Hong Kong: holding China to “one country, two systems” (interview)

The issues playing out in Hong Kong right now are being watched around the world. But to what degree are they understood?

With this question in hand, I had the opportunity recently to interview a citizen of Hong Kong. During our talk, I tried to clarify the true nature of the situation — from his firsthand experience, and without any government or media filter. 

Life expectations of a Hong Konger

Protests in Hong Kong

Citizens started protesting in the streets of Hong Kong in June 2019. The object of their discontent was the legislation pending approval in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that would allow the possibility of extradition to China. Hongkongers felt that this law could threaten Hong Kong’s judicial independent legal system, and put in danger political dissidents that China would like to silence. 

The social unrest continued for a few months, as the episodes of violence started to mount up quickly. In October, the government formally withdrew the extradition bill, but that was not sufficient in stopping the protests.

The apex of urban chaos was reached on the 1st of October, during the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. And in November, a new clash between police and students erupted at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. The protesters do not show signs of resting, even if the bill has been withdrawn. 

The protesters have advanced 5 requests: protests are not to be represented as riots, amnesty for arrested protesters, an independent inquiry on police brutality, complete universal suffrage and the withdrawal of the extradition bill.

The extradition bill, as our witness explains, is just the cherry on top of the cake of Hongkongers’ social discontent.

The escalation in Hong Kong

China/Hong Kong relationship

After having been a British colony for more than 150 years, Hong Kong became a Chinese territory in 1997, with the status of special administrative region. Hong Kong is governed by the principle of “one country, two systems[1]”. Xi Jinping recently called into doubt that system, declaring that the violence in Hong Kong threatens the existence of the system. 

The “one country, two systems” constitutional principle guarantees Hong Kong liberties such as freedom of expression and an independent judiciary that are not enjoyed on the mainland. Despite the constitutional protections, those freedoms seem not to be guaranteed in Hong Kong. Following the violent police repression of the protests, Xi Jinping announced that dissidents would be confronted with the use of force, with their “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder”. 

On the relationship with China (part 1)

On the relationship with China (part 2)

Freedom of speech in Hong Kong

Political Representation in Hong Kong

The protests over the past several months call into doubt the political representation in Hong Kong. The unicameral Legislative Council of Hong Kong is composed of 70 members, 40 elected and 30 indirectly elected by functional constituencies. The 30 derive primarily from the business elite of Hong Kong, which has become strictly economically dependent from China since 1997.The relationship between the two business elites is of asymmetrical interdependence, as the HK group is mostly dependent from the Chinese side; and not vice versa. The body represents the voice of their voters, protecting their rights and monitoring the government’s performance. On the 26th of March 2017, Lam was elected the fourth chief executive of Hong Kong.  Lam was the preferred choice by Beijing. She is backed by the Chinese government as she preserves Chinese interests in HK. Among lawmakers, she belongs to the “pro Beijing camp”, the political alignment that backs the central government of Beijing. Given the presence of Chinese interests in Hong Kong governmental activity, it is fair to doubt the political representation of the citizens. It is worth recalling that in 2016, the Chinese government disqualified four Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers, deeply weakening the pro-independence faction. Beijing pre-empted the HK’s court judgment by disqualifying those legislators that did not take the swearing in ceremony’s oath solemnly. 

On political representation in HK

International Arena

Social mobilization and support for Hong Kong citizens have been shown all across the world. Pro-HongKong independence protests took place in more than 12 foreign countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and the USA. Civil society organizations reacted quickly to the repression in Hong Kong, criticizing the infringement of human rights by the government and police officers in managing the protests. European foreign affairs representatives reassured Hong Kong politicians that they could count on the EU when in difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, the international community has taken no meaningful steps to aid the cause of the Hong Kong protestors. That decision might be driven by the desire to not step into the relationship between China and Hong Kong, in order to not worsen the situation. But they seem to have largely been silent witnesses.

Do Hongkongers feel abandoned by the international community?

On Violence

The protests that started in June quickly escalated in six months, and abandoned the non-violent approach, turning into riots and clashes with public authorities. Brutality between protesters and police eventually became the standard of the Hong Kong protests. Lately, police brutality has been highlighted, due primarily to two episodes — the shooting of one protestor, and the setting on fire of another one. Moreover, the police decided to lay siege to students who were occupying the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, arresting them during the night with the use of force, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Violence: a first-hand experience

The scenario

The elections for the HK district councils took place on the 24th of November. As with  past electoral experiences, they took place as political tension gripped the country. The elections have been seen as a referendum on the stability and on the future of the current Hong Kong government. As highlighted by RTHK, the win by a large majority of the pro-democracy candidates is an indisputable message delivered to the city’s leader Carrie Lam.

Early after the official results, Donald Trump signed US legislation regarding human rights in Hong Kong, in support of the pro-democracy movement. According to the new US law, sanctions will be imposed on China or Hong Kong if there is any infringement of these rights, as has happened multiple times during these last months of police mobilization. The Chinese government reacted with anger, seeing it as a maneuver to intervene in Chinese affairs. Beijing notified Washington that the bill is moved by the US desire to obstruct local affairs, and prejudice toward the Chinese government. Beijing said it will not hesitate to take countermeasures toward such conduct by the US.

Despite the result of the elections that paves the way for a clear pro-democratic stance within the Hong Kong legislature, violence continues in Hong Kong. On the 15th of December, police responded with force to a flash mob in a shopping center. It appears that the elections have not changed the essence of the situation as lived by Hong Kongers. Given the limited political representation they’ve had, the relevance of the district council election is unclear when one considers the power of the city’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam — and of course, China.

So, according to a Hong Kong citizen, given the uncertainty of the situation, what could be the worst case scenario?

We are very thankful for having had the opportunity to speak to this person and we would like to end the article by sharing one final message:

[1] Constitutional principle according to which: “It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.” and permits to Honk Kong a high degree of freedom, without having decentralized powers.

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