The Decline of Hong Kong and the Future of Asian Liberalism
Twenty years ago this month, Hong Kong embodied the hopes and dreams of an emerging liberal century. The United Kingdom handed control of the island back to China, marking the end of centuries of colonialism in East Asia. Economies were opening up across the region, as Hong Kong and the economies of the other Four Asian Tigers transformed from agricultural backwaters into post-industrial economic powerhouses thanks to economic liberalization. Even China, the largest lingering communist state, seemed to be opening up following Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s. Yet two decades into the unhappy marriage of China and Hong Kong, the upstart island city has moved from being an exemplar of liberalism into a victim of China’s refusal to reform.
To understand what happened between 1997 and 2017, you have to understand what had happened since 1841. Hong Kong was under British rule for 156 years: First as a Crown Colony following China’s defeat in the First Opium War, a dispute over trade and China’s sovereignty. Subsequently, the United Kingdom formally leased Hong Kong and neighboring territories from the Qing Dynasty for 99 years. During this time, British institutions were established in the city. These included independent courts, free trade, a free press, and relatively strong protections for human rights. They set Hong Kong apart from the rest of Asia.
With the lease set to end in 1997, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. This document set the terms for the handover of Hong Kong, including China’s future treatment of Hong Kong and the city’s autonomous constitution, the Basic Law. As per the agreement, there would only be one China, but there would be two distinct political and economic systems: one-party communism in China and free market liberal democracy in Hong Kong. China further agreed not to meddle in the city’s affairs until 2047. In essence, Hong Kong’s reunification with China was premised on 50 years of political and economic autonomy.
Fast-forwarding to 2017, 20 years into the handover, it is clear that Beijing has no intention to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy. Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang went so far as to question the importance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, stating that it was a historical document that “no longer had any practical significance.” While the official disregard for Hong Kong’s autonomy shocked many, China has spent the last 20 years gradually undermining political liberty and home-rule in Hong Kong. There are three ways China has violated Hong Kong’s autonomy over the past five years.
Muzzling Free Thought
First, Beijing has gradually ramped up its habit of abducting, harassing, and silencing critics of the Chinese Community Party. Last year, five booksellers were unlawfully taken from the city into China by Chinese police. Their crime? Selling publications criticizing the mainland’s communist leadership. In February, the Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua was taken from his Hong Kong apartment and appeared in Chinese police custody. These abductions of Hong Kong residents are considered extralegal, as they violate the Basic Law. It is against the law for mainland China’s law enforcement officials to operate in Hong Kong and arrest its citizens, since the city has its own legal system with independent courts. Yet when it comes to silencing critics of the regime, Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy is not stopping Chinese police.
Second, China has increasingly intervened in Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. The right to vote and the right to stand for election have a long history in Hong Kong, with the small island city once having been among the most democratic countries in East Asia. Under the official terms of reunification with China, Hong Kong retains the right to keep its multi-party democracy. Yet last year, Beijing effectively prevented two elected lawmakers from taking their seats in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, and tried to prevent four others from doing the same. Their offense? The elected officials were in favor of independence from China. While China’s illegal abductions quietly undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong, Beijing’s direct intervention in Hong Kong elections represents a direct assault on the island’s democratic institutions.
Finally, Beijing’s general disregard for Hong Kong’s autonomy has also come to affect basic civil liberties on the island. Under Hong Kong law, residents enjoy freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Yet over the past few years, Beijing has increasingly cracked down on student protests demanding the freedoms promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In 2014, the Umbrella Movement brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of Hong Kong for three months, demanding the restoration of civil liberties and democracy in Hong Kong. Many of these students ended up behind bars following intervention by Beijing officials. Earlier this month, on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the handover, thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered to march through the city. In response, Beijing ordered the arrest of twenty student protesters -- including Umbrella Movement leaders Joshua Wong and Nathan Law -- for expressing their frustration with Beijing and with the growing disregard for Hong Kong’s judicial independence, democratic institutions, and the civil liberties of residents.
Hong Kong once stood as a beacon for prosperity and liberty in East Asia. Yet today it stands as the embodiment of a thus far disappointing Asian Century. While liberalism has retreated in the West, it faces an existential crisis in the East. In Hong Kong, the small city has physically deteriorated alongside the deterioration of its liberal institutions, with corruption increasing, public services failing, and polarization taking root. In Mainland China, the once-inevitable emergence of liberal democracy seems now more than ever to be a forlorn dream. To the northeast, an anachronistic Stalinist regime survives in North Korea, continuing to antagonize East Asia’s two great liberal democracies, South Korea and Japan. It may be easy to dismiss Hong Kong’s plight as an unimportant conflict internal to China. But 20 years ago, Hong Kong represented the future -- an outpost of free markets and democracy at the edges of a monolithic authoritarian state. No one knows what will happen in 2047, when Hong Kong will be completely handed over to China. But if Hong Kong’s liberal allies don’t start paying attention, it is unlikely that the tides will turn for liberalism in East Asia. The liberal world abandons Hong Kong -- and the dream it represents -- at its own peril.