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Hong Kong will not go quietly

If Beijing’s actions have any bearing on what will happen when the agreement of ‘one country, two systems’ expires, the Hong Kong people are unlikely to succumb quietly, writes Liam Finnigan

Hong Kong is in the midst of the biggest protest movement in its history. A proposed bill that would allow extradition to mainland China has had a reported two million Hong Kong citizens, almost one-third of its population, mobilise in opposition and call for the resignation of their Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Despite Lam suspending the bill, protestors remain unappeased. With recent weeks marked in violent confrontations between police and activists, there is little indication Hong Kong will return to normality until the bill is completely removed. 

On the surface, these protests show the fear Hong Kong citizens hold towards the Chinese judicial system. They currently enjoy political and religious freedoms illegal on the mainland, and if this bill passes, could be made susceptible to China’s laws. Yet recent events are part of growing discontent at the refusal of Beijing decision makers to honour the ‘one country, two systems’ paradigm. Five years ago, the Umbrella Movement unsuccessfully protested against Beijing’s vetting of political candidates in Hong Kong’s elections. To protestors, this current bill is further attempt by Beijing to erode Hong Kong’s political autonomy and democratic freedoms.

Formulated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, ‘one country, two systems’ allows Hong Kong certain political and religious liberties not held in the mainland yet acknowledges the country as an undeniable part of mainland China. In practice, there are two Hong Kongs. The citizen’s Hong Kong, a former colony which has inherited British democratic rights and civil liberties; and China’s Hong Kong, a city born from colonial expansion, ceded to Britain to appease their military ravaging of the mainland, mostly in Chinese opposition to the prolific and illegal sale of opium to the Chinese people.

Regardless of the outcome of these protests, Beijing needs to learn how best to navigate the autonomy it has promised Hong Kong with its long-term ambition of a reunified China.

The cessation of Hong Kong to Britain was the birth of what the Chinese call a “Century of Humiliation” where their once historic and proud nation became plundered by foreign powers, resulting in mass poverty, political dismay and the erosion of China’s perceived place as the centre of human civilisation. 

The return of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997 is a symbolic statement showing China has moved past this shame and is once again a unified and capable nation. The protests, however, not only show the disillusion of ‘one country, two systems’ in practice, but the massive discontent amongst the people of Hong Kong whom China sees as its own. 

The alternative in succumbing to the protestors demands is also not ideal for Chinese leaders. While Lam has suspended the extradition bill, protestors will not be appeased until it has been completely removed and Hong Kong’s political autonomy credibly upheld. As leaders learnt from Tiananmen, genuine democracy will always be a threat. In areas such as Tibet, Hong Kong, or even Taiwan, it enables the possibility of separation. In late 2017, Xi Jinping heralded that any separatist movement would be met with the full capabilities of the Chinese state, alluding that military involvement a likely response.

If Hong Kong is so symbolically crucial to China’s national image, it would be a blow if the Hong Kong people willingly choose any alternative to Beijing’s rule. Accusations of Chinese influence are early attempts to deter from real democracy which could precede calls for independence. While China sees these as necessary steps to protect its legitimacy, they are viciously opposed by the Hong Kong people.

Regardless of the outcome of these protests, Beijing needs to learn how best to navigate the autonomy it has promised Hong Kong with its long-term ambition of a reunified China. If Beijing’s actions are a mini-preview of what will happen in 2047, when the agreement of ‘one country, two systems’ expires, the Hong Kong people are unlikely to succumb quietly.

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