Gerardo del Caz
Gerardo del Caz is a Geopolitics and Economy analyst.
Next July will withness the 20 20th anniversary of the territorial retrocession of the former colony of Hong Kong to China after more than a hundred years under British control. In 1997, after complex discussions between Beijing and London, Hong Kong became part of the People’s Republic of China while maintaining a great degree of political autonomy in all the relevant matters and a market-oriented economic system.
The chosen legal framework was the so-called “Basic Law”, a mini constitution itself which contained all the specificities of the territory and where Beijing was left onlywith full ompetences in the matters of Defense and Foreign Affairs. The citizens of Hong Kong would have the privilege to live in a basically free system with the right of freedom of speech, a loosely regulated market economya quite favorable tax system and all together with their own justice and the control over their own currency. system and the maintenance of their own currency added to this. This principle, called “One country, two systems”, was reflected in an international treaty signed by Great Britain and China and which would be valid for 50 years in whichHong Kong would maintain its special situation.
What would happen after 2047 was calculatedly left out of the agreement . Hong Kong citizens, who had really never been asked anything under the British rule, expected that concepts such as market economy or freedom of speech would mean in a consolidation of political freedom which would crystallize in the right of universal suffrage. For China, the absence of explicit references to the future was understood, and it still is, as a definitive integration of the Territory in the rest of the country and the end of the historical anomaly it entails.
This divergence of views appears in the management of the political autonomy which the Basic Law confers to the territory and the question of how to articulate it: Through some kind of governor with the approval of Beijing? Through elections by the people from Hong Kong? The question of universal suffrage is definitely Beijing’s Achilles heel in Hong Kong. Accepting universal suffrage in the territory would be a contradiction with what happens in continental China and it would question the very foundations Chinese political system. Beijing always expected that, by guaranteeing the prosperity of Hong Kong and bringing it closer to its political and economic orbit, the people of the Territory would identify themselves with the rest of China, and more important than anything, this approach would serve as an example for Taiwan, the permanent political problem for China. Beijing offered a preferential treatment to Hong Kong and facilitated that a substantial part of the capital excesses from its export-oriented economy could be funneled down to the Terrytory there for investment and favored the development of the tourism sector while enhancing the image of the Territory as world business hub . The result was that Hong Kong, riding on the back of the impressive growth of the Chinese economy in the last decadesconsolidated as one of the most prosperous cities of Asia or the world.
Nevertheless, the tangible benefits on the economic side that the Hong Kong economy has experienced since the retrocession have not been translated into political progress for the citizens from Hong Kong. Following to the Basic Law, Beijing has never allowed citizens to directly choose Hong Kong’s Legislative Assembly and it has maintained a restricted system of qualified representatives which are elected by a selected and limited group of some 1200 electors from the Territory and that represent several groups of peoples ranging from businessmen, officials and politicians loyal to Beijing’s Communist Party.
China leverages on a growing and undeniable dependence on Hong Kong in all areas. Nowadays Chinese state corporations are the first investor in the Territory and control strategic sectors such as energy finance or telecommunication and infrastructure services; the Chinese tourism is now one of the main drivers of the Territory’s economy thanks to the millions of tourists who visit Hong Kong each year from the mainland. .
On top of that, in parallel to this widening influence, China’s economic growth has entailed a loss of the relative economic importance of Hong Kong within China in favor cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou.
However, China, which carefully measures its steps in certain political areas, may make a miscalculation. Since 2014 Beijing has a much more assertive government that lacks the self-imposed restrains of the previous ones . Ever since , a continuous intromission of Beijing has been noticed in certain issues of the Territory such as education or censorship of certain movements, still very reduced or with low acceptance, which advocate for the secession of the Territory from the mainland. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Beijing’s censorship to several popular leaders to become members of the Legislative Assembly. This attitude was massively answered in the so-called “umbrella protest”, in which thousands of people went out on the street to vindicate themselves as a mature society and to show the collective aspiration of free elections. The disappearance of certain figures who opposed Beijing, such as some editors who later appeared retained by the Chinese authorities or, more recently, that of a millionaire businessman divergent from Beijing’s positions, suggest that China’s involvement in Hong Kong’s daily issues has increased and is here to stay. Beijing, in another demonstration of strength, disbarred several candidates who were not totally aligned with Beijing positions to be present in the Legislative Assembly.
The response to its policies grows in Hong Kong and the absence of public censorship has entailed an increase of activism and protest which makes very difficult the sustenance of the ideal social harmony that all the Chinese leaders expect. The miscalculated reactions come round and go along the line of cutting the freedom of speech to individuals and media, but the results are not those desired by Beijing. Among the young who do not identify themselves whatsoever with an authoritarian, repressive and over-the-Law political system, a growing mobilization is taking place through social networks in which they continuously show the frustration for not being able to choose their representatives as they expected 20 years ago.
In fact, Hong Kong has been a center of freedom since well before the British dominance and it has an economic and social background which makes it a dynamic, innovative Territory,in which freedom is basically taken for granted by its inhabitans in a strinking contrast with what happens in mainland China. Indeed, Chinese reactions have not been able to intimidate many of those who actively and openly criticize the Chinese government and they are gaining support from an increasing mobilization through the social networks.
Even though the validity of the current Basic Law is guaranteed until 2047, China ambitions to control Hong Kong politically and seeks a much earlier integration with Beijing both not only in the economic and political fields, but in the affectitive one.. But, no matter what situation, it is out of the question for Beiging totolerate Hong Kong citizens to vote for their representatives. The reaction that this position may ultimately cause in Hong Kong is yet to be seen.
In 1989, a student protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was violently stifled with a repression that later extended to other universities and which silenced the weak calls that claimed more freedom for the country. Even though it was perceived from the exterior as an evidence of the brutal nature of the communist regime, the reality is that, to the eyes of Beijing,this show of force prevented China from following the decline course of the USSR and it proved effective in preventing the appearance of any other opposition movement to the Communist Party as it was well learnt that Beijing would not doubt in going from words to facts to preserve the political and social stability. After Tiananmen, there has been no real protests and the evolution of the Chinese economy with its economic growth are good arguments to portray the Communist Party as a benevolent ruler and its capacity to progressively improve Chinese society. In Tiananmen, the Communist Part preserved stability and guaranteed social order.
It is highly doubtful that the precedent of Tiananmen, the maintenance of order through the repression of ideas and the imposition of political criteria through force, could have the same results in society such as the Hong Kong one. The Chinese Government risks making wrong decisions which would mean a fatal miscalculation provoking a generalized response in all the Territory whichcould evolve into a difficult political situation. All this besides the risk of transmission of this situation to other areas of the country.