By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
The controversial extradition bill which sparked off a wave of violent protests in China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong, has been kept in abeyance. And yet, protests, which began in March, continue, and are increasing in intensity and violence, crippling the prosperous East Asian trading hub’s economy.
The China Extradition bill was meant to close a legal loophole which allowed Hong Kong to become a “haven for fugitives” from China. But it also had the potential to legitimize Chinese state-sponsored “kidnapping” of Hong Kong residents who are opposed to China’s policies. It is these concerns which triggered the mass agitation.
The Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has said that the Extradition bill is “dead”, but she is yet to officially withdraw it. The legislative process has ceased, but the bill is still there, and it can be revived when the time is opportune, protesters fear.
However, over the last few weeks, the protests have gone beyond the bill and are now over larger and graver issues relating to democracy; possibilities of further integration with Communist China; and the impending full integration with China in 2047.
Demonstrators are demanding a complete withdrawal of the Extradition bill, a fully independent probe into police behavior, amnesty for those arrested, universal suffrage, and a halt to the characterization of peaceful protests as “riots”
Since the start of the Extradition Bill, participation in the protests has snowballed and violence has increased. On June 9, one million turned out to march against the bill. A week later, on June 16, two million protesters took to the streets. Each time police gave much smaller estimates, of 240,000 and 338,000 respectively. But even the police’s numbers are significant.
Hong Kong, which was under British rule, was made part of China in 1997. But it was to be an autonomous region under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. Hong Kong is to be fully integrated with China in 2047.
However, the people of Hong Kong, who are used to Western style liberties given to them under British rule, do not want full integration with non-democratic China. They fear that bills like the one on extradition, are harbingers of integration and precursors of doom. Significantly, on July 1, the 22 nd., the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, protesters ransacked Hong Kong parliament and hoisted the city’s colonial flag on it.
Hong Kong had been part of China from 111 AD, when the Han dynasty captured it from locals, till it was handed over to Britain following the Qing dynasty’s comprehensive military defeat at the hands of the British in 1842.
In early 19 th.Century, British merchants established contact with the Qing Empire (1644-1911). Qing China produced tea and silk that British subjects desired but could not find elsewhere. China bought silver and sold tea and silk. However, under Qing rule, trade was restricted to a few trading houses and trade was allowed only for five months in a year.
But things changed radically in the 18 th.Century when the British owned East India Company (EIC) based in Calcutta, started selling to China, opium grown in Bengal. A substance used only in medicine, soon became a popular recreational drug in China. When the Qing dynasty banned opium use and import, the EIC began to smuggle it in. The illegal trade in opium in China accounted for nearly 10% of Britain’s annual revenue, according to US historian Melvin Barnes Jr.
The Chinese ban led to war in 1839. After further battles, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed in 1842. As a result of that, the Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong to Britain “in perpetuity.”
Under the British, Hong Kong began to acquire an international character with Western, Indian and Chinese merchants making a living in it. Wars in Qing China, which took 30 million lives over time, brought into Hong Kong refugees from the mainland. In 1898, Britain signed with the Qing dynasty, a new lease agreement gaining “new” territories on the Hong Kong peninsula. This new lease was to last 99 years.
In the 20 th.Century, the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Tse Tung and the nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek, forced over a million Chinese, including prosperous traders, to migrate to Hong Kong. This happened between 1945 and 1949.
As a result of these migrations, stark differences in lifestyle, culture and economic behavior, arose between Hong Kong and mainland China. Hong Kong acquired a distinct identity. Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) further accentuated differences between Hong Kong and China. For one thing, while China’s economy declined, Hong Kong’s GDP grew by 100%.
Hong Kong had also politically advanced, becoming semi-independent from Britain. Many in Hong Kong hoped that the city would one day be fully independent and become a member of the British Commonwealth like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
However, like China now, Britain at that time, did not want to encourage democracy beyond a point. This lead to agitations for universal adult suffrage in the late 1980s and 1990s. But these agitations proved to be fruitless and the people of Hong Kong watched helplessly as the British handed the city to dictatorial China in 1997 following the end of the 99 year lease.
There was, however, a silver lining. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1985, which set 1997 as the year of transfer, took into account the vast social and political gulf between Communist China and Hong Kong. China was made to create the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” (now referred to as SAR), granting Hong Kong a degree of autonomy in all subjects except foreign affairs and defense.
SAR had independent judicial power. Hong Kong’s laws remained largely unchanged. The political freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong, including freedom of speech and of the press, were to be protected for 50 years.
However, immediately after the handover, China showed its true colors. It swore-in unelected officials to Hong Kong’s new provisional legislature. Pro-democracy activists took to the streets but to no effect. In the 2000s, China agreed to respect Hong Kong’s laws, but differences in interpretation vitiated the atmosphere.
At the behest of Beijing, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, introduced an anti-sedition bill with provisions that would allow the government to ban organizations prohibited in mainland China. Widespread protests followed but Beijing was unmoved.
In 2014, Beijing announced that it reserves the right to approve candidates for the Hong Kong legislature. The decision sparked a three-month long movement for free elections. To counter the agitations, China initiated “patriotic education campaigns” aimed at transforming the education curriculum in the city to foster the “One China” identity.
According to the paper by Melvin Barnes Jr.written for the Ohio State and Miami Universities, China’s leaders are in a rush to incorporate Hong Kong into the future they are envisaging for China.
“However, the old Hong Kong has refused to go quietly into the night. The one country, two systems arrangement may prove inadequate if Hong Kongers refuse to relinquish aspects of their old identity and dreams of a more democratic future.”
“With only 18 years left before full reunification, how the two parties will bridge the gulf created by over 150 years of separation remains unclear,” Barnes says.