Who runs Hong Kong?


Thursday’s decision by the National People’s Congress of China to impose an anti-sedition bill on Hong Kong has been met with widespread condemnation, with critics claiming that it undermines the territory’s autonomy from the mainland. China claims that the legislation is limited in impact, seeking only to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, but many are worried that it will be used to curtail the rights and freedoms that the people of Hong Kong currently enjoy. 

Since passing from British to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong has largely been allowed to maintain its own political, socio-economic and legal system under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. This has ensured that the people of Hong Kong do not experience significant restrictions to their right to vote and protest, unlike those in mainland China. However, in recent years the Chinese government has increasingly sought to centralise its control over the territory, efforts which have culminated with the most recent national security bill. The legislation would allow Chinese security forces to operate within the city, with experts fearing that this could pave the way for a crackdown on pro-democracy protestors, who have regularly taken to the streets of Hong Kong over the last year. 

The political scientist Wu Qiang has also accused China of using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy – ‘bolster authoritarian control amid the pandemic – this is Beijing’s thinking’.  

However, despite the distraction of the pandemic, the new law has been met with a strong response both in Hong Kong and from abroad. On Wednesday, as Hong Kong’s parliament convened to discuss another new law which would ban displays of disrespect towards the Chinese national anthem and flag, there were violent clashes between protestors and law enforcement officers, with hundreds of pro-democracy activists detained by the police. Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed that ‘no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China’ and announced a revocation of Hong Kong’s special treatment under US law.

Whilst protests have had some mixed success in halting unpopular proposals in the past, it is not clear that similar action will be able to force a climbdown from Beijing on this occasion. China claims that it is merely speeding up the implementation of Article 23 in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which has obliged Hong Kong to introduce a national security bill ever since it passed into Chinese hands. If the Chinese government views the new legislation as vital to its own national security, it is hard to see what would induce it to change its policy. 

In the long-run it is clear that China, weary of the repeated acts of defiance from human rights and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, has every intention of assimilating the territory under its own political and economic regime. At the 1997 handover ceremony transferring sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, the British governor at the time, Chris Patten, concluded his farewell remarks with these words – ‘now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong; that is the promise, and that is the unshakeable destiny’. Beijing’s latest efforts to meddle in the political affairs of Hong Kong now raise fresh doubts as to whether the people of Hong Kong truly do ‘run Hong Kong’, leaving the territory with an uncertain, and no doubt unstable, future.

Image: Francoise Gaujour via Flickr

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