One Country Two Systems Under Seige
On June 30th Hong Kong will celebrate 20 years of independence from the United Kingdom, which handed over official control of the island nation in 1997, with an extravagant program of concerts, sporting events, exhibitions, and even an official anthem. Also on June 30th, Hong Kong will be one year closer to merging with mainland China as one unified country, a process that is supposed to take 30 more years. In theory, Hong Kong operates as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) that has its own government, economy, legal system, and foreign policy outside of China’s control. In actuality, China has not been shy about making its presence known, for example by pushing through the recent election of the unpopular Carrie Lam, sparking a series of protests from the Occupy Central movement. At this point many of the pro-democracy protesters have grown despondent, worrying that their movement has had little impact on Beijing or on the situation in Hong Kong.
Though Hong Kong has been independent for nearly 20 years and has operated under the “one country two systems” rule with China ever since, as a cab driver explained to me in the winter of 2016, many Hong Kongers do not see themselves as Chinese. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he needed to pass through a border crossing checkpoint in order to enter mainland China. He went on to explain that to more easily drive tourists across, he would need to pay over 1 million yuan, or nearly $150,000, to get the required Chinese license plate. Additionally, he would need a compelling reason to own a Chinese license plate, such as owning a factory on the mainland. His acquaintances, most of whom were also native Hong Kongers, supposedly felt the same way, as do the members of the younger generation—particularly those born after the handover.
In 2014 tensions over national identity and sovereignty began to boil over among Hong Kongers through the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement. These pro-democracy protests began with a student-led boycott over Beijing’s announcement that, while Hong Kong’s next round of elections would ostensibly be free, they would be responsible for selecting the candidates who could run for office. The protests started off peacefully, much more peacefully than the protests in Egypt or Libya, but have become more violent as the years have passed.
Carrie Lam’s election was in some ways a turning point, with the Beijing-backed leader-elect stating that there was “no room for moves towards independence” in Hong Kong. Her election in 2017 was, according to original plans, to be the first time many adults in Hong Kong had voted in a free and open democratic election, but instead proved another avenue for Beijing to assert control by narrowing the playing field and ensuring that only candidates who supported the Communist Party’s official line could participate. The Occupy Central movement (also known as the Umbrella movement) brought Hong Kong to a halt in 2014 and drew widespread media attention, but ultimately failed to convince Beijing to allow free elections. China’s increased meddling in Hong Kong’s internal affairs and refusal to kowtow to the nascent pro-democracy movement sends a clear message not only to the island, but also to Taiwan, Tibet, and any other region that may be looking to stretch its wings: resistance is futile.
Unfortunately, for many Hong Kongers, it is looking more and more as if resistance will be futile. Protests, such as the recent demonstration in November 2016 after two young legislators swore allegiance to the “Hong Kong Nation” rather than the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, have turned disruptive and violent, and Beijing has responded by doubling down: one day after Lam’s election, nine protesters were arrested. One would think that the mainland would be a little bit too distracted by ongoing events with North Korea to be worried about punishing rabble-rousers from 2014, but clearly that is not the case. Separatist movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan were recently even added to Beijing’s list of national security concerns, which covers a broad range of issues from economics to social stability.
Though the situation for Hong Kong looks grim at the moment, with many of the once optimistic pro-democracy movement leaders now discouraged by China’s refusal to back down, the struggle is far from over. Carrie Lam’s election caused a fresh round of protests, and she will undoubtedly have a difficult five years ahead if she ignores discussions on political reform. The international community could potentially get involved as well—Hong Kong maintains its own economic system and foreign policy, and the United States, for example, sent a delegation to discuss mutual issues earlier in April—but would have to tread carefully in order to avoid ire from Beijing. Finding a way to convince China that supporting Hong Kong’s autonomy would benefit the mainland more than quashing any attempts at rebellion will be necessary, and also easier said than done. Being too harsh on the pro-democracy movement could be damaging to China’s soft power, an area of great concern to Beijing, and highlighting that could help turn the tide in Hong Kong’s favor. Additionally, the protests are disrupting China’s stability, particularly now that mainlanders are also becoming sympathetic to Hong Kong’s cause. As we have seen with both Tibet and Taiwan, however, Beijing has historically been perfectly willing to stamp down protests for decades. Hong Kongers and their international supporters need to think very strategically to have a chance at autonomy—only 20 years after gaining independence.