Hong Kong has long been a particularly important meeting point of different cultures. It has been a bridge between East and West, between communism and capitalism, and in some cases between autocracy and democracy. This dualistic interpretation of the territory obscures its actual complexity, but at the same time highlights some of its most striking features and successes. Born out of the height of the European colonial area, Hong Kong has tirelessly carved out a unique place for itself in the world. Once just a sparsely populated island just off the coast of modern day Guangdong, it was through strong leadership and flexibility that Hong Kong has managed to prosper throughout some of the most dynamic periods in human history. It is not only this dynamism that has preserved the city’s competitive edge, but also the major legacy of its former colonial overlord, the strength of its public institutions, and particularly its independent judiciary and civil service.
Hong Kong’s transfer to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 has threatened these gifts in ways unanticipated by the West and likely China itself. While many, caught up in the optimistic period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw Hong Kong’s return to China as a possible catalyst for the growth of liberal democratic institutions in the country, this hope has been proven to be extremely naive. Our key tool for understanding the intended nature of the transfer is of course Hong Kong’s Basic Law, from which we obtain the famous “one country two systems” epithet. The epithet embodies two conflicting interests: Beijing’s emphasis of sovereignty and unity (“one country”) and Hong Kong’s love of autonomy and rule of law (“two systems”). The agreement, however, faces significant challenges, the most prominent being the rapid change in material circumstances in the mainland.
The agreement is built on the premise that Hong Kong and China vary not only institutionally, but also demographically, and that China has an interest in maintaining Hong Kong’s unique position for its own prosperity. This has grown increasingly difficult to defend in recent years though, due to the astronomic rise of many of China’s cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing itself, and of course Hong Kong’s neighbor: Shenzhen. No longer is Hong Kong unique in its capabilities as a port, financial center, and most importantly its relationship with the mainland as an intermediary. Where once Western companies used Hong Kong as a launch pad for interaction with a closed off mainland, now many prefer instead to deal directly with the country’s market, especially as China has liberalized its economic policy more broadly outside of special economic regions. This is not to say that Hong Kong has lost all of its competitive advantages, but it is clear that Hong Kong has not innovated sufficiently beyond its role as a core financial center for East Asia.
China’s economic growth has not only changed the material feasibility of the agreement, but it has also emboldened the country’s ruling power, the Communist Party. No longer appeased by mere survival on the world stage, the Party now seeks to expand its view of a responsible democracy to other parts of the world. Hong Kong, therefore, is not an equal in negotiations, but a territory to be reined in and assimilated. This highlights the second major flaw in the initial agreement: it is intended to be temporary. While at the outset this was only seen as a formality, a stopgap measure before the two parties could negotiate a second agreement more appropriate to the contemporary circumstances, it has become increasingly clear that Beijing has no interest in preserving the special relationship. Instead, it seeks to incorporate the territory into the broader system of Chinese governance which can be seen in actions large and small. One of the more controversial among the Hong Kong public has been Beijing’s push for the replacement of the territory’s official language, Cantonese, with Putonghua spoken officially in the rest of the country. The territory’s past two Chief Executives, Leung Chun-Ying and Carrie Lam both made their inaugural speeches in Mandarin, a powerful symbol of Beijing’s aim for political and cultural dominance. The only thing that steadies Beijing’s hand is first and foremost its global reputation, and its aspiration to extend the model to the more staunchly independent Taiwanese authority.
Many of Hong Kong’s previous and current leaders have begun to understand the precarious position in which the territory finds itself. Many argue for the expansion of democratic rights within the context of the initial agreement, notably the direct election of both the legislative council and the chief executive. This is well within the autonomy granted to the territory, but Beijing’s unwillingness to consider anything beyond symbolic conciliation has aggravated a younger generation who view Beijing with mistrust. This manifested dramatically in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests, which put Beijing’s open attitude towards the territory to the test. The answer was clear: there would be no true democracy and Beijing would not give up its role in effectively choosing the territory’s highest “elected” official. This unwillingness to compromise has fostered a small but growing movement for independence, as the younger generation in particular views Beijing as an unreasonable negotiation partner. Even the most stalwart campaigners for democracy now doubt whether Beijing will ever relent, especially after the rebuke of such a strong public demonstration as the umbrella revolution.
But all is not lost as Hong Kong still remains a world away from the mainland. While not truly democratic, it has admirable institutions such as a greater degree of freedom for the media, a judiciary in which citizens can trust, and a resilient culture which has refused to disappear. There is no doubt that Hong Kong has adapted to past challenges, it must now draw upon that spirit again to find its way through this new tempest.
Ryan Featherston is a student at Arizona State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.