This year, it is the 25th anniversary that Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a ‘one country, two systems’ setup.
The deal in 1997 between the United Kingdom and the PRC provided a 50-year long transitory period, during which Hong Kong would be enjoying fairly extensive independence as for its internal affairs, and the city received quite a large elbow room even in such so-called soft external relations as, for instance, trade, communications, tourism and culture. The ’honeymoon’ between Communist China and its democratic and free-economy part did not last long though.
New sheriff in town
The frictions between them seems to have started with the ascendance of Xi Jinping, who assumed the presidency of the PRC, and the positions of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as that of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, with an extremely ambitious program. It incorporated the acceleration of the construction of the virtual and real ‘silk road’ (Belt and Road Initiative); increased defense spending and modernization of the military; a more assertive foreign and security policy in the South China Sea and the East China Sea; a strategic goal of catching up with the United States economically and in other fields too – that is, an attempt to redistribute power in general in the world. President Xi Jinping also wished to demonstrate early on that a ‘new sheriff had arrived in town’ who was not willing to tolerate too much dissent in the country.
Barely a year after Xi Jinping assumed full power, the National People’s Congress of the PRC introduced a bill that would have required the pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. That is, in plain English (Mandarin), only candidates approved by Beijing might have been running for the leadership in Hong Kong. The resulting so-called umbrella protests and demonstrations ultimately forced Beijing to drop the election reform plan. However, the writing appeared on the wall: the Communist leaders would not tolerate a democratic system inside the PRC for a long time. It took only five years when the next constitutional crisis erupted in Hong Kong. This time, masses of the Hongkongers protested against a proposed extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland” and Macau alike. (The New York Times, June 10, 2019). The Beijing government also overreached itself in its attempts to bring Taiwan under Chinese Communist jurisdiction through the back door; Taipei rejected the proposed legislation out of hand. The first female chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam was ultimately forced to withdraw the bill in the fall of 2019 – the protests succeeded once more.
Suppressive Chinese law
The most serious attack on Hong Kong’s democracy came in 2020 in the form of a national security act passed by the Beijing rubberstamp legislation. The wording of the document can be said to be a classic example of similar Communist pieces of legislation insofar as it is so vague that anything and everything can be interpreted as violating the provisions included. It gives expansive powers for the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to oversee and manage schools, social organizations, media and the internet, and to suppress any material that is deemed subversive, assisting terrorism, advocating secession, and ‘collusion with foreign forces’. The maximum penalty for any of these ’crimes’ is life sentence. Moreover, suspects can be removed to the mainland for interrogation, and can be put on trial in a court over there. The passing of the bill accelerated emigration from Hong Kong: the U.K., among others, offered visas for Hongkongers who had been born under British rule.
Besides these specific infringements of the democracy and individual liberties in Hong Kong, the ‘mainlandization’ of the city is under way in full speed. Thus, Mandarin is promoted to replace English, which is the language of choice of the majority of the Hongkongers; self-censorship is spreading the media; infrastructural projects are integrated; academic freedom is curtailed; judicial independence is being undermined; the election candidates are screened. With reference to the constraints put on the political process, an electoral reform law was passed in March 2021 which reduced the number of directly elected representatives (from 70 to 35) in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Moreover, the prospective candidates will be vetted by an Orwellian sounding body, a ‘candidate qualification review committee’. Xi Jinping’s New Year Address (December 31, 2021) stressed ’stability’ in Hong Kong and Macau – read, in Communist Party ’newspeak’ – the suppression of any political dissent in the former British and Portugal territories. His call for a ‘common prosperity’ may also be ominous for the Hongkongers: at the moment, the per capita income is roughly 4.7 times higher in Hong Kong than in mainland China (USD 47,000 versus USD 10,000). Xi Jinping’s goal – dream – is to be the global leader in 2049, on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong is set to be integrated fully into the PRC two year earlier, in 2047. However, as things are standing at the moment, and if we can make projection based on the events in the past few years, Hong Kong is likely to be assimilated into mainland China by that time. The Hongkongers have already received certain doses of what is means to live in an authoritarian society. They’d better adjust themselves to the new norms and standards in time.
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