What Is Hong Kong's Relationship With China?

By Ethan BrightbillLast Updated Jul 9, 2020 8:01:05 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China that in theory has a large degree of autonomy from the mainland under the "One Country, Two Systems" policy. However, after a new security law came into force on June 30th, 2020, it’s no longer clear if Hong Kong can determine its own policies separate from Beijing. The new law gives China the power to extradite any Hong Kong citizen with little to no cause, and Hong Kong has no ability to supervise or fight the arrests.


How did Hong Kong end up in this position? The city has a long history of protests for democracy and self-determination under China and the United Kingdom before it. This is the story of Hong Kong.

British Rule

The island of Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain by China after the first Opium War, with additional territory — today’s Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories — added in 1860 and 1898 respectively. The British ruled Hong Kong as a colony, and local people were treated accordingly: for most of Hong Kong’s history, Chinese was banned from use in government, and Hong Kongers had no say in government. The best neighborhoods were European-only, and different laws applied to Chinese Hong Kongers but not the British.

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Photo Courtesy: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

However, in later decades, Hong Kong was given a wide degree of autonomy from Britain as well. Protests over labor conditions in the 60s and 70s eventually led to a higher standard of living, and racist laws were slowly revoked. Hong Kongers also enjoyed a surprising amount of freedom of speech, even to the point of Chinese and Hong Konger communists openly holding rallies.

While Hong Kong never had true democracy under the British, there were several attempts to introduce democratic reforms to the city as early as the 1950s. However, declassified documents show that pressure from Chinese leaders made it clear that the People’s Republic of China would invade Hong Kong if it was given self-rule. Premier Zhou Enlai called any attempt to bring democracy to the island "a very unfriendly act" in 1958, and subsequent leaders expressed similar opinions. While China benefited from having a city as wealthy and educated as Hong Kong on its border during its economic reformation, it viewed democracy in Hong Kong as a step toward independence rather than reunification with China — something it would not tolerate.


Return to China and Early Conflicts

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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Initially, many Hong Kongers were optimistic about reunification with China. However, there were always some people, especially students, who 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 Tiananmen Square massacre, a violent crackdown against pro-democracy protests in China that caused hundreds or thousands of deaths.


In 2003, an attempt was made to pass a law similar to the future 2020 security bill that would have made secession, sedition, subversion or treason against the Chinese government illegal. It triggered the first major protests against the Chinese government, with 500,000 people turning out on July 1. The legislation was ultimately shelved, and memorial events for Tiananmen Square became massive affairs every year after that.

Moral and National Education

The years after the 2003 protests saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promise democratic reforms at a future date, and some minor changes were made to Hong Kong’s legislature. Overall, however, little changed.

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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 again 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 the curriculum would be optional for schools to implement, making the educational plan powerless.

The Umbrella Revolution

The Umbrella Revolution is perhaps the most iconic of Hong Kong’s protests, although it was ultimately unsuccessful. 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. At the same time, 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.


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 and the first-ever rally for Hong Kong independence in 2016. When a new national security was introduced early in 2019 that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be expedited to China without trial if they were wanted for charges on the mainland. Protests soon broke out, and they quickly grew after Chief Executive Carrie Lam amended the law to also allow extradition to China for criminal charges. While she announced that the law would be delayed indefinitely on June 15, 2019, protestors argued that the law could still be implemented at any time and refused to disperse.

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From there, the protests became a broader pro-democracy movement. Police and protester violence soon escalated. Law enforcement was suspected of colluding with triad street gangs to attack and intimidate protestors. Carrie Lam refused to resign her post, yet the protests continued throughout 2019.


Finally, Beijing intervened directly by passing a new security bill itself. The legality of the move is contested by the protestors, the United Kingdom and other countries, but there is little that anyone can do to oppose the Chinese legislation. It allows for the expedition of Hong Kongers to China and lifetime prison sentences for the charges of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion, and it 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 denied permission for more protests despite the first being a traditional time for them. Those who have protested face tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests. Hong Kongers have begun deleting social media posts and destroying pro-democracy signs out of fear of extradition.


In response, the United Kingdom promised a path to citizenship for 3 million Hong Kongers, and Taiwan, Australia and the United States also made moves to help people from the city who may soon need to seek political asylum. The United States Congress has also voted for sanctions on China.

Whether this is the end of self determination for the special administrative region or not, it’s clear that the relationship between China and Hong Kong has permanently changed.