Updated: April 13, 2019 5:54:46 am
Nine pro-democracy activists were convicted in Hong Kong on Tuesday for participating in the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 when over one lakh Hong Kongers blocked roads in the city for three months to protest China’s denial of democratic reforms in the Special Administrative Region.
Under President Xi Jinping, who has been at the helm in China since 2012, the country has embraced a more hardline approach to foreign policy and internal security issues. Since the Umbrella Revolution, Chinese authorities have attempted to thwart democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.
The Umbrella Revolution and its aftermath
In 1997, when China assumed control of Hong Kong from Britain, the city residents were promised universal suffrage by 2017. China backtracked on this promise when it published a white paper in 2014, and only allowed pro-Beijing candidates to contest the city elections. There were also attempts to change the liberal curriculum in Hong Kong. In the wake of these unpopular measures, large scale pro-democracy protests kicked off, and between 1-1.5 lakh Hong Kongers occupied streets and government buildings for three months in 2014.
The pro-democracy activists expected Beijing to budge, as it had in 2003 when city residents had launched similar protests to protect their democratic freedoms. The economic reality then, however, was starkly different when Hong Kong formed a significant part China’s GDP (18 per cent in 1997). With China’s quick rise, this share has plummeted, now standing at less than 3 per cent. Xi Jinping’s approach is also considered to be more uncompromising than previous regimes. In conclusion, China turned a deaf ear to the protests, and in fact unleashed more hardcore measures in their aftermath.
Beijing since then has ensured that only pro-mainland chief-executives (heads of government) take charge, and has also expelled legislators who have expressed discontent. A pro-independence party was recently banned, and a reporter for the Financial Times was denied entry to Hong Kong. Investment from mainland China has inundated the city, with pro-democracy artists being denied sponsorships and contracts. Publishers critical of the Chinese Communist Party have been abducted. Furthermore, China plans to introduce an extradition law in Hong Kong, which would legitimise such abductions.
Hong Kong, which follows a liberal common law tradition, will be made to bend to arbitrary Chinese legal procedures. A National Anthem Law is already in force, which criminalises any insult to China’s national anthem. Public radio broadcasts are now made in Mandarin, as opposed to Cantonese, the native language.
Democracy in Hong Kong
The island city was a trading outpost that the British developed in the 19th century, at a time when the colonial power was subduing China in order to expand the global opium trade. The peninsula already being in British hands, the Qing dynasty in 1898 allowed the continuation of British possession on a 99-year lease, which would end in 1997.
Since then, Hong Kong became a major trading center and continued to prosper, even as mainland China witnessed a highly tumultuous period in its history. Starting in 1949, Communist China adopted a system that was in stark contrast with the liberal common law that was evolving in British-run Hong Kong. The city nurtured liberal values, a thriving film industry, and a booming economy, while mainland China was witnessing the disastrous Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.
Fearing backlash from its own citizens, mainland China pressured British authorities to desist from allowing democratic reforms in Hong Kong. For a long time, it was unclear under what conditions Britain would hand over the city to China in 1997, and the confusion finally ended in 1984 when British PM Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping signed a ‘Joint Declaration’. Under this agreement, China promised to honour Hong Kong’s liberal policies, system of governance, independent judiciary, and individual freedoms for a period of 50 years from 1997, and called for the formulation of the ‘Basic Law’, a constitutional document containing these promises, that Beijing would prepare. The principle of “one country, two systems” was affirmed.
Although the Joint Declaration allayed some fears, anxiety remained among Hong Kong’s diverse population of their fate come 1997. This consternation heightened in 1989, when Beijing cracked down on the Tiananmen Square protests with great harshness; also causing alarm globally. Britain began to allow more representation in the city’s governance, hoping to pacify a worried people. Although partial, the reforms accelerated towards 1997, and continued to expand even after the transfer to China.
Post 2014, the pace of these reforms appears to have a reached a dead end. A 2016 survey revealed that four in ten Hong Kongers want to leave the city.
Indians in the city
Indians have been part of the diverse fabric that forms the city. Many arrived during the colonial period when India was also under British domination. These immigrants had British passports, and many won the right to settle in Britain in 1997. Around 45,000 still remain in the city, with some taking Chinese citizenship.
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