China, Hong Kong

Hong Kong democracy fading 20 years after handover

Military parade in Hong Kong
Military parade in Hong Kong Reuters/Damir Sagolj

A massive military parade with chanting troops greeted Chinese President Xi Jinping to Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the British handover to China. Shortly before the show of force a group of activists who had been arrested for taking part in a protest were released from police custody.


Audio report: China/Hong Kong handover

“Things have gone worse,” says Claudia Mo, a directly elected member of Legco, Hong Kong’s parliament.

“This 'One Country, Two Systems' promise has proven a sham, a fraud, we’ve been let down in Hong Kong. They are taking away our autonomy and they are trying to suppress our diversity.”

London and China agreed in 1984 that the UK would return Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Not only was Britain to give back the New Territories, which were leased for 99 years in 1897, but also Hong Kong Island, which had been a British colony since the First Opium War in 1842.

Beijing blocks moves to democracy

According to the agreement, Hong Kong’s continuing prosperity under Chinese rule would be guaranteed in a structure called "One Country, Two Systems” - Communist Party rule in the mainland and a capitalist system and semi-democratic government in Hong Kong.

Beijing was to be responsible for defence and foreign policy, the Hong Kong government for the rest.

Hong Kong was given a mini-constitution, the Basic Law, valid until 2047.

Article 68 of the Basic Law states that “universal suffrage” is the “ultimate aim”.

Today 35 out of Legco's 70 seats are directly elected, 30 are indirectly elected through "functional constituencies" (representatives of professions as doctors, businessmen, etc) and five are nominated by members of the Hong Kong district council.

But Beijing backtracked when it came to increasing the level of democracy.

It has twice refused to increase the number of directly elected Legco members and its way of installing a hand-picked chief executive through an electoral body has irritated many in the territory.

“I did not anticipate that 20 years after the handover, the heavy-handed influence by the central authorities would be so present,” says Philip Dykes, a lawyer who was working for the pre-handover British government in Hong Kong.

“You can say in the past three or four years there has been more and more evidence of Beijing intervening in Hong Kong affairs, apart from defence and foreign affairs issues, Hong Kong is meant to be managing on its own. The people resent that interference so much."

Umbrella protests

After the handover, Dykes went to work for an independent law office.

In 2016 he defended Legco member Yao Wai-ching, who was involved with the umbrella protest movement that hit Hong Kong’s streets after 31 August 2014.

It was a response to the decision of the Standing Committee of the Beijing-based National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, decided that the chief executive was to be elected indirectly by a committee rather than through universal suffrage, as was suggested earlier.

Yao Wai-ching and fellow legislator Baggio Leung Chung-hang lost their Legco seats for "distorting their oath of office” during their swearing-in ceremony when they refused to declare their allegiance to China and carried blue flags reading “Hong Kong is not China”.

China’s Communist Party mouthpeice, the People’s Daily, scolded the pair, saying that “Hong Kong independence cannot be tolerated,” and accusing them of having “seriously violated the bottom line of ‘One Country, Two Systems'.”

The Hong Kong government ordered a judicial inquiry, which led to their being kicker out of Legco.

Taiwan strategy undermined

The protests and incidents and China’s perceived interference overshadow the original idea of “One Country, Two Systems”, which was also designed to lure the effectively independent island of Taiwan back into the embrace of the mainland.

“When the Communist Party took control of China in 1949, it didn’t have Taiwan, Hong Kong was still a British colony, Macau was a Portuguese colony,” says Michael Dillon, biographer of China’s strongman Deng Xiaoping who was the architect of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.

But recent developments have undermined the strategy.

“For Taiwanese people it is not an attractive proposition now,” says Dykes. “In the first years after 1997 there was not much interference but that changed completely now.”

Independence debate

China's wariness about increasing democracy is partly caused by growing support for independence, especially among young people.

But even liberal lawmakers are sceptical about the prospects for breaking away.

“Most people in Hong Kong know that Hong Kong independence is just an empty issue,” says Claudia Mo. “How are you going to go about it? Do crowd funding to buy weapons? To go up to the hills and start guerrilla warfare? It’s just so unrealistic.

“We haven’t even got water of our own. But China is still very happy to exaggerate that issue. Any gesture that is pro-democracy they would say: 'This is pro-independence!'. Beijing could charge us with crimes of sedition or subversion, what have you."

Carry Lam, the new chief executive, who was Beijing’s preferred candidate, will be inaugurated on 1 July 2017.

She will have to balance between an increasingly critical population and a Chinese leadership  that seems more and more inclined to impose its will on Hong Kong.

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