Have you ever wondered what history, culture, and government have in common with each other? The answer is these are all factors that form and represent the grounds for freedom.
In this article, I want to take you on a journey across the Pacific, along the silk belt road, to a densely packed region on the southeastern tip of China. The city here is alive, but the people feel trapped. This city is Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is small in landmass, but by no means is it small in population or development. It has now become a melting pot of cultures and an internationally recognized business capital. With over 7.5 million residents of various nationalities in a 1,104-square-kilometre area, the city’s intricate history is a wonder to many people.
All good things seem to end however, and it seems like Hong Kong is suffering this fate. To understand the current developments in Hong Kong, we must go back in time.
British Rule and Influence
Hong Kong was colonized by Great Britain from 1841 to 1997. Aside from a brief period where it was under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Britain ruled over Hong Kong during the First Opium War, the Second Opium War, and the First World War. Britain’s efforts to occupy the three large islands that Hong Kong comprised of lasted half a decade.
Finally, in 1898, Britain signed a 99-year lease with the People’s Republic of China so that they could continue their rule in peace.
Demographics, Economy, and Expansion: the 1950s and after
During this period, Britain regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from Japanese occupation as the Second World War came to an end. Further west, the Chinese Civil War was occurring in Mainland China, which promoted a huge surge of Chinese refugees and businesses to escape to Hong Kong for a better life. By the mid-1950s, Hong Kong’s population had risen to a staggering 2.2 million, one of the densest populations in the world at that time. The stability and security of the British law and government also enabled Hong Kong to flourish as a center for international trade, allowing it to become a massive gateway for shipping and to grow within the trading business as an entrepot.
While political chaos continued to plague Mainland China, the standard of living was growing steadily in Hong Kong. A strong work ethic bloomed throughout the city as more people joined the workforce. Companies also began to diversify their business models, and Hong Kong soon became a city that contributed to manufacturing and producing products to other countries alongside its shipping exports and imports. As a result, Hong Kong continued to expand in population and GDP, becoming Asia’s Fourth Tiger along with Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.
By the 1980s, many ethnic Chinese people had become major business figures in Hong Kong. Amongst these billionaires was Sir Li Ka-Shing, who had become one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest people.
Handing over Hong Kong: the Sino-British Joint
Britain and China reopened talks of handing over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China as the 99-year lease was coming close to an end. On December 19, 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed between the two countries, and the handover occurred on July 1, 1997.
The joint declaration highlighted two policy agreements, stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law:
- “50 years of no change,” which refers to the continuation of Hong Kong’s successful capitalist system and its way of life for another 50 years, until 2047.
- Have Hong Kong become a Special Administrative Region so that the rule of law—which guaranteed that everybody, regardless of race, rank, politics, or religion, equally and fairly subjected to the laws of the land and the right to freedom of expression—could continue to be practiced and represented. China would agree to honour this separation. The term “one country two systems” is frequently used to describe this agreement.
This was all possible because as a crown colony, Hong Kong’s administration began to formulate and model after British standards. At the time, this was the Westminster system1, which consisted of an executive, legislative, and judicial branch of government. Although it was based on English law, it was organized in a way that allowed Chinese customary law to take a secondary role in civil cases involving Chinese residents.
The Supreme Court of Hong Kong was the highest and ruled on all civil and criminal cases in the colony, and after the handover, it became the High Court of Hong Kong. The High Court has operated with the rule of law since the handover in 1997, and it was only in 2020 when this all changed.
21st Century and The Capitalist System
The evolution of Hong Kong is powerful, as it went from being a fishing village to one of the most internationally recognized and successful cities we know today. However, in 2047 when the 50 years is reached, no one knows what will happen or what stance China will take towards the Special Administrative Region. People are getting nervous as China continuously oversteps their agreement. The younger generations who have grown up in the 21st century are especially concerned in regards to their freedom and future, and China’s treatment of free expression and accessibility to free information has only increased their doubt.
Many youngsters continue to ask themselves and their leaders what this means for Hong Kong’s state of democracy. China has a totalitarian rule of law, and the state of governing is far different from the system adopted in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong have never been a censored population; they have grown up in a society where rights, law and order, fairness, and freedom are openly protected and fought for. They are upset with how easygoing the current leaders of Hong Kong are when it comes to China meddling with their laws. The confusion, combined with growing distrust in their leaders, has led to escalated movements that have reached global news in the past two years.
The fight for freedom in Hong Kong accelerated through protesting, and many movements were led by young adults and students. In June 2019, almost 2 million people2 had peacefully protested their disagreement with the extradition bill proposed to be enforced in Hong Kong.
As the struggle between protesters and law enforcers grew, peaceful protesters became violent, as did the police officers. The people of Hong Kong are aware of Communist China’s view on protesting, and with the Tiananmen Massacre tragedy still burning at the back of their minds3, distrust has only grown.
Why Should You Care?
On a global scale, understanding the histories of our neighbours allows us to be more connected. In addition to China, there are still a handful of other countries across the globe that have not yet arrived at a democratic state of rule, and we can begin helping by making an effort to learn and read about these countries. The people in these countries are suffering at the hands of their governments. Canada is a beautiful country where its residents are very fortunate to have a government that protects the freedom of speech and the rule of law. It should be a human right, but it is not. The only way we can start the conversation and work towards change is by being educated, humble, and open-minded. Learning history is the first step.
On a local scale, we can bring awareness to situations like Hong Kong within our communities by learning more about it and encouraging discussion. Many people in Hong Kong are still searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. If you meet someone from Hong Kong, try to understand them before placing judgment.
Hopefully, this article has been eye-opening. Keep these perspectives in mind, and remember to stay kind and be curious.