Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, has permanently suspended the legislative proposal to enable extradition of Hong Kong people to among other places mainland China.
One may ask: why does politics between and Hong Kong and mainland China matter to us here in New Zealand?
Why would U.S. Presidential candidate Joe Biden state that:
The extraordinary bravery shown by hundreds of thousands in Hong
Kong, marching for the civil liberties & autonomy promised by China is
inspiring. And the world is watching. All of us must stand in support
of democratic principles and freedom.”
Isn’t this just the usual U.S. anti-Chinese rhetoric?
To answer that dual question, let’s go both a little back, then forward, in time.
After Britain took over Hong Kong as a colony following trade and military wars, what they got was a lowly-populated set of rocky outcrops. Following British colonization, the population and wealth of the area exploded and grew particularly since WW2 into the dominant financial city of Asia outside of Japan. Even though most of its population came from mainland china, it evolved into a very different society from the mainland China that underwent a communist revolution in the 1950s.
The term of the lease that Britain signed with China back in 1897 was that the lease would expire after 99 years and would return to Chinese rule after that.
As that expiration date grew nearer, Britain and China began to negotiate on how much of the rule of law, civic society institutions, democratic responsiveness and membership, political independence, and other freedoms, would continue afterwards. Most of that kind of stuff was never even going to happen even under the modernisations of Deng Xiaopeng and successors.
Governor Patten of Hong Kong and the Chinese negotiators wangled out a
really important agreement that would enable the most prosperous Asian
city city in the world to be assured of its continued success.
The key passage from the Joint Declaration agreement, so far as the protestors of today are concerned, goes like this:
The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the lifestyle. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief, will be enshrined by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate rights of inheritance, and foreign investment, will be protected under law.”
It’s pretty succinct, but it was in stone.
And this agreement was to stay in force for 50 years beyond 1997. That’s 2047 on the horizon there folks, not too far from 2020 next year.
This was read as a hopeful sign that the ‘One Country Two Systems’ model really was possible again after the massacres of Tianenmen Square in 1989.
So instead there remained Hong Kong as a territory that really remained its own independent little country. It was a little holdout right beside a massive empire in which measures of tolerance, accountability, civil society, and protection of the citizen from the state could flourish alongside economic prosperity.
For the first decade after handover, the central Chinese government respected all of that, and with good economic reason. In 1997, Hong Kong’s economy was worth US$120 billion, more than a quarter of the size of China’s entire economy.
But the growth of China’s coastal mega-cities have now engulfed and supplanted the economic power of Hong Kong, and its influence has diluted with it. Hong Kong’s share of the overall Chinese economy has gone from 27% in 1997 to just 3% today.
In 2014, a great uprising began on the streets of Hong Kong, in what was termed the Umbrella Revolution. It was crushed and its aims did not succeed. There were much greater controls put on who could run for government in Hong Kong.
Naturally, the Chinese government made sure that such unrest was seen
to be caused by having a multi-party representative government system.
Kinda the axiomatic definition of democracy: freedom to oppose and to
be an opposition.
And in recent years, the evening tv news starts with the Chinese national anthem from a choir (be still my heart TVNZ).
Last year the Asia news editor for the Financial Times in Hong Kong, Victor Mallet, was expelled. Sometimes the business community is prepared to turn against a thorn in their sides, but this particular expulsion made a lot of influential people concerned at the threat to One Nation Two Systems arrangement:
Hong Kong is definitely no longer the tail that wags the dog.
But the political awakening among those young protesters has grown in maturity and they are starting to stand for office, and growing into influential positions. As a corollary, across different surveys with different strengths, by far most people identify as Hong Konger rather than as Mainland Chinese.
Who knows, maybe the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is playing a longer game and assuming that integrating in other ways such as the great big marine highway that now connects Hong Kong, Macau and Zuhai.
Every year in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park there are peaceful vigils held for those who stood to completely reform China’s single-party government in Tianenmen Square.
This time on its 30th anniversary, they got a win, though who knows for how long. I think history will show that while it took 30 years, the Tianenmen martyrs and the Umbrella Movement exiles started something that was irreversible.
Of course this matters to anyone who trades between China and the United States because under the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the United States treats Hong Kong as a separate port and customs area as long as it is sufficiently independent from the mainland.
Cue a great big care-out enclave in the 2019 trade war, worth multiple billions of dollars to each other. And to us: upon that political difference built over 100 years lies a trade safe-haven and entry of our trade into China.
Hong Kong is still a massive financial and property and trade centre for the world and for China.
So that little pile of rock matters for us in a trade sense, as well as a political sense.
And in case we’re inclined to see precedent, this dual economic and democratic contest is watched closely in Taiwan, for very similar reasons.
One can but hope.