The Hong Kong crackdown by China drew the attention of world leaders yesterday. Find out the story behind the people of Hong Kong’s latest brush with colonialism.
When I was a consultant in the 1990s, one of my clients was from Hong Kong. He was working for a Canadian company owned by Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-Shing.
He and his wife had held more senior positions in Hong Kong. Still, their employer didn’t transfer them to Canada for mundane business reasons. Strategically, he was part of a plan whereby key staff in Li’s global empire could quietly fade out of Hong Kong and escape the planned handover to China in 1997.
The reasons for the handover go back to Victorian times. Britain had a trading strategy based on producing opium in India.
Britain Traded Opium for Tea on Chinese Black Market
They then illegally traded the opium for tea on the Chinese black market. Finally, British importers would sell that tea at a considerable markup back in England.
Of course, China objected to having their country flooded with an illegal and highly addictive narcotic. They expected the British to pay for their tea with hard currency, as in gold or silver like a civilized country.
Britain addressed China’s objections by invading them by force of arms and crushing all opposition to the opium trade. One of the first prizes they captured was the strategic port of Hong Kong.
Series of Conflicts Known as the Opium Wars
The two countries fought a series of conflicts known as the Opium Wars throughout the 19th century. China lost, and under the final peace agreement, the British accepted a 99-year lease for “the use of Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong is a small but prosperous region of about 1,100 square kilometres. It includes a strategic port city that has always been a commercial centre for merchants, shipping and financial services.
A lot can happen in 99 years. In the case of Hong Kong, this included the First and Second World Wars. The aftermath of those wars and the depression in between led to Chairman Mao’s communist revolution.
Revolution Left Hong Kong Unscathed Politically
The revolution was a sea change for Mainland China. Politically, it left Hong Kong unscathed, although having an isolationist neighbour battered the bastion of free trade economically.
The treaty stayed in the back of most people’s minds, and Hong Kong increasingly identified as a British colony. Then, as the handover deadline started looming large, Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang signed a document called the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984.
Its terms called for the People’s Republic of China to designate Hong Kong as a special administrative region (SAR). Although China would take charge of foreign affairs and the military, Hong Kong would have wide latitude in most other areas. It became known as “one country, two systems.”
Hong Kong Designated as a Special Administrative Region
China would guarantee that Hong Kong could continue as an open port with its own customs territory and free markets. The people of Hong Kong would maintain their political and economic human rights even though Chinese citizens had lost these freedoms.
The Chinese government wasn’t exactly thrilled with these concessions, but they also knew that they were inheriting a cash cow. In the 80s, the people of Hong Kong prospered amid a world-class financial centre.
I remember watching that handover ceremony on July 1, 1997. Queen Elizabeth declined to attend, so Prince Charles travelled to Hong Kong on the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Client Discretely Returned and Resumed His Former Life
It was more like a funeral than a celebration in many ways. Even so, the mood was cautiously optimistic. For example, my client had discretely returned to Hong Kong and resumed his former life as if nothing had happened.
I know a few people who live in Hong Kong from work and university. In those years, if I asked them about local politics, they all answered, “Same, same!” It was a kind of mantra.
As readers will have noticed, the days of “same, same” are now behind us. People began taking to the streets against the pro-Beijing local government’s proposed Fugitive Offenders Amendment.
Protesting Against Fugitive Offenders Amendment
Part of the high degree of autonomy that Hong Kong has always enjoyed is signing independent extradition treaties. For obvious reasons, democratic Hong Kong has never made formal extradition arrangements with China or Taiwan.
Once people read the Beijing-backed legislation, they became increasingly upset about where it would lead. The general view was that the bill was a thinly-veiled attempt by China to tighten its grip and impose a Hong Kong crackdown by inserting the Chinese legal system into their own Basic Law.
The bill would bring an end to their autonomy, livelihoods, privacy and free speech. They never signed up for that.
Protests Erupted During Most of 2019 All Over Hong Kong
Pro-democracy protests erupted during most of 2019 all over Hong Kong. Several of the most massive demonstrations took place in June as the bill worked its way through the Legislative Council.
Of course, July 1, the anniversary of the 1997 handover drew enormous crowds of protestors storming the Legislative Council. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally withdrew the bill in September.
That didn’t stop mass protests on October 1. That was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the day didn’t go as Chinese officials would have liked.
Epidemic Broke Out in China and Spread Around the World
Of course, that’s when an epidemic broke out in China and throughout the world. However, as the world begins to reopen, Beijing is eyeing Hong Kong once again while plotting revenge for its audacity.
Another new law aimed at a Hong Kong crackdown has arisen, this time from within Communist China itself. It calls for ending what it calls, “secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.”
Readers will recognize these as code words. The unspoken goal is to lock up anyone challenges China’s authority over Hong Kong and trample on the democratic rights promised in the Joint Declaration of 1984.
Trample on the Democratic Rights Promised in 1984
Yesterday, the leaders of Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States stood up against Beijing’s latest Hong Kong crackdown. The allies issued a joint statement expressing their, “deep concern regarding Beijing’s decision to impose a national security law in Hong Kong.”
The foreign ministers collectively disapproved of China’s flouting of Thatcher and Zhao’s commitments. They said that it “lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally-binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
The leaders reminded China that Hong Kong “has flourished as a bastion of freedom.” They said they were making their statement because “the international community has a significant and longstanding stake in Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
Hong Kong “Has Flourished as a Beacon of Freedom”
The declaration appeals to Beijing to work with Hong Kong’s government and people. “Allowing the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the rights and freedoms they were promised can be the only way back from the tensions and unrest that the territory has seen over the last year.”
This joint declaration by world leaders is a bold move. So far, at its annual meeting of the National Peoples Congress, China’s response to global pressure has been defiant.
Politburo member Wang Chen told the media that large-scale Chinese security operations in Hong Kong were vital. He that “anti-China, disrupt Hong Kong forces have been openly promoting Hong Kong independence.”
“Openly Promoting Hong Kong Independence”
Beijing’s foreign affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “no country in the world would tolerate separatist and other activities that undermine national security within its territory.”
There’s a theme running through his long and tangled history. The powers that be have never spared a thought for the will of Hong Kong residents. The prosperous port and its people has been a bargaining chip for 180 years.
Leasing human beings should have gone out with Queen Victoria. It has no place in the 21st century.
Leasing Human Beings Has No Place in the 21st Century
It’s not up to the largesse of the rest of the world to tell Hong Kong what’s best for it. Those choices rest with Hong Kong’s people alone.
Hong Kong’s autonomy will not come from well-meaning paternalism from “great powers.” Our planet needs to discover new and better ways to establish global security and defend human rights.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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Sino-British Joint Declaration 1984
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