Recent protests in Hong Kong occurred over a bill which would allow Hong Kong residents to be brought to court in mainland China for actions done in Hong Kong. More specifically, protesters in Hong Kong are concerned that freedom of expression is under attack because of fears that Hong Kong critics of China’s government might be extradited to the People’s Republic of China. These happenings come as part of a history of power struggles between China and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a former British colony which was only recently given back to China in 1997. Hong Kong first became a British colony in 1842 after the First Opium War. The war occurred as an attempt by China to suppress an illegal British drug trade of Opium into China; the British won the war which lead to the Treaty of Nanjing. This treaty gave Hong Kong to British control. It was one of several unequal treaties between China and imperialist powers. China has in recent history sought to regain its strength on the global stage. The agreement in which Hong Kong was returned to China was described as creating “one country, two systems.” This recent bill is looking like a threat to the “two systems” part of the slogan. Perhaps this is a way for China to assert itself against Western power.
Hong Kong served as a refuge for mainland Chinese people during the invasion of China by the Japanese Empire during the Sino-Japanese war starting in 1937. Eventually the Japanese took over Hong Kong as part of the war, yet the British regained control after WW2. In 1984 Britain and China signed an agreement about Hong Kong, promising it will be returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the conditions that Hong Kong would keep its capitalist system and its partially democratic political system. Concerns now exist that this agreement seems to be under attack. If Hong Kong critics of the government in Beijing end up punished in mainland China for expressing their perspective, little hope is left for the “two systems” agreement.
Hong Kong is generally acknowledged as having high levels of free speech and civil liberties. Freedom House, a non-profit research group which studies political freedoms and human rights, provides yearly rankings of freedom in countries around the world. In 2019, Freedom House gave a “partly free” ranking to Hong Kong, while also giving a “not free” ranking to China. This would suggest that China exerting greater power over Hong Kong probably won’t be good for Hong Kong’s freedom.
On June 9th, more than a million people marched against the new bill. Three days after the protests began police shot rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons into a crowd outside a government complex. Journalists have been challenging government claims that the police didn’t use excessive amounts of force. A New York Times article “Hong Kong Protest Live Updates: Police Violence Puts Government on Defensive,” has reported that the Hong Kong police arrested a man who organized thousands of protestors using a smart-phone app. Hong Kong’s police commissioner has said that Hong Kong will not seek the assistance of the People’s Liberation Army. The commissioner added that 22 police officers were injured from the conflict. The English language China Daily publication, which is a media source owned by the Chinese communist party, has implied that the opposition to the new amendment is rooted in “foreign masters” who are opposing it at the expense of the city of Hong Kong. Another publication owned by the Chinese government, The Global Times, has described the opposition as “radical opposition forces” who are allegedly supported by “the Western forces behind them.”
United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May has expressed concern over the bill saying that the freedoms given to Hong Kong in the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration must be respected. She mentioned that many British citizens currently reside in Hong Kong. In the 19th century, Great Britain was more powerful than China, today this is clearly not the case. It’s unclear if Britain or the West in general can make much of a difference regarding what happens to Hong Kong. It remains to be seen if Hong Kong will find a way to defend its liberty against increasing control from the mainland.