On midnight July 1, 1997 a century and a half of British colonial dominion was brought to an end with the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (hereafter PRC). This was in accordance with the 1984 Sino-British Declaration. That treaty, which had been worked out between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Deng Xiaoping, was to have secured Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing on the basis of “One Country, Two Systems”—that is, the assurance of Hong Kong’s relative autonomy on certain economic and political matters for at least the first 50 years after its return to China.
This had not been the British government’s first choice; and if certain measures of public opinion at the time are to be believed, it wasn’t what Hong Kongers generally wanted either. If true, this was understandable on both counts. After all, under British rule Hong Kong had come to flourish as a southeast Asian manufacturing and financial hub, enjoying a per capita income in 1996 many times that of their PRC counterparts. And for the British, with the hundred year pro forma lease it had dictated to the decrepit Qing Dynasty nearing its end, a great deal of investment and financial stability stood in perceived jeopardy.
But whatever local opinion, and though Mrs. Thatcher’s government had just a few years before fought a war with Argentina to keep the Falklands (1982), China’s battle-hardened, million-man army and hydrogen bombs meant continued British control of Hong Kong had been for decades entirely at the discretion of Beijing. And no amount of negotiating was going to change the fact that Beijing was in no way willing to countenance an extension of the prior humiliating “lease” of its territory. Much as in the case of Taiwan, the Chinese made clear that while a peaceful transfer was their aim, a military solution to the restoration of Chinese sovereignty over its internationally accepted territory was never ruled off the table.
And so the British packed up and left, with the people of Hong Kong left behind with only their agreed upon Constitution, or “Basic Law,” as a guarantee of their promised, separate rights. Even so, though now one of Beijing’s “Special Administrative Regions” with the central government responsible for “interpreting” that law in points of actual practice, for the first decade and a half things proceeded relatively smoothly. Apart from small and sporadic pro-democracy demonstrations by local NGOs—often with the open support of outside groups like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—the trouble really began in 2014, when Beijing decided that it would effectively pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office, the Chief Executive.
The controversy can be summed up as follows: while Article 45 of the Basic Law says the eventual aim is the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong by universal suffrage, the same Article 45 stipulates that Chief Executive still has to then to be “appointed,” essentially approved, by the Cetral People’s Government. That was what was agreed in the Joint Declaration and it is what is written in the Basic Law. Whether there was universal suffrage or not, it was never and nowhere written that whomever was elected had to be accepted by Beijing.
Here it is also worth noting that the structure of Hong Kong’s democracy under the Basic Law was further limited by the Legislative Council, or law-making body. There nearly a third of all seats are unelected, with representatives being accorded to various business or administrative interests. These tend to lean toward Beijing on questions of concern to it on account of the obviously considerable economic interests at stake. Therefore, though regularly grabbing the majority of the popular vote, pro-autonomy and pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong have never been in a position to exclusively pass laws of their preference.
Whatever else one might say about such a system, that Beijing pushed for and got such an acceptable arrangement for itself comes as little surprise. What government with the means to do so would not have?
This was little consolation to the people of Hong Kong. Citing Article 68 of the Basic Law, which like Article 45 states the ultimate aim is the election of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage, frustrated pro-democracy activists took the streets following the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPCSC) decision regarding the candidate selection process for the forthcoming (2017) elections. As they would be in subsequent years, in 2017 and again in 2019, the 2014 protests were totally defeated.
And in the case of the last, which were officially against an amendment to existing extradition arrangements with Taipei and Beijing, these led to the imposition of a new “national security law.” Passage of such a law, prohibiting among other things the public advocation of Hong Kong’s secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, was stipulated by Article 23 of the Basic Law; the one finally signed by Xi in 2020 was similar to one almost passed in 2003. In point of practice the law empowers the government to virtually ignore the familiar liberal freedoms purportedly guaranteed to Hong Kongers by Article 27 of the Basic Law, including freedom of expression, assembly, and press.
This series of events culminated, at least for now, in 2021 when electoral changes were finally enacted; shrinking the number of directly elected seats to the Legislative Council while simultaneously expanding the Election Committee and the number of seats filled by government appointment or allotted to Beijing-leaning corporations or organizations. These reforms increased Beijing’s hold over the territory.
From Washington, these events were all viewed with displeasure. However, until President Donald Trump, this disquiet was largely confined to the pages of policy journals and think tank papers no one but a handful of people ever read. The Council on Foreign Relations (hereafter CFR), as near to officialdom as it gets, kept a running score. But it wasn’t until 2019-2020 that Congress passed the Human Rights and Democracy Act (2019) and Hong Kong Autonomy Act (2020) for Donald Trump to sign, and the Treasury began sanctioning members of the Hong Kong government, including its Chief Executives. This has continued under the Joe Biden Administration, whose stance toward China has been, if anything, even more hawkish.
An obvious question is whether the above events have impacted thinking about Taiwan inside the Beltway. While the CFR’s flagship periodical, Foreign Affairs, has openly asked the question, and the topic is one that is regularly raised in the corporate press, the author could find no publicly available official document linking any change in official Taiwan policy to what has happened in Hong Kong over the past decade.
That isn’t to say it hasn’t; nor is it to nod along to Washington’s protestations that it hasn’t substantially revised or abandoned the “One China Policy” or “Strategic Ambiguity.” It is only to say that we don’t know.
What is clear in all of this is that China is China and no part of America is over there. According to the CFR, Beijing’s actions have “dimmed hopes” that Hong Kong will ever become a “full democracy.” Such hopes were always delusional to anyone who had read the Basic Law or knew anything about great power politics. Continued involvement in what are internal Chinese affairs will bring nothing but potential trouble to the United States and its people. Because the truth is that what happens to Hong Kong, or Taiwan for that matter, has no long-term relation whatever to the security or prosperity of the people of the United States. It is high time the American people recognized this and reined in their government.
Before it is too late.