A declaration and ‘mini-constitution’ for the next half-century . . .
The 1997 ‘handover’ from Britain to the People’s Republic of China was the product of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Under a ‘one country, two systems’ framework, China promised that “the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged” for at least 50 years through the creation of a Special Administrative Region (SAR) “governed by Hong Kong people” appointed by Beijing. The declaration also guaranteed freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press, along with the city’s political autonomy and independent judiciary. While both Britain and China excluded local Hong Kong representatives from the talks, Beijing handpicked prominent residents – mostly from the business elite – to help draft the new SAR’s ‘Basic Law.’ Despite great anxiety over what would follow the handover, 1997 came and went without noticeable disruption to Hongkongers' way of life.
The rise and decline of ‘one country, two systems’ . . .
The new system essentially held for the first decade and a half. After protesters forced the Hong Kong government to shelve proposed national security legislation in 2003, a stalemate between a cautious administration and a wary civil society ensued. However, the inauguration of President Xi Jinping in 2013 and the publication of a 2014 White Paper on Hong Kong foreshadowed a hardline turn. Mass demonstrations in 2014 and 2019 were met with police violence that fuelled further demands from protesters. A new generation of young activists has been increasingly swept up in the criminal justice system, while an electoral surge in pro-democracy and ‘localist’ legislators disintegrated under loyalty oaths, disqualifications, and mass arrests. Meanwhile, China has declared the 1984 Declaration non-binding and “without meaning.” Though ‘one country, two systems’ is still the guiding maxim, in theory, increasing pressure from Beijing to suppress civic discontent and growing incentives for the city’s elite to align themselves with Beijing have eroded this principle in practice.
Fading echoes of the ‘revolution of our times’ . . .
On June 30, 2020, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) took the extraordinary step of inserting a National Security Law into the Basic Law, bypassing the city’s legislative processes. And last year, the NPC directly amended the Basic Law to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system. Erstwhile commitments to guarantee basic civil liberties have also faded after the arrests of hundreds of activists and the disbanding of numerous civil society organizations. Despite mounting repression, however, grassroots organizing efforts, both in the city itself and throughout its growing diaspora, have persisted and even proliferated, echoing the spirit of community, decentralization, and mutual aid articulated in the 2014 and 2019 movements.
- Council on Foreign Relations: Hong Kong’s freedoms: What China promised and how it’s cracking down
- Dissent: The future of Hong Kong
- South China Morning Post: History of Hong Kong protests: Riots, rallies and brollies