- Evianne Suen
A fight from custody: Hong Kong’s rebellion against China
New HKD1,000 banknotes released by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) have on them a panoramic view of the city’s financial centre - a renown trademark which defines Hong Kong’s economic robustness. The city is home to startups, duty-free trade, laissez-faire capitalism, and the highest degree of economic freedom in the world since 1995. But this business haven, pitched against the mother country’s looming hand over its ideology and economy, has only two decades - a hopeful estimate - or so to live.
THIS BUSINESS HAVEN HAS ONLY TWO
DECADES TO LIVE
Ever since the 1997 handover, China has been insidiously staking its claim to the city, most prominently through its infiltration of the government, as “50 years no change” takes its course until 2047, when local authorities finally cede their governance to China. The motherland has been marinating Hong Kong politics in Chinese rhetoric - that of censorship, socialism, and propaganda - and priming the country and its people for the inevitable takeover.
However, It is not without resistance: an epitome would be the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which saw the city’s central seized by citizens for 79 days, against police brutality that was launched at those protesting China’s announcement that it will pre-screen candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. As a result, then-16-year-old Joshua Wong, an eminent pro-Movement activist, went on to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Localist youths have followed his footsteps in resisting China’s burgeoning stronghold. During their oath-taking ceremony on their first day at the Legislative Council, ex-members-elect Youngspiration leaders Baggio Leung and Regine Yau altered the words of the oath, profanely renamed the “People’s Republic of China”, and displayed a banner with “Hong Kong is not China”.
But the efforts made by Hong Kong’s awakening youth, and their political counterparts, are in vain. Pioneers of the Umbrella Movement were charged with “public nuisance” and “injury to the public” in a trial - criticised by Amnesty International a “politically motivated prosecution” which attacks “free speech and peaceful assembly” - this November, while Wong was detained during the critical days of the protest. Leung and Yau, who could have had 6% of the seats, were disqualified from the council and relentlessly humiliated by local media for their civil disobedience.
That is not to discount the argument that anti-Chinese rhetoric is entirely ethical or unilaterally justified. The Umbrella Movement paralysed small business in areas that were occupied, targeted mainland Chinese nationals within the city, and the involved youths were, at times, militantly impassioned with their own ideologies. The Youngspiration leaders, despite their best efforts, only harmed the localist party’s chances of future elections. In a press conference, pro-independence Hong Kong National Party founder Andy Chan stated that the party would support the use of violence, “if it was effective in making [them] heard”, and “whatever effective means” will be adopted to push for Hong Kong’s independence. These statements have led lawmakers to accuse such parties of “abusing their freedom”, a complete recoil in Chan’s hopes to have calls for democracy to be taken seriously. These activists’ efforts, although founded on goodwill, corrupted their intentions with extreme measures, which resulted in scandal and loss of public support.
For China does indeed possess have the right to subsume Hong Kong into their nation - if they haven’t already. The 1997 ceremony promised that China would resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong, its definition official converted to the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People's Republic of China”, or, “Hong Kong, China”, as it is widely and internationally known now.
Post-handover, Hong Kong buildings flew flags of China alongside the city’s own and the national anthem replaced Britain’s to be played every night before dinner (fun fact - all of the iconic red Royal Mail mailboxes were replaced or re-painted green). The first of July became a holiday to celebrate the city’s establishment, which was to celebrate China’s National Day on October first. And the press, such as South China Morning Post (SCMP), changed headlines and headings including “local” and “China” to, simply, “national”.
Where China fails is in their persistence, and idealisation of the obedience of Hong Kong’s citizens who, having tasted China’s forbidden fruit of freedom for over two decades and realising the real threat to democracy imposed by the irrevocable acquisition, would not simply resign.
Moreover, the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration clearly states that, after 1 July 1994, Hong Kong “will continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy on all matters other than defense and foreign affairs”. Under the “one country, two systems” policy to last “at least” until 2047, “Hong Kong will retain its current lifestyle and legal, social, and economic system”.
This slowly eroding system is most evident in China’s countless moves to quash local rebellions, with President Xi Jinping himself declaring that any opposition against the “central government” which may “endanger China’s sovereignty and security” is “absolutely impermissible”. At the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China last year, he further stated that Hong Kong “cannot afford to be torn apart by reckless moves or internal rift”, the “one country, two systems” model seeks “broad common ground while allowing for major differences” (Xi edited “major” from the original word “minor”), and Hong Kong’s Basic Law “should be viewed as subordinate to China’s constitution”. In his 21-minute speech, he pointed out glaring problems under the city’s administration such as housing - in addition to abject wealth disparity, the poorest live in literal cages, unable to afford ludicrously priced accommodation - and directed the audience to seek solace in China’s “rapid development”.
What he omits in his address is the goal of “political reform” under the Basic Law, which remains unfulfilled. And the possibility of it is bleak, unless reform entails China’s beleaguerment of the “semi-autonomous” system that Hong Kong has inherited, but is slowly abandoning. Most damningly, outlined in a divulged white paper by the Chinese State Council on the “one country, two systems” policy were plans such as “Hong Kong's Smooth Return to China” and a “timetable” for universal suffrage, and pronouncements of “Efforts Made by the Central Government to Ensure the Prosperity and Development of the HKSAR”.
In the very same document, it is stated that Hong Kong’s “Freedoms, including those of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, and of religious belief would be ensured”.
However, citizens’ anxieties have surfaced from China’s physical extension as metaphors of their growing influence, such as the launch of the high speed rail link connecting central Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Chinese immigration officers are allowed to patrol inside the bullet train, which has led to demonstrations by Democratic Party lawmakers. China’s physical usurpation does not end there - the disappearing border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen encapsulates the nation’s intentions best. Paired with an ideological pervasion of Chinese ideals - be it textbooks, or changes made to local curricula to include “political” modules for the official Hong Kong exam, the A-level equivalent - it is one which threatens the city’s independence, whether it is deserving of it or not.
Returning to Xi Jinping’s speech in 2017, he states that Hong Kong should “bear in mind the larger interests, communicate in a sensible way and build more consensus” to find the best solution for its political predicament. But this is not a binding statement - although the aforementioned white paper states that Hong Kong will retain its private property rights, free port status, “independent finances”, and financial centre for foreign exchange, time will tell if they are but empty promises, as China’s “encroachment” of the city tightens, as stated by United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2018. This is where the United States comes into play: under the 1984 Declaration, the country has the right to actively maintain “Hong Kong's role as an international financial center”, at the very least. Perhaps they will propose a solution, as their economic interests are gradually threatened by China’s intervention of Hong Kong - the silver lining behind this political entanglement, so that Hong Kong’s new banknotes will not display a nostalgic past, but an enduring future.