As a former British crown colony returned to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong differs in many ways from Mainland China. Based on Deng Xiaoping’s principle of “one country, two systems” as enshrined in Article 5 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the Chinese Special Administrative Region is to remain mostly autonomous in its internal affairs for the 50 years following its return to China, i.e., until 2047. This right to self-determination includes not only the right to make its laws, which can be based on the principles of a democratic market economy, but also levying customs duties and issuing a separate currency. The flow of people across the border between Hong Kong and Mainland China is also not free. Mainland Chinese who move to Hong Kong are considered migrants. They need a visa and special permission to work, study, start businesses or settle in the Special Administrative Region. In terms of foreign policy, Hong Kong represents itself in the areas of economy, finance, foreign trade, and culture and thus continues to be an independent member of the World Trade Organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Asian Development Bank, and the Financial Stability Board. However, the remainder of its foreign and defense policy is the responsibility of the Chinese central government in Beijing.
The head of Hong Kong’s government is called the Chief Executive, a position held by Carrie Lam since July 1, 2017. She is close to the central government in Beijing and was chosen by the 1,200-member Election Committee. This electoral college represents various professional groups and districts in the city but is mostly occupied by business people with close ties to Beijing. The 2014/15 electoral reform proposed by Lam would have had a popular vote to select from 2-3 candidates nominated by the Election Committee. However, this proved to be just more smoke and mirrors, because, with such a pre-selection of candidates, progressive Democrats would have had no real choices to make at the polls. Politicians close to Beijing would still have been at an advantage, but now with the difference that they would have been pseudo-democratically “elected” by the people. This is why pro-democracy groups rejected the electoral reform, leading to protests in 2014 supported by a political movement known as the “Umbrella Movement“. In the end, the proposed electoral reform failed to pass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council; the Election Committee alone still chooses the Chief Executive, without any subsequent vote by the people. This outcome was not what the pro-democracy groups wanted to achieve; instead, they were seeking universal suffrage and the right to elect the Chief Executive freely. However, with the failure of the electoral reform, the mostly young protesters failed to find broad support in the population, and the protests died down again towards the end of 2014 without much political impact.
The current protests that have going on since March 2019 were triggered by other political concerns, but are nevertheless ideologically linked to the protests of 2014. At the beginning, the renewed protests were against a new extradition bill on “fugitive offenders and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters” introduced by Lam. With this bill the Legislative Council of Hong Kong would establish a mechanism for transfers of fugitives between Hong Kong and Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China, which are not covered in the existing laws. Not only is Hong Kong’s law enforcement and legal system significantly different from that of Mainland China, but it is also one of the areas where Hong Kong is autonomous. Because of these differences, the Special Group on Law of the Hong Kong Basic Law Consultative Committee proposed the “territorial principle” in 1987. Law enforcement would be based on where the offense took place and not whether the accused is from the mainland or Hong Kong. The corresponding legal regulations have, however, yet to be enacted. This led to a controversy in 2018 when a Hong Kong citizen was accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan. Since there are no extradition mechanisms in place between Hong Kong and Taiwan, the suspect could not be extradited to Taiwan. (Daniel Victor and Tiffany May, “The Murder Case That Lit the Fuse in Hong Kong“, The New York Times, 15.06.2019). However, the new extradition bill is not only intended to close this legal gap, but it will also be used to extradite offenders to Macau and Mainland China. The opponents of this law argue that, in the long term, it will also be used to extradite other Hong Kong citizens and foreigners targeted by the central government in Beijing for trial on the mainland.
The Chinese state coat of arms at the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was smeared with black paint after a mostly peaceful march on July 21, 2019.
The Chinese state coat of arms at the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was smeared with black paint after a mostly peaceful march on July 21, 2019.
The renewed protests in Hong Kong, which are widely supported by the people, are also related to the failure of pro-democracy protests in 2014 and a sign of the people’s dwindling confidence in politics and the growing erosion of the autonomous legal system. Those in power lack legitimacy because of the lack of universal suffrage and have been consistently pro-Beijing since the handover of Hong Kong. Protesters were pelting eggs at Beijing’s Liaison Office building in Hong Kong more than a month ago, and the PRC’s coat of arms at the entrance has been spray-painted black. These attacks indicate that the demonstrators are looking for more than just the repeal of the extradition law.
The freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong have been increasingly eroding since the 2014 protests. For example, at the end of 2015, five booksellers disappeared without a trace because they were selling books banned in mainland China (Ben Bland, “Hongkong: Beijing Opens a New Chapter“, Financial Times, 27.01.2016). In July, four pro-democracy politicians were forced out of the Legislative Council because they did not take their oath properly and two others because they endorsed a Hong Kong independent of China. Lam expressly welcomed the decision of the High Court in Hong Kong. (Ben Bland, “Hongkong Shaken by Removal of Pro-Democracy Lawmakers“, Financial Times, 14.07.2017) In September 2018, the Hong Kong National Party was banned for its calls for Hong Kong’s independence. Critics have also been increasingly targeted. For example, Victor Mallet, the Hong Kong-based Asia editor of the Financial Times, had lived in the territory with his family until he was refused visa renewal in October 2018. This explains why, in comparison to 2014, not only are more people joining the demonstrations, but also why they come from different social strata.
Although the Chinese central government has no interest in further escalation, it feels challenged by the demonstrators and has begun threatening protesters through various channels against “endangering the social order.” For example, Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Wu Qian said at the end of July that, at the request of the city government, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be sent to Hong Kong to maintain social order. If such a step became necessary from Beijing’s point of view, this could be implemented without delay as there are already some 6,000 to 10,000 troops stationed at the garrison in the Special Administrative Region. The garrison had been created at the handover of Hong Kong for symbolic reasons as well as to provide disaster relief and defense in the Special Administrative Region. To date, the soldiers of the garrison have only been called on once without the request of the Hong Kong government: in the cleanup after the severe typhoon in October 2018. (Alice Wu, “Hong Kong’s Continued Turmoil Paves Way for PLA to Step in“, South China Morning Post, 29.07.2019) However, the soldiers are quite ready for the call to arms. About a week after Qian’s statement, a martial video was released by the PLA Hong Kong Garrison, which could be understood as a threat to Hong Kong’s demonstrators (see video below). The Global Times, a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party, shared the clip on Twitter, with the headline: “A blunt warning for Hong Kong’s secessionists and their foreign backers?” Furthermore, at the beginning of the video, a soldier is using a megaphone to speak in Cantonese — the usual Hong Kong dialect — to say that the demonstrators were solely responsible for any consequences they might suffer. After this sequence, armed soldiers then marched demonstrators with their hands tied behind their backs to areas marked as “detention zones”. (Laurel Chor, “Hongkong Protests: China Releases Dramatic Army Propaganda Video“, The Guardian, 01.08.2019).
By law, PLA interference in local affairs under Article 14 of the Hong Kong Basic Law may only take place at the request of the Hong Kong Government or if it loses control of its internal security following Article 18. With more than 1,300 international companies headquartered in Hong Kong, the fact that Hong Kong is the world’s fourth-largest stock market and the world’s eighth-largest exporter, Beijing’s military intervention seems to be unlikely. (Matthias Kamp and Michael Settelen, “Hongkongs Wirtschaft vor unsicheren Zeiten“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 30.07.3019, S. 19). However, Jude Blanchette, holding the Freeman Chair in China Studies at Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that assumptions postulating Beijing will seek to avoid a violent crackdown on protesters ignore the way the Chinese Communist Party views historical events and how it makes decisions:
Looking at China’s own recent history, from the CCP’s perspective the lesson of Tiananmen Square was not that the use of tanks and PLA troops to subdue the Chinese people was a mistake. Rather, Deng Xiaoping and the party elders believed that the price was justified in order to stave off an even greater catastrophe. As Deng said in his first speech after the June 4 crackdown, “The nature of the incident should have been obvious from the very beginning. The handful of bad people had two basic slogans: overthrow the Communist Party and demolish the socialist system.” — Jude Blanchette, “How Close Is Hong Kong to a Second Tiananmen?“, Foreign Policy, 14.08.2019.
The question remains as to how far the demonstrators can go and how they can ensure that at least some of their five main demands are met — (1) the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill from the legislative process, (2) the retraction of the “riot” characterization, (4) the release and exoneration of arrested protesters, (3) the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests, (5) the resignation of Lam and the implementation of universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections — without crossing a red line? According to a Reuters report, it seems that the Hong Kong government would be willing to compromise, but Beijing is preventing such a compromise. Concurrently, Beijing’s red lines are not clearly defined. According to Yang Guang, spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, firstly, national security should not be endangered; secondly, the demonstrators may neither challenge the authority of the central government nor of the Basic Law; and thirdly, Hong Kong should not be misused as a base to infiltrate mainland China. (Patrick Zoll, “Drei Fragen und Antworten zu der Situation in Hongkong“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 01.08.2019).
Democracy activist Joshua Wong talks to the press during a demonstration in June 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter).
Democracy activist Joshua Wong talks to the press during a demonstration in June 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter).
The arrests of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Andy Chan, and other anti-government or pro-democracy leaders are a sign that Hong Kong’s government, under pressure from Beijing, could now take a harder line. However, it also shows that the Chinese central government is not yet considering direct intervention. It is unlikely that the arrests will weaken the demonstration movement in the long term because unlike in 2014, the current protests have no clear leadership structures. (Patrick Zoll, “Die Verhaftungen in Hongkong sind symbolisch – und ihre harte Linie fährt die Regierung offenbar auf Wunsch Pekings“, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 31.08.2019).
Will this year’s demonstrators achieve more than they did in 2014? Hardly! In the best-case scenario, they might see a repeal of the extradition law and an independent commission set up to investigate the police operations during the demonstrations, which, of course, will detect hardly any irregularities. Although the demonstrators would thus achieve more than they did in 2014, the further erosion of the freedoms in Hong Kong would hardly be stopped, let alone any expansion of democratic principles achieved. The Chinese integration of Hong Kong will continue unchecked, at least as long as it does not have a significant negative impact on the city as a center for business. Although a military intervention is rather unlikely, it cannot be completely ruled out in case of further escalation. It is more likely that the demonstrations will gradually lose broad support in the long term, as they did in 2014, and thus slow down the momentum of the protest movement.