A Threat to Hong Kong’s Autonomy?
As protests continue to rock Hong Kong and Beijing gears up for a crackdown, Oliver Leader de Saxe evaluates the state of affairs in this unique city, and whether or not it can hold onto its cherished autonomy from mainland China.
On the 28th of May, the ruling Communist Party of China passed a draft resolution through the National People’s Congress, with the aim of targeting “subversion of state power” and “terrorism or interference by… outside influences” in the semi-autonomous province of Hong Kong. 2,878 delegates voted in favour of the bill; only one voted against. Critics of the bill claim it will allow state forces to target opposition to the government, particularly protestors. Pro-democracy legislator Helena Wong was quoted in The Guardian stating “even the SAR government will not be able to regulate what the agents do in Hong Kong”. The new laws will essentially end the civil liberties held by Hong Kong citizens.
Hong Kong autonomy was always precarious in the ‘one country, two systems’ framework the financial hub adopted after being ceded by the British in 1997. In 2003, the Chinese government tried to implement an article into Hong Kong Basic Law that hauntingly echoes the recent resolution, calling for the city to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government”. Article 23 demonstrates that the recent resolution is just part of a long-held desire by the ruling party to end Hong Kong’s autonomy, which they view a backdoor for Western influence and a threat to the status-quo. And just like recent attempts in 2019 to introduce the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill, which would have sent criminals to face trial on the mainland, the 2003 legislation was met with huge backlash and protests from Hong Kong citizens.
Authorities have been given the chance to dismantle the pro-democracy movement, and Hong Kong autonomy, in a more permanent manner
It’s those 2019 protests which are likely the reason for such an aggressive set of measures being introduced. Whilst the 2003 article brought out around half a million protestors to the streets, 2019 saw nearly two million take part in some demonstrations. What began as a simple call to protect civil liberties and withdraw the bill in March quickly spiralled out into something much bigger: the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and universal suffrage becoming major demands from the protestors, and the District Council Elections in November which returned a pro-democracy landslide with record voter turnout, all but confirmed fears of waning mainland influence in the city. But at the time, China’s hands were tied. With intense foreign speculation about Hong Kong’s future, as well as volatile trade negotiations with the USA, China was unwilling to take more provocative actions to secure control over the province.
The Coronavirus pandemic has presented the perfect opportunity for the Chinese government to attack the semi-autonomous political framework which was supposed to exist until 2047. With the streets empty and the international community distracted, authorities have been given the chance to dismantle the pro-democracy movement, and Hong Kong autonomy, in a more permanent manner. It’s no coincidence that pro-democracy advocates were forcibly removed from Legislative Council on the 18th May, or that 15 key members of the pro-democracy movement, including the Hong Kong’s so-called “Father of Democracy” Martin Lee, were arrested on the 16th of May following the resolution being passed. All of this indicates a long-term approach to ending Hong Kong autonomy; not only by limiting protests, but by removing the political figures stoking the flames of democracy.
This is not to say China’s action have gone unnoticed by the international community. The US is pushing for a bipartisan bill which will impose sanctions on officials and entities that enact new security laws in the province, as well as limit the special position Hong Kong holds in international trade. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has promised to allow Hong Kong citizens with BNO passports “to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights including the right to work which would place them on the route to citizenship” if security laws come into effect. This unprecedented move could apply to up to 3 million people, and considering the solidarity of other members of the Five Eyes intelligence group, Hong Kong could soon become China’s annexation of the Crimea, with the CCP finding itself at the heart of a new cold war. The new security laws prove that Hong Kong’s autonomy was never going to be a question of “if”, but of “how long”. And considering the recent provocative actions taken by the Chinese state, that “how long” is growing shorter by the day.