The civil unrest in Hong Kong and how it came to be

Sam Keane breaks down the long and tumultuous history of Hong Kong

Scenes of violence on the streets of Hong Kong have dominated news cycles in recent months. Protests involving hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have garnered the attention of ordinary people and politicians alike all over the world, as have the police’s heavy handed and often brutal response. The current unrest was sparked by the attempted implementation of controversial “Extradition Bill” by the Hong Kong legislature that would permit the extradition of criminal suspects to be tried in mainland China. However, the underlying tension that led to these protests stems from something deeper; the Chinese Communist Party’s augmented efforts in recent years to erase its border with the territory, essentially bringing an end to the “One country – Two systems”. This arrangement has stood in place since British control of the territory was relinquished in 1997. This article aims to consider the situation from a historical perspective, in an attempt to make the roots of this small territory’s turbulent relationship with its behemoth northern neighbour somewhat clearer.

Hong Kong is no stranger to mass protests. In 2014 civil unrest, dubbed by political commentators as “The Umbrella Revolution”, erupted as citizens took to the streets in opposition to the Chinese government’s attempts to instate a pro-Beijing candidate while the head of the Hong Kong territory’s Chief Executive attempted to bring a new extradition bill into law. This bill would allow the Chinese government to extradite criminal suspects from Hong Kong to face trial on the mainland. Immediately, critics voiced concerns that this move could undermine the territory's judicial independence which had been promised as part of the 1997 handover agreement. It was also feared that the bill could be used by the Chinese government as a way of imprisoning political dissidents and journalists who criticised the Communist Party. Massive demonstrations led to the bill being indefinitely suspended and eventually withdrawn. This move failed to quell the unrest as by then the protests had evolved into a large-scale revolt against the growing influence of mainland China in Hong Kong society.

Violence increased over the summer with masked protestors storming the Hong Kong legislature and clashes adjacent to the airport disrupting international flights. This escalation led to an intense crackdown by police who employed tear gas and baton charges, often times indiscriminately, against crowds assembled on Hong Kong’s busy streets. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and charged with sedition. As public discontent grew, protestors began calling for the acceptance of their “Five Demands”. Their first demand involved the complete withdrawal of the despised Extradition Bill, something Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually agreed to. They also called for the official classification of the demonstrations as “riots” to be dropped and for full amnesty for activists arrested by police during the protests. An impartial inquiry into police brutality was also requested after amateur footage capturing police violence against against protestors provoked fury among Hong Kong citizens and the international community alike. It was the final demand however; universal suffrage in Hong Kong, that simultaneously drew the ire of China’s government and the attention of western liberal democracies.

The situation devolved further still; on October 1st, the 70th Anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong experienced its most chaotic and violent day to date. Clashes involving thousands of protestors erupted all over the city. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators who responded with petrol bombs and other projectiles. Businesses suspected of being sympathetic to the Chinese regime were attacked and vandalised. Footage emerged of a police officer shooting an 18-year-old protestor in the chest from point blank range, the first proven instance of live ammunition being used against protestors. The government announced a ban on face masks and began arresting anyone who they perceived to be the organisers of the unrest. High profile figures from around the world, especially some prominent US Republican politicians, began openly denouncing the actions of both the Chinese government and the Hong Kong police and openly voiced their support for the protests. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping chose this time to publicly announce that any attempt to divide China would be met with “bodies smashed and bones ground into powder.'' a decidedly graphic warning to both the Hong Kong protestors and any foreign powers that would think to involve themselves in what he perceived a domestic Chinese affair.

So how exactly did we get to the stage where violent clashes have become a daily occurrence on the streets of one of the world’s wealthiest cities? To answer this question, we need to consider the series of events that led to Hong Kong becoming a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China. The 19th century brought tremendous advancements in maritime navigation and technology in European seafaring nations. The resulting boom in international maritime trade impacted China more than any other nation. With goods such as tea, silk and porcelain found in larger quantities here than anywhere else in the world, trade agreements with China were highly coveted by European powers, particularly Britain, whose population had developed a fondness for tea at this time. The ruling Qing dynasty of China chose only to accept pure silver bullion as payment for their resources, something that the British saw no particular issue with until their domestic supply of silver began to run out. Faced with this threat to their lucrative trade arrangement, the British came up with an ingenious, if highly immoral, solution. British officials chose to secretly sell opium, a highly addictive drug grown in the nearby colony of India, in exchange for Chinese silver. This silver would then be exchanged for tea, silk and other goods in the same way as the initial trade agreement had worked. The Chinese Emperor was quickly made aware of this illegal opium trade and, seeing large sections of the Chinese population become addicted, chose to crackdown on the drug and dumped 12,000 chests of it into the sea. This infuriated the British who launched a military attack on China, beginning the first Opium War in 1839. The British imposed a humiliating defeat on the Chinese, forcing the Emperor to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1841. As part of the war reparations China was forced to pay, Britain took control of the tiny island of Hong Kong. Further treaties and a second Opium War led to Hong Kong island, the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories all being ceded to the British. In the final treaty of 1898, it was agreed that the British would maintain control over Hong Kong for 99 years, something that a prominent British diplomat involved in the negotiations believed was “as good as forever”.

As a consequence of this decision, Hong Kong took a radically different trajectory to that of mainland China. Following the end of a civil war in 1949, China adopted an authoritarian communist ideology and embraced economic isolationism and cold war militarism. Its stagnant, state-controlled economy was the antithesis to the aggressively capitalistic fiscal policies introduced in Hong Kong. What was once a collection of tiny fishing villages of 7000 people soon became an economic powerhouse, an international centre of financial trade and one of the busiest commercial ports in the entire world. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Chinese mainland flooded across the border causing near dystopian levels of overcrowding. British influence in the territory also began to influence aspects of Hong Kong society, forming a unique culture distinct from that of the mainland. The architecture of the city also reflected its place as a wealthy western-oriented metropolis with colonial-era British buildings interspersed with towering skyscrapers built by enormous financial corporations such as HSBC.

As the 99-year lease began to approach its final days concerns emerged over how exactly the UK was going to handle the territory’s handover to the People’s Republic of China. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met with Chinese President Deng Xiaoping in 1984 to discuss the conditions of the transition and set the date for the handover as July 1st, 1997. At the time, the economic output of Hong Kong was roughly a quarter of the size of the entire Chinese economy. The Chinese President realised that imposing the same strict communist economic principles as followed in mainland China would prove economically disastrous for the wealthy territory and result in a significant loss of revenue for the Chinese state. For this reason, and as a result of Thatcher’s demand that Hong Kong citizens retain the right to free speech and assembly, Xiaoping agreed on the implementation of the “One China – Two Systems” policy. This policy was intended to aid the transition of Hong Kong as it was assimilated into the Chinese state. It allowed Hong Kong to retain its governing Executive Legislature, have its own distinct flag and, most importantly continue to operate by capitalist economic principles. This deal was to last until 2047, when it was hoped that the territory would be fully assimilated. However, despite these assurances, thousands of Hong Kong citizens began emigrating to Canada and Australia and many companies began moving their assets out of the territory in response to the looming uncertainty.

At midnight on the 1st of July 1997, the Union Jack was lowered and the red flag of the People’s Republic of China was raised over the territory, alongside the newly designed flag of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Some Hong Kong citizens cautiously welcomed this transition of power while others, particularly European expats living in the territory, expressed their concerns. The international community waited with bated breath, wondering if China would respect the concessions it had made in the handover negotiations with the UK. In the decade subsequent to the handover, China mostly abided by the “One China-Two Systems” protocol. However, two developments soon threw the agreement into peril. The first of these developments involved the tremendous economic progress experienced in China in the mid-2000s. A manufacturing boom coupled with laxer government regulations on enterprise allowed cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to dwarf the economic output of Hong Kong. Suddenly, Hong Kong was no longer an essential part of the Chinese economic framework and the concessions of economic and political freedom seemed less and less necessary. The second threat to Hong Kong’s position as a “special administrative region” was the ascent of Xi Jinping to the Presidency in 2011. This enigmatic figure has made it his mission to return China from a once-humiliated nation to the global power he believes it ought to be. He has amassed more power than any other Chinese leader since Mao and has made concerted efforts to gain influence in nations across the globe, particularly in Africa, while at the same time aggressively asserting Chinese control of the South China Sea. Drawing on comparisons with the former Soviet Union, he has repeatedly affirmed the need for unity and order as a prerequisite for the survival of the state. The protestors’ calls for democracy and an end to Chinese meddling Hong Kong go against his vision of a strong, united state immune to Western interference.

Exactly how president Xi will respond to the unrest in Hong Kong remains to be seen. When asked what he believed to be a likely outcome of the protests, UCD’s associate professor of Politics and International Relations, Jos Elkink, stated: “The Chinese government is probably hoping that through escalation, and continued disruption of life, the protesters will gradually lose public support, and will then dwindle, without any major intervention”. This is similar to what occurred in the late stages of the “Umbrella Revolution” protests in 2014. The decision to implement a ban on face masks was likely an attempt to provoke the protestors into more violent and disruptive demonstrations, thereby by diminishing public sympathy. Asked about the likelihood of Chinese military intervention in the territory Elkink believes that “if the more violent features of the protests persist, the Hong Kong government might at some point explicitly ask for intervention by the Chinese Army.” Overall, although he remains cynical about the outcome of the demonstrations, Elkink suspects they will at the very least have the effect of emboldening the population, especially the younger generation: “People are much more likely to speak up and actively engage in protests or political action more generally once they see they are not alone”.