Police fire tear gas at demonstrators during a protest near central government offices in Hong Kong, China, on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. Pro-democracy protesters kick-started their campaign to occupy central Hong Kong after police clashed with students, demanding that China withdraws proposals to control the citys elections. (Bloomberg)

Hong Kong is an island of free speech and civil liberties in an authoritarian sea. It is not, however, a democracy. Citizens have never had the power to choose their top leader, neither as part of China since 1997 nor as an outpost of the British Empire for 156 years before that. In 2014, the prospect of the first direct election of Hong Kong’s leader, or “chief executive,” increased the tension between a yearning for autonomy and China’s demand for loyalty, triggering 79 days of street protests. That strain is ever-present in Hong Kong politics, while the kind of democracy that protesters demanded remains as elusive as ever. 

The Situation

Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in June to oppose a bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China, the biggest challenge to the China-backed local government since 2014. Late-night clashes between protesters and police resulted in some injuries, but Hong Kong’s administration pledged to press ahead with the legislation. Two months earlier, eight democracy activists were sentenced to as much as 16 months in prison on charges stemming from 2014, a sign of the government’s determination to punish the organizers. Those protests were sparked by Beijing’s insistence on vetting candidates for the chief executive post, which demonstrators saw as backtracking from a pledge to move toward universal suffrage, or letting everyone vote. Then, tens of thousands of outraged students and their supporters blocked major arteries under the banner “Occupy Central.” It became known as the “Umbrella Movement” after police fired tear gas at demonstrators, who defended themselves with umbrellas. The protest eventually fizzled. The 2017 election was decided by a 1,163-member committee dominated by China loyalists, which chose then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s deputy Carrie Lam to succeed him. After elections to the city legislature in 2016 generated a surge in support for pro-democracy candidates, six of the winners were subsequently disqualified, weakening the opposition’s ability to block legislation. Other pro-democracy activists including Agnes Chow, a prominent student leader in 2014, have been banned from running for legislative office. In a rare move, the Hong Kong Immigration Department in 2018  refused to renew a U.K. journalist’s work visa after he hosted a talk by pro-independence activist Andy Chan at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The government also  banned Chan’s party after that speech. 

The Background

The 1984 Sino-British power transfer agreement specified that China would give Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under a principle the Chinese call “one country, two systems.” Any talk of independence was on the  fringes: More than 90 percent of the city’s nearly 7.5 million residents are ethnic Chinese with family ties to the mainland, which provides most of Hong Kong’s water and food as well as about half its trade. The city’s top official was to be chosen by an intricate nominating process that, in the view of democracy advocates, puts Beijing in control. It hasn’t worked out well: The chief executives have lacked popular support, with the first one, Tung Chee-hwa, departing after protests and his successor, Donald Tsang, amid a financial scandal that led to a conviction.  

The Argument

Though the public tired of the 2014 occupation, the students claim that they emboldened citizens to demand democracy and that there is still support for universal suffrage that meets what they call “international standards.” The scale of the 2019 protest against the extradition law, which has been criticized by the U.S. and other western governments, illustrated frustration with what’s viewed as the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Pro-Beijing groups argue that China never promised more than the limited form of universal suffrage it offered, and that the 2014 occupation itself damaged Hong Kong’s rule of law and standing in the international financial community. China’s wariness of Hong Kong’s democracy movement is consistent with its wider push to assert regional control and to redress the humiliation it says it suffered after ceding the city to Britain upon losing the first Opium War in 1841. The mainland’s top legal affairs official in Hong Kong has warned that the government would consider scrapping “one country, two systems” if the concept became a threat to China. Chief Executive Lam said in April that her administration would prioritize economic development rather than “stir up more troubles” by pressing the “divisive” issue of universal suffrage. She has also defended the proposed extradition law as necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals.

(Hong Kong Craves Autonomy as China Demands Loyalty: QuickTake)

To contact the authors of this QuickTake: David Tweed in Hong Kong at dtweed@bloomberg.netNatalie Lung in Hong Kong at flung6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net, Paul Geitner

First published April 26, 2015

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