Hong Kong’s Autonomy

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong is an island of free speech and civil liberties in an authoritarian sea. It is not, however, a democracy. Citizens have never had the power to choose their top leader, neither as part of China since 1997 nor as an outpost of the British Empire for 156 years before that. In 2014, the prospect of the first direct election of Hong Kong’s leader, or “chief executive,” increased the tension between a yearning for autonomy and China’s demand for loyalty, triggering 79 days of street protests. That strain is ever-present in Hong Kong politics, while the kind of democracy that protesters demanded remains as elusive as ever. 

The Situation

Eight democracy activists were sentenced in April 2019 to as much as 16 months in prison on charges stemming from the 2014 protests, a sign of how determined the China-backed local government has been to punish the organizers. The protests were sparked by Beijing's insistence on vetting candidates for the chief executive post, which demonstrators saw as backtracking from a pledge to move toward universal suffrage, or letting everyone vote. Tens of thousands of outraged students and their supporters blocked major arteries under the banner “Occupy Central.” It became known as the “Umbrella Movement” after police fired tear gas at demonstrators, who defended themselves with umbrellas. The protest eventually fizzled. The 2017 election was decided by a 1,163-member committee dominated by China loyalists, which chose then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's deputy Carrie Lam to succeed him. After elections to the city legislature in 2016 generated a surge in support for pro-democracy candidates, six of the winners were subsequently disqualified, weakening the opposition’s ability to block legislation. Other pro-democracy activists including Agnes Chow, a prominent student leader in 2014, have been banned from running for legislative office. In a rare move, the Hong Kong Immigration Department in 2018  refused to renew a U.K. journalist’s work visa after he hosted a talk by pro-independence activist Andy Chan at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The government also  banned Chan’s party after that speech. 

Hong Kong’s Autonomy

The Background

The 1984 Sino-British power transfer agreement specified that China would give Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under a principle the Chinese call “one country, two systems.” Any talk of independence was on the  fringesMore than 90 percent of the city’s nearly 7.5 million residents are ethnic Chinese with family ties to the mainland, which provides most of Hong Kong’s water and food as well as about half its trade. The city’s top official was to be chosen by an intricate nominating process that, in the view of democracy advocates, puts Beijing in control. It hasn’t worked out well: The chief executives have lacked popular support, with the first one, Tung Chee-hwa, departing after protests and his successor, Donald Tsang, amid a financial scandal that led to a conviction.  

The Argument

Though the public tired of the 2014 occupation, the students claim that they emboldened citizens to demand democracy and that there is still support for universal suffrage that meets what they call “international standards.” Pro-Beijing groups argue that China never promised more than the limited form of universal suffrage it offered, and that the occupation damaged Hong Kong’s rule of law and standing in the international financial community. China’s wariness of Hong Kong’s democracy movement is consistent with its wider push to assert regional control and to redress the humiliation it says it suffered after ceding the city to Britain upon losing the first Opium War in 1841. The mainland’s top legal affairs official in Hong Kong has warned that the government would consider scrapping “one country, two systems” if the concept became a threat to China. Lam, Hong Kong’s current chief executive, said in April that her administration would prioritize economic development rather than “stir up more troubles” by pressing the “divisive” issue of universal suffrage.

The Reference Shelf

  • QuickTakes on China's handling of Hong Kong 20 years after the handover, and its small but vocal independence movement.
  • Manifesto announcing a campaign for expanded democracy led by the activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace.
  • China presented its interpretation of Hong Kong democracy in a 2014 policy paper.
  • The website of the pro-democracy group Hong Kong 2020 sets forth objections to the way Hong Kong chooses its chief executive and suggests improvements.
  • A Bloomberg photo essay on the 79-day demonstrations.

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