• Toby Irwin

Hong Kong: Encroached by the Dragon

When Hong Kong was handed over to China on the 1st of July 1997 it meant different things to different people. Some saw it as the formal conclusion of the empire, while others were more concerned with the fate of the people of Hong Kong. The Prince of Wales, who attended the official ceremony, noted the “horror of watching an awful ‘Soviet-style’ ceremony in which ‘Chinese soldiers goose-step[ped] on to the stage and haul[ed] down the Union Jack” (1). For some, it was not the bitter resentment of Britain’s falling hard power and territory, it was the utter despair of what might befall her former citizens, now at the seeming mercy of a totalitarian power on the far reaches of the world.

In a final attempt to protect the rights of the people of Hong Kong, the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ initiative was introduced to create a buffer between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. It was hoped that this move would protect the sovereignty of the former and limit the encroachment of the Chinese Communist Party. The consequence was that Hong Kong citizens enjoyed substantially more freedoms and rights than their counterparts in China. Indeed, Hong Kong was to maintain its own legal systems as well as its own independent police force. This agreement was intended to last fifty years, ending in 2047. This was to avoid the “panic and economic mayhem” that might have arisen from an immediate shift of control from London to Beijing (2). What might be noted, then, was that China’s intentions were always to impose central control on Hong Kong, though were dubious as to the timing and implementation. Recent events however, cast a worrying and truly ominous light on the future of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million citizens.

Recent protests have been directed against the introduction of a new extradition law in Hong Kong which would allow the removal of people to the Chinese mainland, where they could be prosecuted and incarcerated to Chinese laws. Naturally, this begs questions as to the possibility of this law being used to erode the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, and of course abused for political purposes. To many observers, international and domestic, it is a clear encroachment of the Chinese Communist Party into the lives of Britain’s former citizens, only 22 years after its withdrawal.

The demonstrations have led to extensive reports of violence and police brutality and may act as the stimulus for further Chinese intervention. The ‘riots’, as termed by the police, have become increasingly violent and intense over their ten-week life-cycle and show little sign of easing, despite the suspension of the extradition bill in question. Police are increasingly using rubber bullets and tear gas, deploying more and more violent tactics to suppress and discourage the demonstrations. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can only, legally, enter the region with the request of the Hong Kong government. However, several thousand troops are already stationed there. The possibility of the use of force by armed forces does not seem entirely unpredictable. Indeed as the BBC reported, on the 31st of July video footage emerged of Chinese PLA soldiers shouting at protesters “all consequences are at your own risk” as they marched against protesters (3). Some analysts believe that military deployments would be politically and diplomatically too costly for Beijing, though as this video shows, it might soon become a reality.

What truly should be taken from the events in Hong Kong is the reflection of social and political attitudes that pervade there. While dogma surrounding the negative effects of the British empire are substantially well documented, and well founded, they should not detract from debates on how a former colony and its citizens might react to a severing of ties from modern Britain and her institutions. In 1997, Hong Kong’s citizens found themselves no longer overseas citizens of a liberal democracy, where their rights were infused in law and guaranteed through ancient institutions. Instead, they witnessed the gradual degradation of their rights and freedoms as they inevitably have seemed to be absorbed into the mass of China and its authoritarian Communist Party. Questions to be asked now in policy-making circles of the West hinge on what can actually, feasibly be done to help the citizens of Hong Kong, before it is too late. The United Kingdom holds the most prominent position due to its historical relationship to Hong Kong. Though with a fracturing government, an uncertain domestic agenda for withdrawing from the EU and a woefully depleted armed forces, the chances of Whitehall adopting a strong stance on this issue seems not just improbable, but terribly impossible. It seems to me, if I might add a solitary piece of opinion, that the situation in Hong Kong is perhaps one of, if not the most, damning and heart-breaking of our time. The West must do better, lest it acts as a geopolitical microcosm for liberalism’s exhausted defiance against authoritarianism.

(1) Ten Cities That Made an Empire, By Tristram Hunt (2015) p4

(2) https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2019/06/30/what-is-chinas-one-country-two-systems-policy

(3) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-49148762

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.