Hong Kong: The fights for rights
Since being returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been a battle ground of political ideology, social identity and fundamental rights. Last year huge protests, the largest march reaching almost two million people, took over the city. But what brought so many people into the streets and how much does the history of Hong Kong have to do with it?
In April 2019, under Carrie Lam (Hong Kong's chief executive), an Extradition Bill was introduced to the legislature. The bill ostensibly attempted to account for Hong Kong's extradition treaty deficit however it was this that triggered huge protests across Hong Kong. The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China for suspects in criminal cases and could have been applied retroactively. Consequently, people could have been extradited for acts they had done in the past. While not inherently malicious, this would have exposed Hongkongers to the risk of being prosecuted for acts and conduct criminalised under Chinese law. Given China’s starkly different attitude to the rights and freedoms protected in Hong Kong, this would in essence be a significant reinstatement of mainland power in autonomous Hong Kong and a de facto degradation of civil liberties in the jurisdiction.
The protests developed "five demands" with calls for the complete removal of the Extradition Bill at the forefront. Successfully, on 4 September 2019 Carrie Lam announced the bill would be officially withdrawn. However, the protests vocalised the strong underlying tension within the 'one country, two systems' relationship.
The protests also brought the abuse of police power in Hong Kong to the attention of the international community. Reports from international organisations, such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, detailed the widespread occurrence of police beatings, excessive use of riot control weapons and arbitrary arrests.
Hong Kong had been a British colony for over century and a half, since the opium wars of the 19th century, when it was signed over to Britain under a 99 year agreement as part of the peace treaty in 1898. When Hong Kong was handed back to China by the UK in 1997, it was done so under the condition that Hong Kong would remain largely autonomous from the rest of China. On the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been in power since 1949 and often sits in opposition to the more liberal and western Hong Kong way of life, which developed under British colonial rule. While political leadership is drawn from a Beijing approved and loyal pool (Carrie Lam being no exception), Hong Kong has its own legal, governing and legislating powers. Through this system (known as "one country, two systems"), fundamental rights such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are guaranteed in ways they are not on the mainland. This arrangement is subject to end in 2047, when a new relationship between the autonomous former colony and its motherland will be drawn up.
Hong Kong's 'Basic Law', which operates as a constitution, codifies (puts into legal writing) the "one country, two systems" operandi and guarantees the fundamental rights which Beijing does not. However, the 'Basic Law' lacks the protection of a fully entrenched constitution meaning the laws and rules it provides are neither as powerful nor as protected as the constitutional law of, for instance, the US. Consequently, consistent failings to protect its principles have made protests a prominent feature of Hong Kong's recent history. In 2014 pro-democracy protests, which became known as the Umbrella Movement, swept the city. The unrest was a stand against the caveat that long promised universal suffrage would be recognised in 2017, yet voters would only have a limited choice of Beijing selected candidates. Now, once again, the people of Hong Kong are fighting for their autonomy and freedom.
The International Dimension
In response to the protests the UK, a country inextricably tied to its former colony, has offered residents of Hong Kong the opportunity to settle in the UK with a path to citizenship. Up to 3 million people are to be eligible for the olive branch, although it is unclear how many will take it up. Those eligible are holders of British National Overseas Passports which are only available to those born before the 1997 handover.
Images and videos of clashes between police and protestors circulating social media propelled the protests onto the world stage. What was ultimately clash between western values and the CCP brought widespread sympathy and support for the protestors through social media and news outlets around the world.
At the time of writing the protests have dissipated, although the tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing have not. Twelve people were recently arrested off the coast of Hong Kong by mainland forces. They are currently in prison facing charges under Beijing's National Security Law. Pressure is mounting for their release as activists have voiced their concern that without an international pushback, a dangerous precedent could be set for using the National Security Law to extradite Hongkongers to the mainland.