Hong Kong's Political Status: British Rule 1842-1997
Hong Kong island became a British Crown Colony in 1842 under one of the 'unequal treaties' that a weak Chinese government was forced to make with foreign powers in the 19th century. Kowloon (on the nearby mainland of China) also became British under another 'unequal treaty' in 1860, and the 'new territories' around Kowloon were acquired by Britain in June 1898, on a hundred year lease from the Chinese government. Hong Kong remained under British military and political control until June 1997, headed by a British Governor General, and until the early 1980s the Executive Council and Legislative Council were appointed by the governor and composed mostly of British expatriates. Colonial rule and lack of any institutional political democracy did not, however, mean an absence of popular activism. During the 1960s widespread economic discontent over low wages led to frequent worker protests, and in 1967 major riots, which the authorities attributed to adherents of Mao's Cultural Revolution, broke out.
After the Chinese Communists came to power in1949, one of their aims was to recover the 'lost territories' - including Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, during the turbulent years under Chairman Mao there were more pressing international crises with the USA and later the USSR to confront, and a focus on rapid economic and social change within China, including 'The Great Leap Forward' and later the Cultural Revolution It would also have been unthinkable for the British government to negotiate transferring the growing population of Hong Kong (from 2.2 million in 1950 to nearly 5.1 million in 1980 and 7.3 million in 1997), swelled by many refugees from the Communist mainland, to a Maoist regime. Moreover, Hong Kong was by the 1970s a flourishing financial and business sector and increasingly a hub of global capitalism. But after Mao's death in 1979, and the policy shift at the top of the Communist Party after 1980 towards a more pragmatic focus on economic growth and modernization, including market reforms and encouragement of external investment in Special Economic Zones, a possible compromise solution to a future for Hong Kong within China looked possible. Moreover, in practice Hong Kong depended on imported food and raw materials from China, and also exported a large quantity of goods to China; and it facilitated much of the investment in the Special Economic Zones. So it was then in Chinese interests to maintain Hong Kong's economic and formal administrative independence.
Deng Xiaoping, the main architect of China's economic reforms and a revised interpretation of party ideology to accommodate them, also developed a theory to accommodate the incorporation of lost territories such as Hong Kong and Taiwan into China. His June 1984 thesis of 'one country, two systems', allowed in principle for considerable political and economic autonomy in territories which rejoined China. He also promised this arrangement would last for 50 years. When Britain reached agreement with China in September 1984 to honour the expiry of their lease on the 'new territories' in June 1997 (which they realistically interpreted to include Hong Kong and Kowloon), a framework was available. British administration would end and the Chinese army would enter Hong Kong, but to defend it against external attack, not, Deng promised, to play an internal role. The Chinese government also undertook to respect freedom of speech and publication in Hong Kong; and the commitment that the status of Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years was reiterated in the Agreement.
After the 1984 Agreement indirect elections were held in Hong Kong in 1985 to the Legislative Council. When the last British Governor General, Chris Patten, was appointed in 1992, he responded to calls from the democracy movement, which had been growing since the mid-1980s, for direct elections to the Legislative Council. This demand was supported by a majority of the population in surveys. Patten did not, however, achieve all the changes he wanted. There was considerable reluctance among Hong Kong 's business and administrative elites, who feared radical social change, to grant elections by universal suffrage. Patten did secure the election of half the Legislative Council in territorial constituencies - a move strongly opposed by the Chinese government and criticised by some in Hong Kong and Britain.
The people of Hong Kong, and especially those with a strong commitment to promoting political freedoms and democratic self-government, who had followed sympathetically the 1989 Tiananmen student and worker movement in China, clearly had grounds for doubt about a future under effective Chinese control. It was obvious Beijing would monitor developments in Hong Kong and apply pressure to those administering it. By 1988 a number of organizations committed to promoting democracy had been formed, and in the aftermath of Tiananmen there were moves to unite to form a political party - though there were some subsequent splits. The United Democrats of Hong Kong, set up in April 1990 with a broadly liberal programme but also stressing social welfare, drew on support from lawyers, teachers and lecturers, individual union activists and the churches, and was headed by the barrister Martin Lee. It contested local elections in 1991 and then aligned with another group 'Meeting Point' to win 12 out of the 18 directly elected seats on the Legislative Council. The United Democrats merged with Meeting Point in 1994 to create the Democratic Party.
The Struggle for Democracy: 1997-2014
Since 1997 the Chinese government has generally continued to resist allowing elections based solely on universal suffrage. In 2004 Beijing ruled that its approval would be required for any change in electoral law, which evoked a protest demonstration of about 200,000 in July that year (on the anniversary of the handover). The Democratic Party and allied pro-democracy groups continued to contest elections, winning for example 19 out of the 30 directly elected geographical seats in the 2008 Legislative Council elections, but only four from the 30 'functional' constituencies representing business, professional and special interest groups. The head of government, a post which Beijing has been anxious to control, was selected after 1997 by a special electoral committee including legislators.
Beijing also pressed for more restrictive legislation to curb political opposition and the Hong Kong executive proposed an anti-subversion law in September 2002. This was challenged by a 500,000 strong march in July 2003 (the day after a visit by the Chinese Premier) and two Hong Kong government members also resigned in protest. The bill was shelved, and the Secretary of Security resigned.
Popular activism continued to be the part of the Hong Kong political scene. For example tens of thousands took part in a vigil on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of protesters in June 2009. There were also some signs of Beijing making concessions to Hong Kong's democrats. The Chinese government promised in December 2007 that there would be direct elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 and for the Legislative Council in 2020. The government of Hong Kong also proposed political reforms in December 2009, including an increase in the size of the Legislative Council - although democratic critics argued more reform was needed - and the Hong Kong Democratic Party held talks with a Beijing official in 2010 for the first time since 1997.
The outlook for Hong Kong retaining any real autonomy has, however, worsened since the new Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, came to power in 2012 and soon demonstrated his commitment to promote his personal dominance, removing many prominent officials in China on corruption charges, tightening party discipline and cracking down on dissent . A Beijing White Paper on the future of Hong Kong issued on 19 June 2014 seemed to indicate that Hong Kong's political rights could be removed whenever the Chinese government decided to do so.
The initiative to uphold Hong Kong's right to democracy was at first seized by the protest group 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace', launched in September 2013 by Professor of Law, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Professor of Sociology, Chan Kin-man, and the Rev Chu Yiu-ming a Baptist minister, in order to campaign nonviolently for free direct elections for the head of government in Hong Kong. Their first move was to organize an unofficial referendum on 30 June 2014 in which 90 per cent out of nearly 800,000 people voted for a public say in choice of candidates for future elections for the head of government. The group's name reflected the commitment of its leaders to a Gandhian conception of civil disobedience: its manifesto envisaged stages of dialogue, deliberation and citizen authorization leading to civil disobedience. (It also reflected the fact that a small Hong Kong Occupy Central group had been formed in 2011 as part of the world wide protests against the global corporate elite, and set up a camp in the plaza in front of HSBC headquarters for almost a year until finally evicted in September 2012.) The plan for civil disobedience, suggested by Law professor Benny Tai, was to occupy the financial district to demand democratic rights on 1 October 2014, the National Day holiday.
The Umbrella Movement: September-December 2014
Beijing further provoked supporters of democracy when on 31 August 2014 it offered direct elections for the head of government in 2017, but only if (through a complex nominating process) the Chinese government effectively vetted the candidates. Protesters demanding free elections declared an 'era of civil disobedience'. The 79 days of defiant demonstrations, known as the 'Umbrella Movement' or 'Occupy Central', were launched by a week-long student boycott of classes on 22 September 2014. A group of around 150 then occupied a courtyard within the central government buildings, holding umbrellas to deflect pepper spray used by the police, and the 2013 group Occupy Central decided to join in. Demonstrators then took over the street opposite, and police use of tear gas against them prompted thousands more people to participate.
mentsetting up of tent villages in three areas, turned the protests into a mass movement. The protesters were mostly university and high school students, and the highly organized arrangements for maintaining the occupation included setting up a ‘homework zone’. The occupation also stimulated lively discussion groups and lectures, as well as an outpouring of artistic expression through music, dance, painting and sculpture. The protesters formulated their key demands: the resignation of the existing Chief Executive; a new process for nominating candidates for that post; and genuine universal suffrage. However, moves for negotiation between the students and the Hong Kong authorities broke down.
After 18 November, when students tried to occupy the Legislative Council, clearance of occupied areas by the police began. An attempt by demonstrators to surround government headquarters on 30 November was repelled by police, and despite last ditch resistance by a core of activists, police dismantled tents and barricades in the main protest site on 11 December. The movement is estimated to have involved 20 per cent of those living in Hong Kong and was the most major manifestation of popular resistance in its history. It was also impressive for its sense of solidarity, generally peaceful character and internal democratic ethos.
The Official Reaction to the Umbrella Movement
The authorities were slow to move against leading figures in the Umbrella Movement, but three prominent young activists, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were tried and found guilty in July 2016 of breaking into a government building and inciting others to do likewise. They were involved in a series of further court cases, and after they were jailed for six to eight months on 17 August 2017 thousands marched in protest, some wearing prison uniforms. But they were eventually acquitted by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal in February 2018. However in November 2018 the authorities prosecuted the three well known and much older campaigners who had formed 'Occupy Central with Love and Peace', which had merged with the students spearheading the Umbrella Movement. Two student activists and four leading politicians (including Legislative Council member Tanya Chan) were also tried with them on the charge of inciting and conspiring to commit public nuisance. The charges carried a jail sentence of up to seven years. The nine defendants, who were accompanied to court by supporters shouting slogans such as 'Peaceful resistance', and 'I want real universal suffrage', pleaded ‘not guilty’. But 59 year old sociology professor, Chan Kin-man had the previous week given a farewell lecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to announce his early retirement. The district court convicted all nine defendants of public nuisance crimes on 9 April 2019. The three founder members of Occupy Central were subsequently sentenced to 16 months in prison (suspended for the 75-year-old Baptist Minister). Other defendants were sentenced to 8 months and in one case community service. The sentencing of Tanya Chan was deferred because she was undergoing an operation for a brain tumour.
Beijing also made moves against freedom of publication and the press in Hong Kong which alarmed democrats. Five booksellers were abducted between October and December 2015, and then detained in China, for selling political literature critical of Chinese politics. One of them, who was released after eight months, subsequently vowed publicly to open a new bookshop in Taiwan as a 'symbol of resistance'. The other four were also apparently released. The Hong Kong authorities in October 2018 refused to renew a work visa for a foreign journalist for the Financial Times. The expulsion of a foreign journalist was seen as a dangerous precedent. Hong Kong journalists also came under increasing pressure, with a number of violent attacks on publishers and editors by opponents of the democracy movement in 2014. The main English language Hong Kong paper, The South China Morning Post, which has been criticized since 1993 for tailoring its content to please Beijing, sacked four columnists in 2014. Under new ownership since 2016 it is seen as leaning further towards Beijing. However, a free non-profit online newspaper, the Hong Kong Free Press has been founded by journalists anxious to provide an independent news source.
The 20th anniversary of Hong Kong rejoining China at the end of June 2017 was ominous for advocates of democracy. Xi Jinping himself attended the official celebrations in Hong Kong, and at the same time a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing noted that the 1984 agreement between London and Beijing (guaranteeing respect for Hong Kong's autonomy for 50 years) was 'a historical document that no longed had any practical significance'.
Continuing Protest and Democratic Activism; 2015-18
Thousands marched on 1 July 2017 to mark the anniversary of the handover to Beijing under the slogan 'Twenty years of lies'. Emily Lau, the first woman elected to Hong Kong's Legislative Council and one of the first generation of democracy activists, declared she would join the protest. Supporters of democracy in Hong Kong have become aware that the British government's main concern is to benefit by ties with China's now internationally powerful economy, and that British protests about infringements of democratic rights in Hong Kong seem to have become token.
A major focus of democratic activism among the younger generation after 2014 was trying to achieve and maintain at least a third of the seats on the Legislative Council in order to retain a veto power over constitutional changes proposed by the executive. They had considerable success in September 2016, when a coalition of pro-democracy parties, including six post 2014 young radicals, won 29 seats out of the total of 70 (35 seats are based on universal suffrage in geographical constituencies), which gave them the required veto power. Among the parties contesting the election was Demosisto, created by the Umbrella Movement activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law (put on trial in 2016). But the Hong Kong authorities took steps to force some of those elected from their seats in the Council for shouting slogans such as 'Democracy and self-determination' and 'Tyranny must die' when taking the oath of office. Demonstrating in this context was a cause for disqualification, but espousing a policy of 'self-determination' was in itself potentially a reason for being barred. A total of ten democrats were under threat of losing their seats in 2017.
Some activists in Hong Kong also began to call for 'independence' from China, a demand gaining in popularity since the Umbrella Movement. But this policy has meant automatic exclusion from political office. Six pro-independence candidates were disqualified from Legislative Council elections in 2016 (evoking protests by hundreds of supporters). The small pro-independence political party, the National Party, was banned altogether in September 2018, another sign of a Chinese government clamp down. At Hong Kong's Chinese University, students from the mainland tore down independence posters in 2017 and clashed with pro-independence students.
Another trigger for popular protest, however, was a symbol of China's dominance that affects many ordinary people: the playing of China's national anthem. Local football fans have booed to drown out the anthem, or turned their backs or shouted out 'Hong Kong is not China'. These gestures were in part a response to Beijing's pressure on Hong Kong to adopt a law banning actions which show disrespect for the anthem, and punishing them with fines or prison sentences. Students have also protested: for example, students at the Chinese University demonstrated at a graduation ceremony in November 2017 chanting against the law, and two students sat down in protest during the anthem at a graduation ceremony at Hong Kong's College of Technology in December 2017. The bill was due to come before the Legislative Council in January 2019 and democrats on the Council pledged to oppose it as an infringement of free speech.
The Umbrella ('Hong Kong Central') Movement of 2014 References
This movement, which was dramatic and colourful, with the photogenic umbrellas used to deflect pepper spray and tear gas, and protesters waving cell phones was well covered at the time by the international news media. It has since been the subject of a number of books and a wide range of academic articles, which have all been made available online. A selection is listed below.