How Hong Kong’s Complicated History Reverberates Today

By Ethan Brightbill & Jamie GreysonLast Updated Jan 4, 2021 1:04:13 PM ET
Hong Kong Feature 2
Photo Courtesy: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong has a long history of protestors fighting for autonomy and self-determination, but, under both the United Kingdom and China, Hong Kong and its people have struggled to become a democracy. Currently, Hong Kong is designated as a "special administrative region" of China. In theory, this means a large degree of autonomy from mainland China under the "One Country, Two Systems" policy. However, the key phrase here is in theory.

On June 30, 2020, a new security law has clouded that autonomy: No only is it no longer clear if Hong Kong can determine its own policies separate from Beijing, but the new law gives China the power to extradite any Hong Kong citizen with little to no cause. To understand its current crisis with China, it's essential to reflect on Hong Kong's complex history — and the way that history continues to reverberate in 2021.

British Colonial Rule Overtakes Hong Kong

After the first Opium War, China ceded the island of Hong Kong to Great Britain. In 1860 and 1898 respectively, additional territories — known today as the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories — were ceded to the British. From then on, the British colonized Hong Kong, enacting racist and white supremacist policies accordingly, including banning the use of the Chinese language in government and creating segregated European-only neighborhoods that were subject to different laws.

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Declassified documents show that pressure from Chinese leaders made it clear that the People's Republic of China would invade Hong Kong if it attained self-rule. For example, in 1958, Premier Zhou Enlai called any attempt to bring democracy to the island "a very unfriendly act." That is, despite enjoying the benefits of having a wealthy and economically strong neighbor like Hong Kong, China viewed the prospect of democracy in Hong Kong as a step toward independence rather than reunification with China.

Nonetheless, folks living in Hong Kong pushed for reform and freedom from decades of colonial rule. In the 1960s and '70s, protests over labor conditions eventually led to a higher standard of living and pressured the colonizers to revoke racist laws. Encouraged by these successes, Hong Kongers exercised their freedom of speech, protested and held communist rallies in the open.

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The British "Return" Hong Kong to China

While some Hong Kongers were optimistic about reunification with China, others, especially students, worried that China would try to take away Hong Kong’s freedoms instead of preserving the "One Country, Two Systems" policy. These fears increased after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — a violent crackdown against pro-democracy protests in China that caused hundreds or thousands of deaths.

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Nonetheless, after more than a decade of negotiations and preparation, Hong Kong was returned to China on July 1st, 1997. Under the deal, Hong Kong was guaranteed autonomy until 2047. During that time, the Basic Law, a miniature constitution agreed upon by China and the United Kingdom, was to be the law of the land in Hong Kong.

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In 2003, an attempt was made to pass a law that would make secession, sedition, subversion or treason against the Chinese government illegal. This triggered the first major protests against the Chinese government, with 500,000 people turning out on July 1 to express their outrage. Ultimately, the legislation was shelved — at least for a time.

China's Attempts to Change Education in Hong Kong

In the years that followed the 2003 protests, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promised democratic reforms in the future. And, although a few alterations were made to Hong Kong's legislature, little actually changed — at least, not the direction many Hong Kongers hoped.

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In 2012, attempts were made to change the curriculum of Hong Kong’s schools to focus more on Chinese history and identity. This was seen by many Hong Kongers as an effort to feed younger generations propaganda about mainland China. Massive protests broke out, with secondary school students (roughly equivalent to American middle and high schoolers) leading the protest through a group called Scholarism. Hong Kong’s chief executive at the time announced that implementing the curriculum would be optional, rendering China's educational plan powerless.

The Umbrella Revolution Grips the World

Even though it was ultimately unsuccessful, the Umbrella Revolution is perhaps the most iconic of Hong Kong’s protests. It was sparked by fears that the Chinese government did not intend to keep a promise to create universal suffrage for the city’s executive officer by 2017. Protestors demanded the resignation of the current pro-Beijing executive officer and electoral reform, but they had difficulty agreeing on the specifics of the latter demand.

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The protests were some of the most violent and chaotic since the 1960s, with the protestors’ use of umbrellas to deflect tear gas canisters giving the movement its name. Additionally, the protestors gained international attention for sharing free food with each other and setting up recycling stations to keep streets clean. Eventually, the protests were done in by an inability to unify around a single set of demands and the return of many student protestors to school. Nonetheless, the protests permanently strained relations between the people of Hong Kong and mainland China.

China Introduces the Hong Kong Security Law

After the Umbrella Revolution, protests became much more common, with more being held in response to a crackdown on unlicensed food vendors as well as the first-ever rally for Hong Kong independence in 2016. In 2019, a new national security law was introduced, one that, if passed, would extradite Hong Kong citizens suspected of criminal activity on the mainland to China without a trial.

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Protests broke out quickly, swelling to massive numbers when Chief Executive Carrie Lam amended the law to also allow extradition to China for criminal charges. In fact, the protests marked the "biggest political crisis in decades" and, according to Reuters, "pose the most serious popular challenge to China’s President Xi Jinping since he came to power." Although Carrie Lam announced on June 15, 2019 that the law would be delayed indefinitely, protestors argued that the law could still be implemented at any time and refused to disperse.

China Makes Protest Nearly Impossible for the People of Hong Kong

From there, the protests became a broader pro-democracy movement. Police violence against protestors escalated — and law enforcement was suspected of colluding with triad street gangs to attack and intimidate protestors. Eventually, Beijing intervened directly by passing a new security bill. Protestors, the United Kingdom and a myriad of other countries contest the legality of this move, but there's little anyone can do to oppose the Chinese legislation, which allows for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to China and lifetime prison sentences for those folks charged with secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion.

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Hong Kong Liberation Feature 1
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Additionally, the law also grants China and the Beijing-backed chief executive a range of new powers, including wire tapping, closed-door trials, the ability to appoint new judges in national security trials and more. Many kinds of protest now count as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion, including destruction of property. The law went into effect just before July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Since then, police have shutdown any attempted protests — even though protests and rallies are traditionally held on July 1 — and, in addition to making mass arrests, have used tear gas and rubber bullets against Hong Kong citizens.

In response, Hong Kongers have begun deleting social media posts and destroying pro-democracy signs out of fear of extradition. In effort to help Hong Kongers, the United Kingdom promised a path to citizenship for 3 million Hong Kongers — and Taiwan, Australia and the United States have also made moves to help people from the city who may soon need to seek political asylum. Whether this severe turn of events marks the end of the fight for self determination in Hong Kong or not, it's clear that the new law has irrevocably upended life for the people of Hong Kong.

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