One Country, One System? The Politics of the Hong Kong Protests

“Let’s start 2020 with a new resolution, to restore order and harmony in society. So we can begin again, together.” These are the words of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, spoken in an address on New Year’s Eve. Hong Kong has been enthralled in protests since June 2019, with recent clashes between protestors and police becoming more and more violent. 

In June, protestors demanded the revocation of an extradition bill that would allow prisoners to be deported to mainland China; possibly creating an opportunity for people to be prosecuted over political alignment and allowing Beijing to further its control over HK. The mission of protestors evolved to five demands: withdraw the extradition bill in its entirety, investigate police brutality, withdraw the protests’ classification as “riots”, release protestors who were arrested, and enact universal suffrage. The first demand has already been met with the withdrawal of the extradition bill, and the following three speaking to retaliation by HK’s leadership and police force. The final demand for universal suffrage reflects the protestors pro-democracy stance, as HK’s semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” political structure is not a full democracy. 

“One Country, Two Systems” was instated in 1997 with a 50-year guarantee, as a part of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The system dictated that, while the territory was technically returning to China as part of one country, Hong Kong would have a high level of autonomy under the Basic Law, the territory’s “de-facto” constitution. 

As for the general public, Hong Kongers seem to support the continuation of the dichotomous system; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, “…just 11 percent of people in 2017 supported or strongly supported the idea of an independent Hong Kong after 2047.” In June 2019, however, amidst the beginning of the extradition bill protests, 72 percent of Hong Kongers indicated dissatisfaction with the government of HK and the current political environment.

Key to the build up of tension is the political state of Hong Kong. The lack of true universal suffrage means that the leaders of HK are not decided via public election, but rather by a 1,200 person election committee composed of carefully-screened members from different professions, religious sectors, and political groups. Jessie Yeung of CNN described the election committee as “…dominated by pro-establishment, pro-Beijing voters”. As such, there is a large divide in the political alignment of residents, with pan-democrats and pro-establishment factions. The former seeks mutually beneficial reform moving towards increased democracy, and the latter, which often holds the majority of influence, are supporters of Beijing. Supporting a more democratic system are student activists who became involved in the political scene after the 2014 protests, who have also created political groups such as Youngspiration, Hong Kong Indigenous, and Demosisto. 

Additionally, all reform of the political system must be approved by the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Limitations on the election system were evident in 2017’s chief executive race with potential candidates being initially assessed by Beijing’s “nominating committee”. Hong Kong’s Basic Law states in Article 45 Section 1 of Chapter 4 that “[t]he ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage.” Ambiguity within this statement by not specifying a deadline for a popular vote election does not aid in releasing tensions. 

Increasing mainland influence of HK media has also caused residents concern. Sino United Publishing, a supposedly Chinese government owned company, for example, holds “as much as 70 percent of the local market”, coinciding with cryptic disappearances of media executives and others. Alleged police brutality during protests have also deepened strain in Hong Kong with accusations of unprovoked beatings, as well as extreme use of tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. 

A key determiner of the outcome of the situation in HK is the response of both HK’s government and the PRC. Carrie Lam noted that the situation was  “caused by the deficiencies of the (Hong Kong) government”, but police still classify and condemn the protests as riots. Lam warned, “[i]f there is any wishful thinking that by escalating violence the [Hong Kong] government will yield to pressure to satisfy protesters’ so-called demands, I’m making this clear that will not happen.” Her sentiment was reinforced by remarks given by China’s president Xi Jinping, who said that Beijing has an “unwavering determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”

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