Hong Kong – One country, soon to be one system?

Ellinor Häggebrink by Ellinor Häggebrink, Engagement Manager at GES

When I was in Hong Kong engaging with companies a few weeks ago, it was very apparent that the city is to celebrate 20 years of Chinese governance on July 1st 2017. Billboards and posters on public transport all over the city share the message of the 20-year anniversary and large-scale handover celebrations, taking place under the slogan ‘together, progress, opportunity’. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but wonder – is it all really that jolly? Because at the same time, there is prevalent criticism that the city’s autonomy is actually at a 20-year low.

Hong Kong street, GES

The handover agreement made between Britain and China in 1997 was designed to secure Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, meaning the city could keep its financial and political system under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula. This guaranteed far greater freedom than would the authoritarian mainland, and meant not having to give up values such as freedom of assembly and an unrestricted press.

20 years down the road; the occasion, which was once the cause of jubilation and flag waving in the streets, does not seem to have the promise it once had. Euphoria has turned to tension and sticks in the throat as the democratic and civil rights Hong Kong was promised seem to be gradually falling apart. Beijing stands accused of undermining the deal and there are concerns about growing interference in local affairs and increasing pressure being placed on Hong Kong in order to strengthen control over the city.

Since Reporters Without Borders started to publish its World Press Freedom Index in 2002, Hong Kong has plunged from 18 to 73 in the ranking[1]. Despite the freedom of press, 2015 saw the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing critical titles about Chinese leaders. In the same year, the Chinese corporation Alibaba Group bought Hong Kong’s largest English-speaking newspaper, the South China Morning Post, with the purpose of showing a more positive image of China[2].

Now, this is a balancing act; by 2047, Hong Kong is supposed to be fully integrated with China. It’s important for China that this development runs smoothly, as the same thing will eventually be applied to Taiwan. However, Hong Kong is unruly and any sign of Beijing overstepping its authority is met with protests. In 2014, a proposed reform that would give the Communist Party control over eligible candidates to the Hong Kong electorate led to mass protests and the so-called Umbrella revolution, in which central parts of the city were occupied for months. The demonstrations did not have any impact on the proposal, and instead Chinese authorities seem to have tightened their muscles since then: during 2016, two democratically elected pro-independence lawmakers were prevented from taking up their parliamentary seats. In March 2017 elections, Beijing declined the people’s favourite for the post and instead pro-China candidate Carrie Lam was elected. The following day, nine democracy-activists were arrested[3].

Today, there are deep political divisions between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy and pro-China camps. July 1st 2017 is not only the day of the 20-year anniversary, it is also the date when Carrie Lam will be sworn into office. Coincidental or not, there is no denying that this is a highly sensitive occasion.

[1] https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2016

[2] Amnesty Press, 2017:02

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/26/hong-kong-chooses-new-leader-amid-accusations-of-china-meddling 

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