“Here, we have a saying,” my 27-year-old tour guide whispered to me as he leaned across the table. “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
As I walked around Hong Kong over winter break, I saw few overt signs of Hong Kong’s struggle to maintain democracy under an “emperor” in Beijing. But a landmark of the harbor is a large Communist flag plastered on the main government building. Its placement reminds those looking up that Hong Kong remains a semi-autonomous region within China.
In 1997, the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to China on the condition that for at least fifty years, it would maintain a “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Under this policy, Hong Kong is part of China. But Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, grants the region a great deal of autonomy and guarantees citizens certain democratic rights, like the rights to free speech and freedom of the press.
Young people, like my tour guide, have conflicting identities: the Chinese government would identify them as Chinese, but they all insisted to me that they are “Hong Kong-ese.” A Yale sophomore from China, who agreed to speak with The Politic on the condition of anonymity, also noted this conflict over identity.
“Interestingly, mainlanders seem to have the impression that most Hong Kong students introduce themselves as coming from Hong Kong rather than from China, which some regard as a sign of identity differentiation,” she said.
The most dramatic public expression of Hong Kong-ese identity came a month before my visit.
Before taking office, all of Hong Kong’s elected lawmakers must pledge to “bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” Earlier this year, two young pro-independence lawmakers, Sixtus Leung, 30, and Yau Wai-ching, 25, altered the oath to protest Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s government.
In an interview with The Politic, Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, explained that since the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, a pro-democracy demonstration that lasted 79 days, dissenters have faced a crackdown.
“The only way to voice opposition is to engage in various types of protests of the symbolic sort,” he said. “Making up one’s oath is an example of that.”
Rather than allow the Hong Kong courts to determine whether the lawmakers could take office, China’s central court took direct action. Beijing interpreted the Basic Law to mean that legislators had to say the oath clearly, with no added allusions to independence. Hong Kong’s high court then used this interpretation to ban the legislators from office.
The court’s decision sparked wide-scale protests led by many of the same young visionaries who led the Umbrella Revolution.
The central court’s unexpected review called into question whether Hong Kong’s independent court had bowed to pressure from the mainland government.
Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, explained to The Politic that Beijing’s requirement that lawmakers properly recite an oath was not troubling on its own.
Rather, she said, “Our primary concern about the episode was actually that Beijing effectively weighed in before the courts of Hong Kong had even had a chance to hear the case properly.”
Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, agreed.
“The bigger question, and the one that people will really look at with some interest,” he told The Politic, “is whether or not there is genuinely any eating away of the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legislative and judicial procedures.”
“If foreign companies, or foreign residents, or indeed Chinese Hong Kong residents felt that there was actually going to be any kind of impairment to the currently accepted, rather rigorous, rule of law in Hong Kong, that could create problems for the future,” he continued.
The Basic Law constitution forms the basis of Hong Kong’s identity, but after it expires in 2047, many of the freedoms Hong Kong residents have enjoyed are no longer assured. The question is what will happen once the fifty-year agreement ends.
In 2011, Danny Gittings, associate professor of constitutional law at Hong Kong University, wrote that there is “no reason necessarily to expect [Hong Kong in] 2047 to be any different [than Hong Kong] under the current system.” But now he calls his own prediction “foolhardy.”
In the last several years, Gittings’ views have become increasingly pessimistic. In his book Introduction to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Gittings writes that Hong Kong has moved from a period from 1997–2003 of “maximum autonomy” to one from 2003–2014 of “closer monitoring and cautious involvement” to currently one in which “the central government is more directly involved.”
“Some do believe that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy will not last until 2047,” he wrote, but he was careful to note that he does not agree with that claim.
Benny Tai, professor of law at Hong Kong University, thinks that change will come much earlier.
“I think a more important thing to look at is what may happen to China before 2047,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “There is a chance that long before 2047 in the coming years, major change may happen in China that the future of Hong Kong will inevitably link with that.”
“The most important thing we need to do in Hong Kong is to prepare for that moment, good or bad,” he said.
“I’d say the feeling of the citizens of Hong Kong was a combined sense of resolution and empowerment over China, and a sense of desperation and disappointment,” Hong Kong native Hana Davis ‘16 told The Politic.
In Hong Kong, she said, “I think there is a general sense of apprehension for 2047, and a feeling of hope – that perhaps, everyone’s efforts won’t be in vain and that something beneficial to Hong Kong’s democracy will come.”
“I think that if nothing changes, 2047 will mark China’s tightened grip on the chain it binds Hong Kong with. Hong Kong will cease to be legally separate. Although the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ system may remain,” Davis said, “[Hong Kong] will definitely be under total control and censorship of China.”
Bush weighed the options for Hong Kong after 2047.
“You have to look at the consequences on one hand of keeping the Basic Law and trying to muddle through, or changing it so that the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government is tighter than it is now, which might create even more turbulence than they have now,” he explained.
Angus Fong ‘19 took part in the Umbrella Revolution. Like Davis, Fong believes Beijing is taking greater control of Hong Kong.
“Clearly China is tightening its grip on Hong Kong and we have less room for freedom, less ammunition to decide how we want to live our lives,” he told The Politic. “I suppose by 2047 it might just be another city in China.”
Fong added that part of protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy means finding common ground with the Chinese government. “Right now we don’t know for sure what will happen,” he said, “but it’s all about using the awareness of what is going on and people starting to listen to each other and figuring out what we all want in common.”
Bush believes that the pro-democracy parties made some fatal errors several years ago that prevented them from achieving their legislative goals. He said the upcoming election for chief executive could have been “truly competitive” if pro-democracy forces had agreed with the Hong Kong government’s election reform proposal in April of 2015.
“If the democratic side had been smart in who they picked as their possible candidate to run in the election, that person would have probably gotten through the process and named by the nominating committee as candidate,” he said.
“The radicals who had been in power due to some of Beijing’s tactics wanted to stay in the driver’s seat of the democratic camp and they basically intimated their moderate colleagues into opposing the proposal,” he continued.
As a result, Bush believes that the protesters may now “be opposing for the sake of opposing.”
Mitter emphasized the importance of compromise.
“Ideas of Hong Kong independence are not going to be feasible,” he said. “And therefore the importance of trying to find a way in which democracy can be preserved while working with Beijing is important.”
Fong said that most people in Hong Kong are not expecting full independence from China.
“China is economically dependent on Hong Kong, but Hong Kong is even more economically dependent on China,” he explained. He believes the protests are “less about full independence and more about sustaining our way of life.” He continued, “All this culture we have built so far, we don’t want it to just go away.”
Despite the widespread pessimism, some efforts to preserve Hong Kong’s culture have been successful.
“There have been examples in the last twenty years of protests having a positive effect in slowing what some people call ‘mainlandization,’ preserving Hong Kong’s differences,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of History at University of California, Irvine, told The Politic.
He pointed to pro-democracy protests in 2003.
“There were plans for a new sort of laws on sedition, like the Patriot Act, that would try and control things in Hong Kong. Big protests led the Hong Kong authorities to table that,” he said. However, he added, “In the recent past though it does seem like protests have much more of an uphill battle.”
“You see a much more punitive response to certain kinds of response or protest,” Richardson agreed.
As a result, she said, “I think some of the kinds of activists or independent protesters now think twice about whether they are going to be surveilled or prosecuted, whether there is going to be a larger negative consequence for trying to exercise those rights.”
In addition to protests, foreign intervention is another method of pushing China to uphold Hong Kong’s democracy.
Bush emphasized the importance of foreign diplomats in raising Hong Kong’s democratic status in discussions with the Chinese.
“Instead of mentioning it tenth in the order of things or not mentioning it at all, they can mention it first or second and say, ‘Americans are going to be watching what you do in Hong Kong, so don’t screw it up.” he said.
The anonymous Yale sophomore from China sees hope in the next generation to build understanding between Hong Kong and the mainland.
“I think that our generation may be more informed about Hong Kong’s political situation because of more travel opportunities and the spread of the Internet,” she said.
Wasserstrom was dubious.
“I think sometimes we overestimate how much exposure to different kinds of information will necessarily alter views,” he said.
“There is a very strong influence of nationalistic propaganda, communication, and education on the mainland, that it takes a lot to unsettle some of those ideas,” he explained. “There is also the possibility of it just escalating into more of a misunderstanding between people on two sides of a divide.”
For protesters, the fight to keep Hong Kong’s spirit alive is far from over.
“We continue to organize more Hong Kong people to fight for the autonomy of Hong Kong,” Joshua Wong, a leader of the Hong Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto said in an interview with The Politic.
As the twentieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China approaches this year, Demosisto has a plan. Wong explained, “It’s necessary for us to generate a huge strike through the civil disobedience and to let the Chinese government know that it’s time to give Hong Kong people back democracy.”