Shortcuts / 18 March 2021

China’s Tightening Grip on Hong Kong

When we launched Squiz Shortcuts in August 2019, Hong Kong and its relationship with China was our first topic. It’s 18 months on, and China’s push for more control over the territory has only intensified. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we step through the complicated history between China and Hong Kong, the consequences of the massive protests that kicked off in 2019, and where things are at now.

Give me my bearings… How did the British come to be involved with Hong Kong?
To answer that, we need to go back a bit…

How far back?
We’re talking the 17th and 18th centuries… At that time, there was a growing demand from Europe and Britain for Chinese luxury goods like tea, porcelain and silk. Britain was concerned about a trade imbalance, as they were buying a lot more from China than China was selling to them. So they decided to grow a whole heap of opium in India and ship it across to China.

Wait, wasn’t that illegal?
It was… And in 1839, China put its foot down and seized over 100 tonnes of opium from British merchants, which led to the Opium Wars.

And that’s important because…
Look, we’re skipping over a lot of history here, but long story short, the Chinese did a deal with the British that would see Britain hold a 99-year lease over Hong Kong in 1898.

So Britain had control over Hong Kong for the next 99 years?
There were a couple of breaks there, including during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in WWII before returning to British hands at the end of the war in 1945.

What happened in Hong Kong during that period?
It became an economic and financial hub for the West in the region. And the people living there embraced democratic and economic freedoms brought by the British.

And then it was handed back to China in 1997…
That happened under an agreement between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China – but it came with some conditions.

Over the next 50 years – until at least 2047 – Hong Kong was to have its own legal system, it would have multiple political parties, and Hong Kongers had rights, including freedom of assembly, the right to protest and free speech. That agreement established what’s called the ‘one country, two systems’ rule of law.

Right. And that’s been smooth sailing?
Umm, not quite. There have been rounds of protests with Hong Kongers fighting to maintain their autonomy from China. Particularly notable was the Umbrella Movement in 2014 that responded to what Hong Kongers saw as a reneging by China on an agreement for free elections. And then the protests that kicked off in 2019 were even bigger.

What kicked that off?
A proposal that would allow criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China and tried under a very different Chinese judicial system. Hong Kongers said that undermined the ‘one country, 2 systems’ approach that could see their citizens prosecuted by Beijing for protesting against the government, protesting for religious freedom and the like. The backlash from Hong Kong saw the proposal put on ice and eventually withdrawn.

But it didn’t stop the protests…
No, it didn’t – it morphed into a broader call for democratic reform, with nearly 2 million Hong Kongers taking to the streets.

Enter China’s security law?
Ding ding ding… After months of protests in Hong Kong, last year China said enough was enough and that order and stability needed to be returned to the territory. That saw Beijing mandate a new security law for Hong Kong that essentially ended its distinct legal system.

What does that law do?
It’s aimed at stamping out those protests and bans any acts or activities that endanger China’s national security. That includes crimes like subverting China’s authority, calling for Hong Kong’s autonomy from China and colluding with foreign powers. Essentially, it makes it easier for China to punish protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy.

What was the reaction to the implementation of that law?
Unsurprisingly, the move was widely condemned by locals and international leaders who worry about China’s growing dominance in the global sphere.

And what does China say?
That it would only target a “narrow set of acts”. And it also said the majority of Hong Kong residents would not be affected.

And is that law being used to punish pro-democracy protesters?
Yep. Just recently, 47 prominent activists and pro-democracy members of the territory’s legislative assembly were charged with subversion. They now face life in prison if convicted.

So why are we talking about this now?
China’s looking to establish more control over Hong Kong – this time, it’s looking to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure only “patriots” are elected to positions of power in the territory.

What does that mean for Hong Kong?
It means China is poised to reduce democratic representation and allow a pro-Beijing panel to vet and elect candidates.

When’s that happening?
There are a few bureaucratic steps to go before it happens – including the drafting of legislation – but it’s expected to be enforced in Hong Kong by the middle of the year. That means it will probably be in place for the election scheduled to take place on 5 September this year. That’s an election that was originally scheduled for September last year but was delayed by the coronavirus.

What was the reaction to that move?
The plan was immediately endorsed by pro-Beijing politicians, including Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, who said she and the territory’s government “firmly support” the move. But it has also drawn international condemnation, including from the UK, which is now assessing whether the electoral changes constitute another breach of that joint declaration that China signed in 1997.

And what about Oz?
Our government has also expressed its concern about the move, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne saying the change will further weaken Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. She said that it’s essential that Hong Kongers have freedom of political expression.

Is our government doing anything about it?
Like the rest of the world, we have a complex relationship with China, so our officials have found these developments difficult to stop. What our government has done in response to China’s moves since 2019 is to provide Hong Kongers living in Oz temporary skilled and graduate visas to have their stay extended by 5 years, which more than 2,500 have done so far. There’s also the possibility of a path to permanent residency.

China mustn’t be too happy about that…
No, and Beijing has previously warned Australia, the UK and others not to meddle in its domestic issues.

What’s next?
Watch this space as China’s moves to change Hong Kong’s electoral system unfold.

Squiz recommends:

Hong Kong on Edge. It’s a good look into the causes of the unrest in the territory, and possible solutions to the crisis.

BBC’s The Documentary episode Hong Kong at a Crossroads. It’s about Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters who are facing that difficult decision on whether to stay and fight or take the opportunity to flee to the UK.

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