- BBC News World
This July 1 marked 25 years since the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China.
And on this anniversary, Chinese President Xi Jinping insists that Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model has worked to protect the city and must endure for the long term.
The Chinese leader defended this political system in Hong Kong, despite recent international criticism for enacting certain laws in this territory that undermine freedom of expression and dissent.
However, despite a quarter of a century since it was returned by the United Kingdom, Hong Kong is not all about celebrations.
A large part of the inhabitants of this Special Administrative Region of the RPeople’s Republic of Chinathey have grown up under a political and economic system very different from that of their compatriots on the continent.
That is why many feel Hong Kong and do not have the best impression of China.
As usual, the anniversary of the handover revives concerns about the future of the concessions negotiated with the British to guarantee the return of the territory that these snatched by force more than 150 years ago.
Under “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is supposed to be governed in a way that gives it a high degree of autonomy and other rights not found in mainland China.
But this is a status that more and more critics are questioning, especially since the imposition in 2020 of the National Security Law, which for many has meant “the end of Hong Kong”.
spoils of war
Indeed, the British annexation of Hong Kong Island took place at the end of the First Opium War, in 1842, and is one of the earliest examples of what later became known as “Gunboat Diplomacy”.
At the time, the UK was importing almost all of its tea from China, but was unable to get the people of the Asian country interested in any of the British exports.
Until the British East India Company found a product with which to balance the uneven balance of trade: opium.
The drug was quickly banned by Chinese authorities, so the British turned to smugglers.
And when the Daoguang Emperor complained that this illegal trade was causing millions of addictstheir protests were simply ignored.
In 1839, however, the Chinese authorities confiscated some 20,000 chests of opium.
And London responded by sending a small army that in a few years completely defeated the Chinese forces and forced Beijing to sign a humiliating peace.
Among the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Nanjing They included the payment of 21 million silver dollars in reparations and the opening of several of the country’s ports to all merchant ships.
And above all, the cession in perpetuity of Hong Kong Islandto which the British would later add the neighboring Kowloon Peninsula in 1860.
This new concession was also wrested by force, at the end of the Second Opium War, with which the United Kingdom also forced China to allow the drug trade.
And the current territory of Hong Kong was formed in 1898, when China acceded to the free rent of the so-called New Territories -and 235 surrounding islands- for a period of 99 years, expiring in 1997.
“One country, two systems”
According to historian Diana Preston, the British delegate who negotiated the last deal, Claude McDonald, chose a period of 99 years because he thought it was “almost the same as forever”.
But the increasing importance of the New Territories – which make up 86% of Hong Kong’s territory and are home to more than half of the population – ended up returning colony division impracticable.
And with China becoming increasingly powerful and determined to reverse treaties it deemed unfair, talk of a possible lease renewal turned into negotiations over the return of all of Hong Kong.
By 1982, when negotiations began, the territory had nevertheless become one of the main financial and commercial centers of the world.
And its political system could not be more different than the communist model of the People’s Republic of China, where a one-party system has prevailed since 1949.
In recognition of these differences, China agreed to govern Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” principle, pledging that the territory would enjoy a “high level of autonomy, except in defense and foreign relations” for the next 50 years.
Thus, in practice, this Special Administrative Region has its own legal system, multiple political parties, and rights that include freedom of expression and assembly.
And the mini-constitution that enshrines these rights, known as the Basic Law, clearly establishes that “the ultimate goal” is that the leader of the territory be elected “by universal suffrage” and “according to democratic procedures”.
However, China has come under fire in recent years for increasing its control over Hong Kong and enacting laws and reforms that stifle free speech and dissent.
A matter of democracy
The right to directly elect the chief executive -the position that with the devolution came to replace the governor who was previously appointed by London- It has been the object of years of struggle in the old colony.
He is elected by a committee of 1,500 members, most of whom are considered supporters of Beijing.
In 2021, in a sign of China’s growing influence, Beijing passed a resolution that fundamentally changed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo).
Under the new “patriots” law, all LegCo candidates must be vetted by a separate selection committee, making it easier for anyone deemed critical of Beijing to veto.
It also drastically reduced the proportion of legislators who can be directly elected by the people, from 50% to 22%.
As of 2022, almost all LegCo members are Beijing supporters.
Elections for the city’s chief executive also saw John Lee, a staunch supporter of Beijing and the only candidate in the race, appointed to the job.
When in 2014 the Chinese government said it was going to allow the direct choice of jef andexecutive, but only from a list of candidates duly pre-approved by Beijing, Hong Kong experienced massive protests.
Many Hong Kong residents have watched with concern as China is increasingly intervening in other aspects of Hong Kong politics, often against its more liberal tradition.
Although there are also those who want the Communist Party of China to have greater influence in the affairs of the Special Administrative Region.
In 2020, China introduced the controversial National Security Law for Hong Kong, which in practice made it easier to persecute dissidents and protesters and curtailed the city’s autonomy. So much so that many critics called it “the end of Hong Kong.”
Hundreds of protesters, activists and former opposition lawmakers have been arrested since the law went into effect.
The divisions between pro-Beijing citizens and those calling for more autonomy become particularly apparent during the anniversary of the devolution, especially as 2047 approaches.
As of that date, China will no longer be obliged to maintain the autonomy agreed with the United Kingdom for the transfer.
Some believe that Hong Kong should seek independence, but China is not willing to consider that option.
Which means that the possibilities range from an extension of special status to complete loss of autonomy.
LMost observers predict a tough political battle for the future of Hong Kong..
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