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Issue #1885      September 11, 2019

Colonial heritage, socialist future?

The complex history behind Hong Kong protests – Part 1

The large-scale protests gripping Hong Kong the past few months, which have included violent confrontations with authorities, strikes, and student boycotts, show few signs of abating.

The protests, including the June 16 and August 18 demonstrations that drew 1.7 million participants, were sparked by the introduction of an Extradition Law into the Hong Kong Legislative Council. The proposed measure would have allowed Hong Kong authorities to detain and transfer out people wanted for crimes in Taiwan, Macau, or mainland China to stand trial in those jurisdictions.

The bill was put forward after a Hong Kong man murdered his girlfriend while visiting Taiwan. Because there exists no treaty for extraditions between the governments of the two places, there was no way to put the man on trial for his crime, given that he had abruptly returned to Hong Kong before being discovered. The law’s opponents, however, have expressed fear it would be used by the Beijing government to pursue political charges against Hong Kong dissidents.

In the wake of the continuing protests, on September 4, Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, withdrew the bill. It remains to be seen what effect this will have since protesters are voicing additional demands beyond the original bill.

Chinese officials suspect US and British imperialism are exploiting the mass discontent to provoke a “colour revolution” in Hong Kong to separate it from China. The goal, as Beijing sees it, is also to spread unrest to the mainland and undermine China’s socialist system.

Given the history of US-backed regime change and support for the “colour revolutions,” this scenario is not hard to imagine. However, US meddling can’t possibly fully explain the size, scope, and persistence of the demonstrations.

The causes of the protests are complex and involve democratic rights, national identity, a clash between China’s socialist system and the legacy of British colonialism (including the common law system and unfettered market economy), and deep dissatisfaction, anxiety, and anger over explosive social and class inequality.

Hong Kong identity

If history shapes identity, then Hong Kong identity has been shaped over a complicated history spanning two millennia.

The sparsely populated Hong Kong island became part of China during the Qin Dynasty, 220 BCE. For years, it served as a source of salt, pearls, and more and more as an international trading centre. Maritime trade between China and European colonial powers began in the 1500s. The East India Tea Company started operations in 1711. Eventually, trade flourished in tea, porcelain, and silk.

Unable – or perhaps unwilling – to pay for tea in silver, the British began smuggling opium as a means of exchange. The Qing Dynasty sought to ban opium after the drug addicted millions and corrupted the administrative state. The first European-Chinese conflict, known as the Opium War, was the result. In 1841, a defeated China was forced to cede Hong Kong island to the British as part of the Treaty of Nanjing.

China was also forced to lease the adjacent Kowloon Peninsula (1860) to the British in perpetuity and the New Territories (1898) for 99 years. These areas also make up present-day Hong Kong.

Hong Kong became a crown colony of the British Empire and was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. After the war, Hong Kong reverted to the British, and following the establishment of socialism in mainland China in 1949, served as a significant trading and financial centre, useful economically and diplomatically to both sides in the Cold War.

Britain was forced to transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong back to the now socialist-oriented People’s Republic of China (PRC) when the 99-year lease expired in 1997. Britain and the PRC negotiated a transition known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which resulted in the PRC designating Hong Kong as a “special administrative region” (HKSAR). As part of the 1984 agreement, China agreed to extend semi-autonomy to Hong Kong, including its economic and trade policies, as well as judicial, executive, and legislative powers for 50 years – up until 2047. And so was born “one country, two systems,” a contradiction which is at the heart of today’s conflict.

Since 1997, the Basic Law has governed Hong Kong. It outlines the rights and freedoms of residents, structure of government, electoral system, and property rights. Many of the Basic Law’s principles, including lack of direct elections, were carried over from the British colonial system.

Some of the protesters are calling for secession or independence from China. Understandably, China’s National People’s Congress can never agree with this demand. It would be like allowing Manhattan to secede from the US.

Having experienced the humiliation of colonial oppression, China will never again permit any dismemberment of its historically formed territory. Nor will it allow the current social upheaval to be used as a wedge to destabilise the Chinese system of socialism.

Changing status of Hong Kong

The Sino-British Joint Declaration reflected the geopolitical balance of forces and China’s developmental needs as they stood in the mid-1980s. China was embarking on its “opening up” economic reforms, and massive foreign capital investment was essential. Hong Kong was a conduit for that investment (and even more so after the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989). China had to guarantee stability for both Hong Kong and foreign capitalists by ensuring that the HKSAR remain a vital financial and trade centre, a doorway connecting the country to the capitalist world economy.

In many respects, China and Hong Kong have been on two distinct and intersecting paths of development. Britain administered Hong Kong as a colony for 150 years, leaving an indelible imprint on its identity, lifestyle, and legal system, its social, political, and economic system, and its culture, language, and democratic sensibilities.

As a trading and financial centre, Hong Kong became a city of immigrants. Waves of immigrants arrived after the 1949 Chinese Revolution, and again in the 1970s and 1980s following the economic reforms and opening up, including many who did not support China’s socialist revolution.

British and US imperialism have continued to influence Hong Kong identity. Even though Hong Kong never experienced full democracy and universal suffrage under British colonialism, the promise of those ideals resonated.

The economic growth Hong Kong experienced in the 1980s and ’90s was related to China’s economic reforms and need for foreign capital. But times have changed. In 1997, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product was 27 percent of China’s GDP. It’s now three percent and declining. The world’s largest banks are now in China, and they are state-owned.

Shenzhen and other major Chinese cities have surpassed Hong Kong as finance and manufacturing centres. But the Hong Kong stock market is where many Chinese companies are listed, and it remains an essential (if somewhat less important) source of foreign capital.

Challenges to building a socialist democracy

China took the revolutionary path in 1949, to build what would eventually be called socialism “with Chinese characteristics.” Since the start of the economic reforms 40 years ago, China has undergone historically unprecedented economic, social, and political changes.

Born out of feudalism, the People’s Republic of China did not inherit a developed bourgeois democracy, freedom of the press or speech. A modern socialist economy and governing model, one based on its traditions and history, had to be and is being built practically overnight.

The “one country, two systems” model was always planned to eventually give way to the full integration of Hong Kong into China by 2047. In many ways, this process is also unprecedented in human history. As mainland China’s government increasingly asserted its sovereignty and authority, contradictions and clashes were bound to occur. It has now been 22 years since the British left Hong Kong – almost halfway through the planned 50-year lifespan of “one country, two systems.”

As for the extradition treaty, most countries have such laws. Hong Kong and China are one country, but Hong Kong still has no extradition laws with China, Macau, or Taiwan. The absence of an extradition law is a legacy of British colonialism and China’s isolation following the 1949 socialist revolution.

The proposed extradition bill was limited and under the authority of the Hong Kong judiciary. However, China’s suppression and censorship of political opposition fuelled suspicion and unease among Hong Kongers. Many felt the Extradition Law would allow anyone, including those with political differences, to be extradited to the mainland. Likewise, those wealthy Chinese who committed financial crimes and fled to Hong Kong to escape prosecution are justifiably worried.

Next week: Deep social problems

People’s World

Next article – Let’s be clear about fascism

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