by Akshara Bharat
When Britain ceded Hong Kong back to China in 1997, Beijing pledged to preserve the city’s capitalist system, along with certain democratic freedoms which people of mainland China are deprived of. At present under China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong has a status of special administrative region and is free to manage its own affairs, but only until 2047, when the city is expected to fully become a part of mainland China. The entire arrangement was agreed upon by Beijing under the Sino-British Joint declaration of 1984.
The bone of contention here is that China under the leadership of Xi Jinping isn’t waiting for the deal to expire. It has already started stifling pro-democratic voices in Hongkong and is cracking down on the city with a heavy hand, thus crushing all hopes of it ever developing into a full-fledged democracy. China has been chipping away the freedom of Hong Kong bit by bit, ever since the handover took place, fifteen years ago.
The city, however, has been pushing back hard, as the Hong Kongers have time and again erupted into mass protests against Chinese aggression. The latest being in 2019, when tens of thousands of people flooded the streets and protested against the controversial extradition bill, which now stands suspended. The proposed legislation would have allowed the suspects of criminal wrongdoing to be extradited to mainland China, where there is no fair trial and an individual’s rights aren’t worth a dime.
In June 2020, when the entire world was reeling under Wuhan Virus, China bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature passed a draconian national security law that undermines the city’s civil liberties and restricts fundamental rights. By virtue of the law, Beijing in the garb of national security bestowed upon itself the power to stifle any form of dissent and curtail all pro-democratic voices in Hong Kong. The Chinese officials have maintained that the imposition of the law became inevitable in order to restore peace and stability following the massive protests of 2019. However, pro-democratic voices have vehemently condemned the law and have expressed fears that it could mean the end of everything that makes Hong Kong unique from mainland China.
Hong Kong has a legislature with democratically elected representatives, called the Legislative Council, and it has 70 seats. Unlike China, Hong Kong has many political parties, but they are divided into two factions- pro-democracy or pro-China. In every election, pro-democracy political parties have won the popular vote, but unfortunately, they occupy less than half of the seats within the Council. So, when the residents of Hong Kong vote, they only do so for 40 out of the total 70 seats. The other 30 representatives are elected by various business communities of Hong Kong, as big businesses make benefits by being in the good books of Beijing. Hence, these 30 seats are dominated by pro-China political parties.
In the year 1997, when Hong Kong was handed over to China, Beijing made an agreement with the city, that eventually all members of the council will be elected by the people via free and fair elections. However, China has increasingly shown reluctance in granting Hong Kongers a universal suffrage. To further crack down on the political rights of the people, China overhauled the City’s electoral system in March this year. Now, Beijing-appointed politicians will have a greater say in running the Special Administrative Region (SAR), therefore marking the biggest change since the handover in 1997.
“The electoral changes being discussed, if passed, will prevent any candidate advocating democratic reforms to be elected to office,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The current system is already stacked against democracy advocates, so further changes seem unnecessary, but perhaps reflect Beijing’s obsession with wiping out dissent and exerting complete control.” Such tyrannical measures by China have silenced many voices of democracy in Hong Kong and have prompted many to flee the city.
Moreover, Hong Kong’s status as one of the most prominent global financial hubs appears to be under threat as well. “Beijing’s ideal scenario is to keep Hong Kong as a financial centre without all the freedom. But it seems that you really cannot maintain Hong Kong’s international financial standing while stifling its freedom”, says Victoria Tin-bor Hui at University of Notre Dame.
“This dramatic transformation will not be the end of Hong Kong as a global financial hub, as it has already begun to boost economic integration with mainland China. But it is surely the death of the democratic hopes of most of its 7.5 million people,” CFR’s Jerome A. Cohen writes.
Hong Kong is another Tibet in making. Many countries have expressed grave concerns regarding the worrying state of affairs in Hong Kong. But mere condemnation isn’t going to discourage China from further cracking down on the political and civil liberties of the 7.5 million Hong Kongers.