‘I am Not Chinese’: Examining Hong Kong’s Democratic Protests

Will an increasingly assertive China permit Hong Kong’s demand for democracy?

On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong returned to China under the “one country, two systems” formula that allows Chinese territories to operate with an independent executive, legislative and judicial power. This year, on 1 July,  protestors broke into Hong Kong’s legislative council (LegCo) to demonstrate against a bill that allows people to be extradited to the mainland and be tried under Chinese law. 

Despite Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrawing the bill and declaring it “dead,” protests have continued unabated, and evolved into demands for reduced Chinese interference, and for a transition to a full democracy. On 7 July, over 2,00,000 protestors gathered at the West Kowloon station—part of which operates under mainland China law—to explain to mainland tourists what the protest is about. Chinese–controlled media portrays the protest as a plot to destabilise the country, rather than as a spontaneous, popular movement.

This reading list looks at Hong Kong’s reintegration with China, its current power structures, and the potential for democratic reform.

1) How Does a Territory ‘Return to the Motherland?’

To ensure Hong Kong’s return to China after British occupation ended in 1997, then Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping pronounced the “one country, two systems” formula which would allow territories to maintain their internal political and financial structures under the Chinese flag. Neville Maxwell looks at the 1984 Sino–British treaty for the transfer of Hong Kong to the Chinese, which guaranteed Hong Kong a “high degree” of autonomy.

Hong Kong as a part of China would, under the terms of the treaty, continue to be what it had been in its time as a British colony and remained in 1984 – governed as an autocracy. To leave Hong Kong in such a condition would have been seen in Britain as a betrayal of its people, and accordingly the government bent itself to persuading Beijing to allow, in effect, the unpicking and embroidering of the joint declaration so as to provide, over the 13 years prior to the reversion, for the introduction of a significant degree of democracy. Against all the odds, because the Chinese see western parliamentary democracy as a threatening solvent to China’s unity and stability, the British achieved remarkable success …  The British had won Beijing’s agreement to the progressive introduction of democratic electoral procedures, and commitment to extend that process after 1997 with the “ultimate aim” that Hong Kong should enjoy full local democracy.  

2) How Is Hong Kong Governed?

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, is eyed suspiciously by many Hongkongese for her pro–China stance. The process of selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive is only nominally democratic. Alan Tse and Sealing Cheng write that despite the ultimate aim of universal suffrage under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, it is yet to be achieved. At best, the authors write that the Hong Kong system can be considered quasi–democratic. 

The chief executive is selected by a 1,200-member nomination committee, which is largely controlled by pro-Beijing and pro-business powers. While the few appointed LegCo seats have been eliminated, the functional constituency system remains, giving disproportionate influence to pro-business parties. In 2016, only 40 out of the 70 seats in LegCo resulted from direct election. The remaining 30 seats were elected by special interest groups representing a range of sectors. 

Further, Tse and Cheng write that Hong Kong’s capitalist, free market system has allowed business tycoons to influence elections, and also under–represents the popular, democratic vote. In 2016, 30 out of 70 seats in the LegCo were elected by special interest groups from different sectors.

The finance sector is a perfect example to illustrate the unfairness of the system. In 2016, its constituency consists of 125 banks, which cast vote as corporations and not as individuals … Election in the “financial services,” “commercial,” and “industrial” sectors works in similar ways. In the recent election, candidates in 12 of the sectors landed a seat on the LegCo without competition. The results of such a skewed system are that the pro-democratic camp generally receives about 60% of the popular votes but only gets about 40% of the seats in LegCo.  

3) What Triggered Protests for Democracy?
Despite the promise of a full democracy, in 2014, the Chinese government stated that they had “complete jurisdiction” over the territory, and later proposed reforms for universal suffrage that would allow only candidates acceptable to Beijing to run for the post of chief executive. Thomas Abraham assesses the public discontent towards this declaration, and attributes it as one of the main stimuli for 2014’s pro–democracy Umbrella Movement.

The real engine behind the protests are two student groups, Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, who have brought high school and university students onto the streets … The students’ message is clear though: they do not want Hong Kong to become like the rest of China, and these recent protests are their efforts to ensure that the city remains separate with its own distinct political system that will be insulated as much as possible from the influence of the central government. They contrast Hong Kong’s liberal, pluralist society with its freedom of speech and thought, and its lack of corruption with what they see across the border, and do not want this to be their city’s future.  

4) Who Is a ‘Hongkonger?’
“Localism” has been gaining in Hong Kong since the mid 2000s. Localists began by protesting against destruction caused by a corporate–government alliance, and has since changed into a political movement. Alan Tse and Sealing Cheng write that right-wing localists have now been mainstreamed; they fan anti–Chinese sentiment, and promote an “us vs them” binary between mainland Chinese and Hongkongers. 

These localists gained prominence and support by capitalising on the negative impacts of mainland Chinese on Hong Kong. According to them, mainland Chinese tourists have overcrowded Hong Kong’s public space, mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong have strained local medical and education resources, and parallel traders shuttling across the border have deprived Hong Kong people of their access to basic necessities like baby formula. In this light, China is seen as the new coloniser. While this strand of localism hardly gained any traction before the Umbrella Movement in 2014, it eventually became the default representation of what “localism” means.

Tse and Cheng argue that the younger generation who have been born and raised in Hong Kong no longer see themselves as migrants from mainland China. Hong Kong nationalism, they write, is now a mainstream idea. 

The most long-lasting consequence of the rise of localism is arguably the redefinition of the Hong Kong cultural identity that impacts a whole generation. For a long time, Hongkongers generally identified themselves as being culturally and ethnically Chinese, even if they dislike the Chinese regime …  The rise of Hong Kong nationalism that regards China as an invader, a new coloniser, or, at best, a “cultural other” comes with an emotional detachment, complete rejection, or even hatred towards China. This form of Hong Kong nationalism has won the hearts and minds of many of the younger generation. 

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