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years. — Article Five
It is not just the socialist system that should stay out of Hong Kong but also the socialist policies. It also adds protection to the “way of life,” saying it shall remain unchanged. Critics of what is happening in Hong Kong claim that these new laws and policies infringe on this clause because they are enforcing Beijing policies in Hong Kong, which threaten the democratic and capitalist way of life in the territory.
You can read the entire text of Chapter One of the Hong Kong Basic Law here.
Both sides know they are treading in a gray area. The United States and Britain have little recourse regarding the situation on the ground unless they want to support the protestors, which will only serve to anger Beijing. China knows that they are accelerating the timeline of reintegration. Still, in their eyes, Hong Kong is theirs and will be entirely theirs soon anyway, so why not press it.
Neither side will force a military conflict regarding Hong Kong. Therefore, what we are seeing is a slow creep of Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong being met with rabid domestic pushback.
At the same time, international powers look on and make grand statements with no teeth. I believe this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.
In short, Hong Kong is technically a part of China but governed by a set of special rules and circumstances laid out at the tail end of the 20th century. The security laws being implemented on the island, while controversial and unfortunate for those who love freedom in the world, are technically part of the Hong Kong Basic Law and are legal. There is a growing portion of the Hong Kong population who wants full freedom from China in the long run. Still, this position, in my opinion, is untenable.
A Word on News Coverage
When you are reading the news regarding what is happening in Hong Kong, remember these essential things.
The Western media is ostensibly on the side of the protestors in Hong Kong and will color the news to make it seem like Beijing’s influence is less official than it is. The British want to see the agreements regarding Hong Kong upheld until their cessation in 2047.
The Chinese media is going to spin this as a completely legitimate action in their territory to quell political unrest and violence in their city to protect their citizens and interests.
Like most things in life, and most things in 2020, ultimately, it is complicated.