This past summer, Hong Kong residents celebrated the 20th anniversary of the island’s handover from British back to Chinese rule. This supposedly jovial celebration was overshadowed by the reoccurring question of Hong Kong’s true autonomy as China increases its regional hegemony.
“One country, two systems” is highly recognized phrase in Hong Kong that summarizes the current political situation regarding Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy. The phrase refers to a policy introduced by former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping in 1997 regarding the integration of Hong Kong. In essence, Hong Kong is allowed to have an independent government, legislature, and currency. Furthermore, as outlined by Hong Kong’s mini constitution, Basic Law, Chinese officials are not allowed to intervene in Hong Kong’s local affairs. The only aspect purported to be overseen by China is in foreign affairs and defence. “One country, two systems” is set to expire in 2047, fifty years after the initial hand-over.
While China-Hong Kong relations are currently dictated by the “one country, two systems” policy, it is unclear as to what the future of Hong Kong will be post 2047. However, based on the encroaching actions China has taken to overinvolved itself in Hong Kong’s affairs, it can be assumed that China’s expectation will be for Hong Kong to fully become another city within its borders. This has strong implications as Hong Kong is considered both a capitalistic and democratic state where many citizens and residents enjoy basic freedoms that China has gone to a great length to supress. For example, “one country, two systems” has allowed many Hong Kong residents to exercise civil liberties such as free speech and freedom of assembly. This has had a polarizing effect as many Hong Kong residents do not identify with the ideals of the Communist Party of China nor even as mainland Chinese themselves. The younger generation of Hong Kong residents has been particularly affected by this detachment of identity and has thus been a driving force in pushing for Hong Kong’s independence.
Recently, three pro-democracy activist, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, were jailed for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, otherwise known as “Occupy Hong Kong”, which consisted of sit-ins of large portions of the financial district in Hong Kong as well as speeches dissenting the current government structure and an outcry about the alleged corruption in Hong Kong’s legislature for a period of 79 days. This has sparked massive controversy across Hong Kong as rumours of China’s alleged involvement to supress the movement run rampant. The worry comes from the law in Hong Kong’s constitution expressly forbidding the involvement of China in local Hong Kong affairs. Additionally, considering that Hong Kong does afford its citizen the right to both free speech and assembly and the protests themselves were considered legal, it came a surprise to all as six to eight-month prison sentences were handed down to each respective individual. This sentence has been monumental as these three men are the first to be jailed for promoting a dissenting opinion and attitude towards China, directly contradicting the preconceived notion that Hong Kong is a haven for democratic ideals. Moreover, on October 11, British human rights activist, Benedict Rogers was refused entry into Hong Kong by the city’s immigration department. This refusal can be deemed an overextension of China into Hong Kong’s internal affairs as it disregards many of the integral principles of the “one country, two systems” rule, such as democratization, free markets, and relative autonomy for Hong Kong to conduct internal affairs.
The extension of China’s power in the region has implications for two major actors: Taiwan and the United States. The implications regarding the United States are two-pronged. First, Hong Kong has a fixed exchange rate to the US dollar which creates monetary dependence to that of economic policies of the United States. Over the past ten years, this monetary policy has resulted in incredibly low interest rates which have driven up property prices, contributing to the devastating housing and population crisis in Hong Kong. Secondly, the United States should have a vested interest in ensuring that Hong Kong remains a democratic stronghold for civil rights, at least until the terms of the handover have expired in 2047. Hong Kong can act as a countering force to China’s growing influence in the region, should it retain its commitment to democratic ideals. Many pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong believe that there is a chance that Hong Kong can maintain its autonomy and democracy and even spread such ideals to mainland China. Having a formative democracy as economically strong and internationally grounded as that in Hong Kong in the region gives the United States far more opportunities to implement regional foreign policy and counter the rising hegemony of China. Essentially, Hong Kong presents a unique opportunity for the United States to regain power and influence its lost in recent foreign policy decisions such as withdrawing from the TPP and the handling of the North Korea nuclear conflict. Because we are currently seeing China rising to fill the gap that the United States has left behind following a “re-entrenchment” strategy, being able to have Hong Kong, or other states similar to Hong Kong, in close proximity to China will allow the United States to maintain its influence in the region.
Another state that needs to closely monitor the ongoing situation in Hong Kong is Taiwan. In addition to integration, “one country, two systems” policy was also designed to be a model to encourage Taiwan to re-join the mainland. China has alleged that if it could offer Hong Kong a certain degree of autonomy, it would further entice Taiwan to consider joining the country under a similar policy to “one country, two systems.” On a more ominous note, China’s hegemony directly threatens the national security of Taiwan as it signals China’s willingness to use its political influence to sway internal affairs. Considering Taiwan wants to be recognized by both China and the international community as an independent nation, knowing that China desires to extend its hegemonic influence on former territories to regain control of them is in direct contrast with the current policies of Taiwan. It is not a far logical conclusion for Taiwan to make that, if China is willing to break law to influence affairs to bring Hong Kong back into its sphere of influence, this will be a similar fate for Taiwan after the 50-year transition piece is complete.
The encroachment on Hong Kong’s relative sovereignty signals China’s deepening desire to increase its regional power. Plainly, the actions that China has taken are against Hong Kong law and violate the tenants of the “one country, two systems” policy. If China was truly committed to ensuring the policy was truly fulfilled, it would remain neutral in Hong Kong internal affairs. The next 30 years will be remarkably telling in regards to not only the future of Hong Kong, but also the future of democracy in South East Asia.