The Hong Kong protests of 2019, also known as Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, drew huge attention from many across the world. In fact, Hong Kong protests, which started in June (2019) against the proposed Extradition Bill to allow extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China for trial, intermittently continued for more than a year and led to brutality of police force and thousands of arrests. Even if the bill could not be passed by reason of unprecedented protests, another controversial bill — the national security bill — was promulgated in 2020. This new law drove further protests in Hong Kong and, of course, strongly raised an old question anew: Will Hong Kong be completely controlled by China similar to mainland Chinese cities in the future?
In my opinion, increased control over Hong Kong is not unlikely all in all in the future, although full control may not be a reality. In fact, Hong Kong, which was ruled by Britain as a colony for more than 150 years with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking signed after the 1841 First Opium War and given back to China Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement in 1997, is undergoing some major changes — especially in political terms — since 2003 by reason of continued direct and indirect interventions of the mainland Chinese government that aims at exerting greater control over Hong Kong, even if it became a Special Administrative Region with the 1984 British-China Joint Declaration and continues to maintain governing and economic systems separate from those of mainland China.
As is rightly criticized, the Chinese government is gradually weakening rule of law, civil rights and freedom of media and eliminating every trace of liberal democratic values, which Hong Kong — reputed as Asia’s World City, one of the most advanced capitalist economies around the world and a multi-party political system — was enjoying before its being handed over to China by Britain. Some examples of restrictive moves can be the central government’s decision to implement nominee pre-screening before allowing Chief Executive elections, declaration of patriotism as a prerequisite for holding office in Hong Kong, disqualification of six elected pro-democracy legislators after the 2016 Legislative Council elections, and passing of a controversial bill criminalizing disrespect for China’s national anthem.
But the promulgation of the 2020 national security law is obviously a big jump in China’s efforts to achieve its goal of making Hong Kong a fully controlled city — at least after 2047 when the historic handover agreement will end — through coercion or trickery. Indeed, the recently promulgated security law that includes 66 articles criminalizes any acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers with a maximum sentence of life in prison. Under the new law, street protests and advocacy of outspoken local voices are almost impossible in Hong Kong. Though the government insists that ordinary people will not be affected, this law, as a consequence, can significantly suppress democratic rights and facilitate enactment of further laws favoring China’s agenda.
Given that China is a big power — economically and militarily — and has loyal government in Hong Kong, it may be easier, at least somewhat, to implement its agenda, significant for making it more capable of realizing its ultimate goal of exerting greater influence in Asia and beyond. In fact, the Hong Kong’s parliament, the Legislative Council, is leaned to Beijing because it is only partially democratic — about half the seats are directly elected by voters. More importantly, the Chief Executive is primarily elected from a restrictive pool of candidates supportive by an Election Committee that is composed of 1,200 members from four major sectors. The central government has the opportunity to influence the nomination of primary candidates and election of the Chief Executive and, hence, can keep the Hong Kong government answerable to Beijing — not to electorate — and achieve China’s goals with imposing of laws restricting diverse rights of Hong Kongers in the future too.
But it cannot be as easy for the Chinese central government and the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government as is said to forcefully implement the China-isation agenda especially in political terms in Hong Kong. As it appears, Hong Kong people have shown a tendency of protesting restrictive moves of the government. In fact, the government’s restrictive steps that led to increased protests in the past including protests in 2003, 2012, 2014 — known as the Umbrella Movement — and 2019 have already brought some successes and can motivate Hong Kongese to be more determined for the realization of their diverse rights with massive movements in the future increasing the possibility of making situations chaotic.
It is undeniable that people of Hong Kong, which has a limited democracy, enjoyed a high level of civil liberties for generations compared to those of mainland China — a country controlled by a single party — and that the Hong Kong government generally respects the human rights of the citizens, even if there are some limitations. Of course, China guaranteed the former British colony to continue to govern itself and simultaneously maintain many independent systems until 2047. Also, the Basic Law holds out the ultimate aim of universal suffrage in electing Hong Kong’s leader and legislature, though China reserved the right to interpret the law. It does not seem reasonable to force Hong Kongers to subdue to unjustly imposed restrictions of mainland China, though Hong Kong, which was taken a 99-year lease by Britain in 1898, is rendered as its inalienable territory.
Not less important is the fact that many countries that ideologically favor democracy and have economic interests in Hong Kong — one of the economic hubs where many multinational companies of different countries including the UK are located — will continue to put pressure upon Beijing and the Hong Kong government. The USA, the UK, Australia, Canada and some other countries are much critical to the controversial security law; by this time, the USA has imposed sanctions. Such transboundary acts can put barriers to the implementation of China-isation agenda and may unsurprisingly motivate Hong Kongers, including a segment of pan-democratic bloc, who call for greater autonomy to strongly call for independence, though such a position is still far from the mainstream segment.
As it seems, future course of the semi-autonomous Hong Kong largely depends on what steps China make in the days to come and how Hong Kongers react to. But it is desired that Hong Kongese enjoy economic, political and other rights in the future too. In my opinion, the Hong Kong government should listen to people’s voices instead of working for realizing China’s goals and, more importantly, mainland China should refrain from application of force, should not deprive Hong Kongers of their deserved rights and keep autonomous status of its indisputable territory. Roles of the United Nations and human rights organizations may also be effective in upholding diverse rights of Hong Kongers.
Amir Mohammad Sayem, Researcher and Commentator on miscellaneous issues including social, political, environmental, public health and international relations, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org