Hong Kong Protests – The Fallout of One Country Two Systems [Updated]

hong kong protests upsc

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In order to prevent the repetition of the 2019 anti-government protests, Beijing has taken measures to block dissent to its full absorption of Hong Kong into China. It has tightened its grip on Hong Kong’s legislation and press and tracked down key activists who are campaigning for full democracy. The recent enactment of national anthem bill and the national security bill to further curb free speech led to uncertainty for the residents of Hong Kong. There was a huge surge in the protests after months of silence due to the COVID-19.

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This topic of “Hong Kong Protests – The Fallout of One Country Two Systems [Updated]” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What and where is Hong Kong?

  • Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China located on the eastern side of the Pearl River estuary in southern China.
  • It is one of the most densely populated places in the world.
  • It became a part of China in the year 1997 when Britain’s 99-year-old lease ended.
  • Hong Kong is governed under the principle of “one country, two systems”.
  • Under the agreement between China and Great Britain, the Chinese government has granted this region a high degree of autonomy for 50 years from the year of handover.
  • Today, Hong Kong is the world’s tenth-largest exporter, the ninth-largest importer and the seventh-largest trading entity.
  • Also, Hong Kong’s legal tender (the Hong Kong Dollar) is the world’s 13th most traded currency.
  • Despite all these advantages, Hong Kong’s Liberty Indicators – the one that measures the extent of the constitutional protection from Hong Kong’s mini-constitution to safeguard the rights of the citizens and the extent of political participation by the people – is currently under question.
  • Hong Kong’s Chief Executive was elected by a 1,200-member committee that was chosen by only 6% of the eligible voters. The majority of the lawmakers are pro-Beijing.
  • Despite Hong Kong’s democratic governance, it is evident that Beijing controls the outcome of the election.

Why are the people of Hong Kong protesting?

  • Thousands of people in Hong Kong took to the street to protest against an extradition bill that allowed Hong Kong residents to be heard in mainland China.
  • Hong Kong has its own legal system and governance.
  • This bill came as the result of a murder case.
  • On February 8, 2018, a couple from Hong Kong went on a vacation to Taiwan.
  • Chan, one of the couple confessed murdering the other in Taiwan after he returned to Hong Kong.
  • However, the Hong Kong law enforcers cannot convict him because the murder was committed in Taiwan.
  • Also, the authorities cannot send him back to Taiwan either as there is no extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
  • So, in 2019, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong proposed a bill that allowed extradition to Taiwan.
  • However, this bill also allows extradition to mainland China.
  • Initially, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, was determined to pass the bill by arguing that Hong Kong was becoming a safe haven to the fugitives.
  • Many fear that, if this bill is passed in the parliament, it will expose Hong Kong residents to the unfair judicial practices of mainland China.
  • Due to this, numerous Hong Kong residents protested against the bill, which led to the indefinite suspension of the same.
  • Not everyone was convinced of this move.
  • They wanted the complete withdrawal of this bill and also the resignation of Carrie Lam.
  • The protesters also now demand the retraction of the word “riot” to classify the present protest.
  • This is because the rioting is punishable offence up to 10 years in jail.
  • The protesters reject this term as it was mostly a peaceful protest before the Hong Kong police responded to it with violence.
  • Also, the protesters demand the release of all the demonstrators who were arrested and drop all charges against them.
  • Furthermore, the protesters demand an independent inquiry of the Hong Kong police and their violent tactics against the demonstrators.
  • Now, the protesters also demand the universal suffrage that allows legitimate democracy, unlike the current system where the majority of the representatives are pro-Beijing.

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Why Beijing backs the controversial extradition Bill?

  • China agreed to the “One Country, Two Systems” because a large portion of China’s GDP was from Hong Kong in the 1990s.
  • Currently, only 3% of China’s GDP is from Hong Kong.
  • Therefore, Beijing wants Hong Kong to embrace the Communist Party of mainland China.
  • It doesn’t want the Hong Kong residents to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre – the tragic event that involved China’s brutal crackdown of the peaceful democratic protesters in Beijing.

What is China’s response?

  • Currently, the Chinese government is on a misinformation campaign.
  • The Chinese media termed these protesters to be rioters and paid-provocateurs and their actions to be “near terrorism”.
  • China is making use of social media like Facebook and Twitter to spread false information against the Hong Kong protesters.
  • The Chinese government is accusing the US of promoting violent protests in China.
  • China had stationed paramilitary forces in the city of Shenzen near the border of Hong Kong.
  • This is seen as a direct warning from the Communist Party of China.

What are the past incidents of protests in Hong Kong?

  • Hong Kong is a place in China where freedom of speech and assembly is protected.
  • It is the only place in China where the people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • This is in contrast to mainland China where people have little to no rights and freedom.
  • However, many observe that Hong Kong’s freedom of expression is currently declining and is constantly facing protests because of the growing number of controversial bills.
  • In 2003, Hong Kong successfully fought against the bill that allowed punishment for speaking against China. Commonly referred to as Article 23 after the constitutional clause requiring its introduction, the legislation prohibited treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government and banned theft of state secrets.
  • In 2014, the Chinese government had stated that it would select a list of candidates from which the voters can elect their leaders.
  • This was termed to be a sham as it is not the people’s choice.
  • This plan was vetoed in the Hong Kong legislature.
  • Now, the current protest, which initiated in 2019, is said to be the largest in the history of Hong Kong. People from all walks of life are involved in this protest.
  • After the next 28 years, the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong will expire. This will be in the year 2047.
  • According to the survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong, the majority of the Hong Kong Residents don’t identify themselves as Chinese. About 71% of these people are not proud of being a part of China.

Which is the other region in China that follows ‘one country, two systems’ policy?

  • Macau, a former Portuguese colony, uses the same political model as that of Hong Kong – one country, two systems, which guarantees a high degree of autonomy for the regions for 50 years with Beijing maintaining control of the defence and foreign affairs.
  • It is a small but important port city on the southern coast of China, just south of Guangzhou and about 65 km from Hong Kong.
  • It was leased for Portugal in 1557 and officially became a Portuguese colony in 1887.
  • In 1987, Portugal and China signed the Sino-Portuguese joint declaration, which stated that the territory would be returned to China on 20th December 1999.
  • Under the one country, two systems, Macau has its own government, legal and financial affairs. It also has its own currency (the patacas) and different local laws.
  • The region’s leader, the chief executive, is chosen by a 400 person Beijing-approved committee comprising of politicians and businessmen.
  • Ordinary citizens do not have a direct say in the appointment like in Hong Kong.

Why is one country, two systems policy successful in Macau and not in Hong Kong?

  • Hong Kong residents are the product of their distinctive legal history, which left them with experiences, values, institutions, norms, procedures and expectations that are different from those of the residents from Macau.
  • Though the English did not bring political democracy to Hong Kong, they did bring the common law and their belief in and subjecting of the government to the rule of law.
  • The colonial administrators were controlled by officials in London, who are themselves accountable to an increasingly democratic domestic legal system that illustrated to their colonies the expanding freedoms of expression and protection against arbitrary detention.
  • Like many former British colonies, Hong Kong too started respecting the model of rule of law and accountability.
  • People of Macau, on the other hand, have different historical experience.
  • Portugal brought to Macau a continental European civil law system and a criminal process that is based on different philosophical, religious and political developments and traditions.
  • Often, these continental traditions proved too ineffective to resist the demands of politicians who sought to impose authoritarian government.
  • Although Portugal has developed a democratic government in recent decades, it could in no way match the political, diplomatic and military power of Britain in its negotiations with China.
  • Therefore, Macau presented more attractive prospects for succumbing to the control of the communist legal system, which in itself is similar to the Soviet legal system and China’s pre- “liberalisation” Kuomintang system based on Lenin and Western European models.
  • Furthermore, Beijing was cautious while implementing one country, two systems policy in Macau.
  • Before 1999 handover, the Chinese government assigned experienced cadres to important positions in Macau’s new postcolonial legal system, especially in criminal law enforcement, serving as police, prosecutors and even judges.
  • Another reason for the success of one country, two systems in Macau is that before the handover, the Portuguese government granted full Portuguese citizenship to residents born in Macau before 1982 and their families. This was to enable those who wished to avoid living under communist rule to live in Portugal or even other European Union countries.
  • Britain, in contrast, did not provide a similar opportunity to Hong Kongers, leading to them pursuing a more difficult path of obtaining Canadian, Australian, American and other foreign passports. This further raised their interests in democratic values and free speech.
  • Another reason behind the effectiveness of one country, two systems in Macau, unlike in Hong Kong, is the legacy of communication with the Chinese government, with a major focus on improving the region’s economy as well as the education system.
  • Now Macau has the third-highest per capita GDP in the world, behind Luxembourg and Switzerland.

What is the impact of coronavirus pandemic on the Hong Kong Protest?

  • The coronavirus outbreak has helped the Hong Kong government mute the anti-government demonstrations.
  • As the world is engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong authorities are waging a broad crackdown on the 2019 demonstrations.
  • They have arrested prominent pro-democracy figures in politics, civil society and the media, in tandem with recent efforts by mainland China’s central government, on April 18.
  • Authorities have also tightened their grip on Hong Kong’s legislature, curtailed the city’s constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
  • The pro-Beijing’s lawmakers have forcibly seized control of a committee that determines what bills are brought before the legislature. This move clears their path to push through laws sought by Beijing.
  • The authorities have used the virus outbreak as an excuse to extend pandemic-related rules, limiting public gathering to effectively ban, for the first time, a June 4 vigil marking the anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
  • The organisers, who were forced to concede to these rules, urged the Hong Kongers to light candles wherever they are that evening to honour the dead.
  • Many fear that these restrictions could include the widely contested national security law, leading to the accelerated erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Has the pandemic stopped the Hong Kong protests?

  • Pro-democracy demonstrations have resumed in Hong Kong after the lockdown was lifted and the case count reduced.
  • Protestors had gathered for a sing-along event at a shopping mall when hundreds of riot police were called in to disperse the crowd
  • More than 200 people were arrested recently for indulging in pro-democracy protests.
  • These detainees were between the ages of 12 and 65.
  • Despite the fear of a possible second wave of the virus and tightened control of pro-Beijing lawmakers, participation in anti-Beijing demonstration is expected to increase, as summer remains the most popular season for protests in Hong Kong, which brings upon the anniversaries of Tiananmen Square massacre (June 4, 1989) and handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China (July 1).

What is the national anthem bill?

  • The resurgence of Hong Kong protests after the lifting of COVID-19 lockdown is due to a new controversial national anthem bill, which seeks to criminalise any behaviour deemed offensive towards the national anthem.
  • According to this bill, commercialising or publicly insulting anthem could warrant up to fines of 50,000 Hong Kong dollars, as well as up to 3 years imprisonment.
  • The government advocated for this bill by stating that it was for the promotion of “respect” for the anthem and denied that it violates the freedom of speech.
  • According to experts, the Hong Kong anthem bill is a political weapon that aims to shut down the Hong Kong opposition.
  • The call for the withdrawal of the bill adds to the earlier demands put forth during the last year’s demonstration.

What is the National Security Bill?*

  • China’s Parliament, National People’s Congress, had recently overwhelmingly voted to approve a new law imposing national security legislation on Hong Kong to counter what Beijing labelled secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the semi-autonomous city.
  • The new law can alter Hong Kong’s mini-constitution or Basic Law to require the former British colony’s government to enforce measures that are going to be later decided by Beijing.
  • This was in response to the last year’s protest over the extradition bill as Beijing doesn’t want a repetition of the same.
  • The legislation is expected to be enacted before September this year.
  • The new national security provisions would be added on to the Basic law, which means that Beijing would modify the agreement without Hong Kong’s approval.
  • There were no public consultations and the voices of the people of Hong Kong were completely ignored during the legislative process.
  • However, the Hong Kong government supported the legislature and stated that it would cooperate with China to enforce the laws in the city.
  • This move is seen by many as a “death kneel” for the former British colony’s freedoms and the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
  • This is because the law has can criminalise dissent against the government and can enable Chinese intelligence agencies to set up bases in the city.
  • The Basic Law states that Chinese laws cannot be applied in Hong Kong unless they are listed in a section called Annex III. There are already a few listed there, mostly uncontroversial and with focus on foreign policy.
  • These laws can be introduced by decree, which means that they can bypass the city’s parliament.
  • Thus, Beijing can also implement the law under this provision.
  • This led to the triggering of the first big protests in Hong Kong for months. The protestors took to the streets against the anthem bill and the national security legislation.

How is the world responding to the law?*

The UK, the US, Australia and Canada condemned the legislation by stating that it would threaten the freedom and breach the document that sets out Hong Kong’s partial autonomy and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Some of the countermeasures taken include the following:

The US’ plan to revoke Hong Kong’s special status:

  • As Hong Kong has a free-market economy, independent judiciary, free speech and legislative autonomy, many countries, including the US, brought in laws that allowed them to treat the city as a separate trade entity to the authoritarian mainland.
  • This enabled Hong Kong to flourish into a world-class financial centre on par with London and New York.
  • If the Trump administration opts for revoking of the special status, then China would risk all of the financial connectivity that it has with the free market.
  • However, Washington has not unveiled any specific plan for this move.

Taiwan backing Hong Kong protestors:

  • Taiwan has pledged to help resettle Hong Kongers who want to leave the city in the face of China’s tightening grip.
  • The Taiwanese President Tai Ing-wen stated that her government is drawing up a plan for Hong Kong residents that would include plans for their residence, placement, employment and life in Taiwan.
  • Hong Kongers are already leaving for democratic, self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims to be its province though it never governed the independent island.

The UK’s plan to provide citizenship for BNO passport holders:

  • The UK government stated that it is considering more rights for the holders of a special passport called British National (Overseas) or BNO passport to enable them to get a “path to citizenship”.
  • The BNO passport is a travel document that does not provide citizenship rights nor does it allow the holders to reside or work there.
  • It was issued to people in Hong Kong by the UK before it was handed over to China.
  • Around 3 lakh people are currently holding the BNO passport, allowing them to visit the UK visa-free for 6 months.
  • The BNO holders cannot pass on this benefit to their children.
  • The UK government recently stated that the country would move to scrap the 6-months stay limit for BNO holders if China goes on to officially implement the law.
  • The BNO holders would be allowed to apply for work and study for an extendable period of 12 months and that will itself provide for a pathway to future citizenship.
  • It can be considered only as a symbolic move to oppose China’s new legislation as very few have these passports and money to stay for 12 months.
  • It does not target the young anti-mainland protestors, as they are unlikely to be eligible for the BNO because of their age.

Are Hong Kongers demanding independence?

  • The current protests have not transformed into a Hong Kong independence movement.
  • They are unlikely to do so though there are some isolated examples.
  • Even the most public and vocal of the critics of Beijing’s overreach into Hong Kong’s affairs, Joshua Wong, has avoided arguing for independence.
  • This is because the protestors are avoiding total subjugation by mainland authorities.
  • They understand that the “one country, two systems” may be the best-case scenario right now, with less interference from Chinese authorities.

What can be the way ahead?

  • The threat of escalation of Hong Kong protests adds to rising agitation against Xi Jinping’s regime, which even faced rare protests in mainland China in response to the growing economic distress and the government’s response to the pandemic.
  • As for Hong Kong, the protests have not died out because of the outbreak as the government failed to address the demands of the last year’s protests.
  • However, the turnout for the protest summer depends on multiple factors outside the protest’s movement control, like the willingness of the Hong Kongers to begin another prolonged bout of protests and to risk mass gathering amid pandemic, and the government’s response.
  • While considering the history of protests in Hong Kong, the demonstrators might probably use well-prepared tactics to continue with the campaign.
  • It may be prudent for Beijing to support these demands, as it risks facing both external and internal tensions for its role in the pandemic.
  • Escalating the Hong Kong protests by forcefully clamping down the demonstrations could only worsen the situation.

Practice question for mains:

What is China’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy? Why has it failed in Hong Kong and succeeded in Macau? (250 words)

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