Quick notes:

  • In the mid-1800s, following devastating wars in the region, Britain claimed Hong Kong.
  • This eventually spawned a nationalist movement, which led to “one nation, two systems” that granted Hong Kong a degree of autonomy.
  • Now, mass protests challenge the status quo.

Protests have rocked Hong Kong for several months now. Beginning on March 31, these demonstrations have garnered sympathy from abroad and condemnation from the Communist Party in Beijing.

Marches erupted in the streets of Hong Kong following the introduction of a controversial law that could allow the mainland government to extradite Hong Kongers for dissident activities. The law seems especially foreboding as the Communist Party under General Secretary Xi Jinping continually seeks to centralize power and link Chinese national identity with the Party itself.

A significant portion of the population in Hong Kong hold views that are contrary to the Party’s politics. Its history as a British colony and its relationship with Beijing inform and complicate the situation in the streets today.

“Tensions between Hong Kong and the Communist Party have never been worse,” says Lynn T. White III, professor emeritus and a senior research associate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and East Asian Studies program. “The drive to link patriotism with centralization works better on the mainland than in Hong Kong. The ‘one country’ is overwhelming the ‘two systems.’”

Britain’s colonial rule over Hong Kong

Non-Chinese nations have a long history of economic and political involvement in Hong Kong. British colonial rule, however, maintains a lasting impact. This is seen in Hong Kong’s cultural identity as well as the island’s currently turbulent relationship with Beijing.

White says: “The British legacy and the greater diversification of people in Hong Kong has created a situation that the Communist Party has more trouble controlling than it does in modernized mainland cities that are somewhat similar, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai.”

Britain claimed Hong Kong beginning in the mid-1800s following devastating wars in the region. During this period, the power structure was a mixture of Westerners and Chinese, especially local tycoons. By the 1920s, a nationalist movement nearly swept Britain out of Hong Kong.

This led colonial governors to focus on further incorporating Chinese tycoons into the administration and Legislative Council.

Members of the media film a fire lit by pro-democracy protesters on a street in the Wanchai district in Hong Kong on Sept.15, 2019. (Photo by Anthony Wallace /AFP/Getty).

Japan took the island during World War II but Britain regained control following the end of the war. The postwar era was marked by the consolidation of the “tycoon-ocracy” alongside the passage of social reforms.

For instance, a 1953 fire in the Shek Kip Mai housing project left 53,000 people homeless. Those affected were mostly immigrants from the People’s Republic of China escaping the Communist regime. This disaster, in particular, prompted the Hong Kong government to pour money into social welfare programs.

‘The Handover’

When Britain gave up control over Hong Kong, the city had a unique identity steeped in its own diversity and exposure to Western liberalism.

Per an agreement struck in the late 1800s, Britain abdicated control of Hong Kong in 1997 to the government in mainland China. Just a couple years prior to that event, commonly known as “The Handover,” the British government passed an election law that, if only briefly, gave Hong Kongers a taste of democracy and self-rule.

These experiences linger in the minds of protestors marching through the streets of Hong Kong.

“Echoes from the time when the colonial overlord was in London rather than Beijing can still be heard in Hong Kong politics,” says White. “The last British governor, Christopher Patten, oversaw fair elections in 1995. Memories of them still resound in the Hong Kong protests now. This city had a short period of credible democracy. It hasn’t fully recovered from that experience. Not everyone in the city, but a lot of people there, want it back.”

‘One country two systems’

Since the Handover, the Chinese government has followed a “one country two systems” policy. The idea is that Hong Kong can be part of China but maintain a level of autonomy that is basically unknown in almost every other part of the People’s Republic.

This system has worked well enough until recently, particularly following the Communist Party’s quest to centralize power. This centralization puts the Party at odds with the large population of liberal-leaning Hong Kongers – including, to some extent, the tycoons.

White adds: “Since about 1990, there’s been a centralist reaction against the localization of power that took place after the green revolution and rural industrialization in the 1960s-80s. This political reaction has taken an extreme form under Xi Jinping. His centralism is bolstered by national pride and a sense that China’s rightful place in the world must be restored. Most Chinese are sure their country should be the strongest on the planet.”

Background on the Extradition Bill

The Extradition Bill arose following a tragedy. A couple from Hong Kong were on vacation in Taiwan. The man murdered the woman after she told him that she was pregnant and he was not the father. The crime sparked outrage throughout the region. Taiwan authorities initially wanted to prosecute the murderer. However, he was already in Hong Kong by the time he confessed. No formal extradition treaty exists between Hong Kong and Taiwan – or, mainland China.

Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive and effective leader of Hong Kong, thus proposed the fraught extradition law to provide a mechanism for case-by-case extradition. The issue, though, was that Lam’s proposal included extraditions to mainland China.

This has caused the widespread belief that Beijing is using justice for the murder as cover for finding a mechanism to subvert the ‘one country two systems’ status quo.

“Xi still maintains the claim that the Communist Party follows a ‘one country two systems’ policy,” White says. “He says that what’s going on in Hong Kong is all administered by the Hong Kong government. I think very few people believe that anymore.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong on September 5, 2019, a day after she announced the withdrawal of a loathed extradition bill. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images).

Beijing running out of proxies

As the protests continue, demonstrators’ tactics continually change. Violent clashes with police have, for the time being, been augmented with more peaceful methods like mass sit-ins and choirs belting out protest songs.

Li Ka-Shing, the richest tycoon in Hong Kong, has called for peace from protesters and the authorities and described the situation more broadly as “the worst blow dealt Hong Kong” since World War II. This delicate position, further, encapsulates the tycoons more broadly. They, at once, are economically tied to the mainland while seeking some political distance between themselves and Beijing.

Chief Executive Lam has faced significant troubles because of the proposed law. Despite Xi’s own insistence on the ‘two systems,’ Lam is on the record as stating that she serves “two masters,” one of which is the mainland government.

While Lam intends to withdraw the extradition bill, that process cannot formally happen until next month when the city’s Legislative Council is in session. So, protests continue.

“The Party is running out of proxies in Hong Kong. The civil service (including the police) may be replacing the tycoons. The city’s institutions haven’t changed to reflect that yet, but they may,” says White.

Tensions with Taiwan

If Beijing is, in fact, involved in the extradition bill, the withdrawal may be due to longer-term goals for Taiwan.

Tensions have festered between the Communist Party in Beijing and the island of Taiwan for decades. Chinese state policy holds that Taiwan is a rogue province while the government in Taiwan claims sovereignty.

Like Hong Kong, the peoples of Taiwan hold liberal values. The ‘one country two systems’ policy was developed in the 1980s as a way to induce Taiwan to accept rule from Beijing. Cracking down so forcefully in Hong Kong implies that Xi’s Communist Party may not follow-through on its offer of autonomy.

“That is a problem for Xi,” concludes White. “The Beijing elites realize that what they’re doing in Hong Kong weakens their explicit policy on Taiwan. Xi’s treatment of Hong Kong implies that there’s no room in the Communist Party for Chinese people to be both Chinese and liberal.”

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