Hong Kong might be called the unwanted love child of the British and the Chinese, from an ill-fated port romance, when Western merchant sailors crossed vast oceans for half a year to see what could be had from the beautiful East.
When the Qing dynasty transitioned from the isolationist Ming at the dawn of the 17th century, restrictions on private maritime trading and coastal settlement were lifted. “Although European demand for Chinese commodities like tea, silk, and porcelain was high, Chinese interest in European manufactured goods was insignificant. To counter the trade imbalance, the British sold large amounts of Indian opium to China” (Chen, Li. 2011). Drug addiction became a major problem of China.
And when the Daoguang Emperor ordered the destruction of opium stockpiles and halted all foreign trade, the British attacked China in the First Opium War. Defeated by the foreigners’ superior power, the Qing surrendered and ceded the barren Hong Kong Island to the British Queen Victoria, ratified in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. In 1860, the British crown colony was extended including the Kowloon peninsula and in 1898, the Second Convention of Peking further expanded the colony with the 99-year lease of the New Territories (“Lessons in History.” National Palace Museum, Taipei).
The love child, the British crown colony Hong Kong, grew in awesome strength and independence, as unwanted children are blessed with compensatory pluck in later life. It thrived as an independent capitalist economy, besting its bigger neighbors in Southeast Asia. By the late 20th century, Hong Kong was one of the busiest ports in the world, and the seventh-largest trading entity in exports and imports, trading more goods in value than its huge gross domestic product.
Under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, these territories were transferred back to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997, in “the Handover” (“The Joint Declaration.” Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [HKSAR]). In the 22 years as the HKSAR under the PRC, the government has had a passive role in the Hong Kong economy. The Hong Kong Dollar continued to be used, as it had been a major currency of the world. And the Beijing government lived with and enjoyed the capitalist ecosystem through its HKSAR while maintaining its limitations under it communist ideologies.
Yet civil society in HKSAR anxiously counts on promises under the “One Country, Two Systems’ policy that allows it to retain certain key liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary, until 2047 (“High points of Hong Kong’s huge protests.” Agence France Press. June 15, 2019).
The first mass demonstration (estimated half a million people) since the 1997 handover was against a national security law attempted by the government that the Hong Kong people feared would hamper free speech. The government dropped the bill. In 2012, tens of thousands protested for 10 days against forced propagandist subjects in schools. The government abandoned the proposed curriculum (Ibid.). Remember the 2014 Umbrella Movement when, for two months, tens of thousands of protesters held sit-ins to demand democratic reforms such as the right to elect the city’s leader? No way would the mainland central government allow free elections for the city.
Then on April 28, the biggest demonstration since the Umbrella Movement protested the extradition bill, as it roused fears of framing, set-ups, pick-ups and swift extradition of foreign and Chinese nationals. Violent demonstrators rallied for three weeks until Saturday, June 15, when HKSAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam put the extradition bill on hold indefinitely, without withdrawing it yet (“Calls mount for compromise over unpopular Hong Kong bill.” Associated Press, June 15, 2019).
But though the Handover agreements guarantee the Basic Law for 50 years after 1997, it does not specify how Hong Kong will be governed after 2047, and the central government’s role in determining the territory’s future system of government is the subject of political debate and speculation, analysts say. Will Hong Kong’s political and judicial systems be reintegrated with China’s at that time, or will the territory continue to be administered separately? (“The case for extending Hong Kong’s 2047 deadline” and “Too soon to talk about 2047? Legal experts split on when Hong Kong should debate its future.” South China Morning Post, March 23, 2015, and May 10, 2016, respectively).
Of course, it will be the central government in mainland China, the PRC, who will be the final interpreter and executor of what will happen to HKSAR in 2047. That is barely 28 years, coming soon. By then, civil society in Hong Kong will have been used to the futile demonstrations and protests on judiciary and legislative issues being ignored or “shelved” by the Beijing-controlled executive branch. Most everyone predicts HKSAR will be fully integrated, politically, economically, socially with the PRC come 2047.
For the rest of us looking on in this “domestic” drama of an oxymoronic “One Country, Two Systems”: it doesn’t work, nor will it ever work. HKSAR will have to change in toto to be just “One Country, One System” with the whole PRC. It had better be a silent but strong lesson to the world on how to deal with this strong-willed China, who will want to have her way always.
Will US President Donald Trump have to back off (gracefully, if ever such grace is doable) from his tough-guy stance with China? “The United States kicked off a tariff battle with China in 2018, seeking sweeping structural changes from Beijing. But tensions between Washington and Beijing rose sharply in May after the Trump administration accused China of reneging on promises to make structural economic changes during months of trade talks” (“Trade war will hurt China more than U.S.: top White House economic advisor.” Reuters, June 11, 2019). Trump raised tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods to 25% and took steps to levy duties on the additional $300 billion in Chinese imports. Beijing retaliated with tariff hikes on a revised list of $60 billion in U.S. goods. (Ibid.). On April 16, Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Trump’s trade war with China doesn’t look like a win: prevailing against a fast-growing country run by autocrats isn’t so easy.”
And the small country, the Philippines, seems intimidated even before attempting to fight for sovereignty of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) territories despite a long-awarded UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) ruling in the Philippines’ favor, but ignored by China. The yet unspoken protest over the already adjudicated and awarded territorial claims now cries to speak out in the recent controversy over whether or not to protest the ramming of a Philippine fishing vessel by a Chinese ship. Finally, finally, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest on Wednesday, warning that the Philippines could end diplomatic relations with China if it is proven that the Chinese fishing vessel “intentionally” sank the Filipino boat (“China probes ramming of Filipino boat in disputed waters.” CNN Philippines, June 14, 2019). “Intentionally” allows so much defense for China.
President Rodrigo Duterte is a good friend and avowed admirer of China’s President Xi Jin Ping… more than a love child like HKSAR and its petulant wants to keep its rights and freedoms.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.