Protests in Hong Kong

Protests in Hong Kong Photo by Simon Zhu

We’ve all heard of Hong Kong, a region of China that’s kind of not really a part of China.

In fact, Hong Kong’s full name is Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

What’s a special administrative region, or a SAR? Well, they’re special, meaning there are only two of them, Hong Kong and Macau. SARs are detailed in the Chinese constitution as basically being whatever the situation calls for. They’re an unprecedented bit of governance that was conjured out of necessity.

Now, it’s no secret that I take particular issue with the British Empire. I just finished Season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and I’m not sure if that’s helping or hurting my relationship with it. I feel like this current Queen Elizabeth is probably pretty OK, if not dripping in excess and convention, but even as recently as her current royal administration (?), the British have still made a mess of things on a global scale. For such a small country to have controlled vast portions of the entire world and millions of people at one point, even retaining some of those holdings to this very day…it’s very upsetting.

I often say that I’m the direct result of British imperialism. My ancestors were taken from somewhere in India before it was split into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. There was little to no documentation of where exactly these people came from or who their families were, so I don’t even know where in India my family’s from. In fact, there’s speculation amongst some of my cousins that we’re actually from Afghanistan. Who knows. The point is, the British destroyed our history. Thanks, guys.

My grandparents and parents then grew up in what was then British Guiana, a small country that is today the only English-speaking country in South America. So, we’re Indians in South America speaking English with a Caribbean accent. None of it makes any sense.

Today, first-generation Americans and children of Guyanese parents deal with a very unique identity crisis. We’re Indian, but not that Indian. My parents, for instance, have never attempted to arrange a marriage for me, nor are they disappointed in me for not being a doctor (these are stereotypes but honestly, they’re ones I have to address more often than not). We’re Caribbean, even though the country we’re from is geographically in South America, surrounded by jungle and Venezuelans. My parents were educated in the British system, and we still retain some very British traditions. There are Hindi words and customs that are still prevalent in our culture and our food, but it’s all quite different from its original form. Sometimes it feels as though I have more in common with my white American friends than I do with my Indian and Pakistani friends, but at other times, the opposite seems true. We’re a little bit of everything – a weirdo hullaballoo of East and West and a million other things.

So, the next time you ask me, “Where are you from?” and I’m less than enthusiastic to answer – that’s why.

With all of that, though, I’m an American. In the few centuries we, the Americans, have been around, we’ve managed to rival the British as far as conquest and exploitation. The moment we got some gunpowder in our muskets we started pillaging and stealing lands from natives, starting with the same American soil you’re currently (probably) sitting upon. We may not call ourselves an empire and we may not outwardly claim too many foreign lands for ourselves, but for all of the occupations and “protective” posts we’ve taken up over the years…well, you can see what it really is.

When foreign nations interfere with governments, religions, traditions, lands, and people they don’t understand, let alone appreciate, you get problems – big problems. You get wars that span generations. You get diasporas of people across the globe, all displaced by way of force or necessity. You get people of one group more strongly identifying with another group entirely.

You get protests in Hong Kong.

Why? Let’s take it back to the 1800s.

Enter the Opium Wars. I won’t get into them too deeply here, but they’re a pretty interesting read, if you get a chance to dive into them.

As you can hopefully deduce, the wars (two of them) were fought between the British and the Chinese over an illegal opium trade. The British were illegally trafficking opium into China, getting millions of Chinese citizens addicted to the stuff. When the Chinese caught on, they asked Queen Victoria to stop the trade. When she didn’t, the Chinese tried to stop the – again – illegal opium trade themselves.

Then, the British, in all of their glory and entitlement, got mad that they could no longer illegally traffic their drugs into a foreign country, so they started the First Opium War.

I don’t know if you can tell, but the audacity is actively blowing my mind.

There was another war shortly afterwards which was more of the same, and by the end of it, China had to make all kinds of ridiculous concessions to the British.

Just…why.

One of those concessions was Hong Kong.

By the end of the Opium Wars, Britain had acquired Hong Kong from China, but only for 99 years. Their occupation had a cap on it, which was already a bit unusual. Since the people involved in the deal weren’t going to be around 99 years from then, I guess they weren’t too concerned about what happened at the end of the “lease” agreement.

Fast forward to the 1980s, this issue was taken up by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Chinese government. They needed to negotiate the hand-off of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

However, they ran into some issues. Here’s where that identity bit comes into play.

The people of Hong Kong, after a century under British rule, had grown accustomed to a British way of life, specifically the freedoms they enjoyed in a democratic government. The idea of suddenly being integrated into China’s single-party system and forfeiting things like their freedom of speech and freedom of assembly was hard to accept. Also, the people of Hong Kong didn’t think of themselves as Chinese.

A compromised was reached, one that was pretty unique to the situation. It was called “one country, two systems,” and it stated that for 50 years after 1997, Hong Kong would be able to govern themselves for the most part, maintaining control on the domestic front. However, China would be involved in all matters regarding regional diplomacy and defense. In 2047, Hong Kong is set to fully absorb back into China.

I told you. It’s special.

Then came the protests.

In 1997, Hong Kong began its stint as a nearly autonomous nation. With a thriving economy and some of the most expensive real estate in the world, it was doing just fine. China, for the most part, let them be.

But a few years ago, China started to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong, essentially violating the terms of their agreement.

If you recall, there was a round of protests in Hong Kong back in 2014 that came to be known as the Umbrella Protests. The people of Hong Kong were upset by Chinese interference in their government, specifically in their elections. Around the same time, pro-democracy advocates were being arrested by Chinese officials, or just disappearing. The umbrellas in the protest were intended as symbol of peace. They didn’t have guns or Tiki torches because they weren’t playing an offensive game. The umbrellas were to shield the protestors from the tear gas they were met with.

Without completely delving into the structure and inner-workings of the Hong Kong government and election process, I’ll put it into terms we can all relate to.

As you know, the United States elects its presidents by way of the electoral college. While we still have a popular vote, it doesn’t serve a purpose in the presidential election, but it does serve as a barometer for where the country’s sentiments and ideologies actually lie. Going back as far as the 2000 election, or five presidential elections, the Democratic party has won four out of five popular votes. However, two of those elections went to the Republican candidate because of the electoral vote.

Because of this, the electoral college has become a point of contention for the American people. In many ways, it seems to negate the principles of democracy that we were all taught to love, value, and respect. All votes are not, as it turns out, equal. Since the electoral vote is so easily manipulated by way of strategic campaigning and gerrymandering, it has come to be seen as a symbol that the American voter has less representation than our representative government once promised us.

To sum it all up, in those two instances, the government in power was and is not the one the people had chosen. The majority was and is being ruled by the minority.

A similar situation is occurring in Hong Kong. For several years, the pro-democracy majority has been governed by the pro-China minority.

Now, five years after the Umbrella Protests, the protests have sprung up yet again as China seems keen on strengthening its grasp on Hong Kong.

This time, China introduced an extradition bill that basically states that anybody in Hong Kong who is suspected of a crime can be extradited to either Taiwan or China for trial. The case that sparked this bill was a murder that actually took place in Taiwan, but when drafting a bill that would allow the Hong Kong suspect to be trialed in Taiwan, China went ahead and extended that condition to themselves.

Just in case.

Honestly, that’s not a completely unreasonable thing for China to have done, but considering the context surrounding the act, it didn’t go over well with Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong came out to protest the bill on the grounds that the Chinese government, which is already amplifying its presence about 30 years ahead of schedule, would abuse the law and find any excuse to extradite people from Hong Kong to China…and who knows what would happen to them once they were on the Chinese mainland and essentially stripped of their democratic rights?

Protests have carried on for several weeks now, having started back in June. Since they’ve started, the Chinese government has postponed passing the bill, but Hong Kong says that’s not good enough. They want the bill dead.

It’s worth noting that even though the extradition bill would have to be voted on by Hong Kong’s legislative council, it’s likely the bill would pass since the council is largely comprised of pro-China officials. It’s kind of like when the American people keep overwhelmingly asking for something and the Senate does what they want anyway.

What’s next?

As I mentioned, Hong Kong wants the extradition bill completely off the table. China has already shown signs of giving in as a result of the protests, but I’m not sure what incentive they have to drop it completely. The people will have to fight harder, take to the streets, and disrupt the economy before China is forced to either yield to the wishes of the people or to use force against them – which it’s done in the past.

From the looks of it, even if Hong Kong wins this fight, they’ll be fighting China for the remaining duration of their agreed-upon 50 years of autonomous rule. If China is already establishing a presence in Hong Kong, both physically and ideologically, I can’t see them stopping any time soon.

What will be interesting is to see what happens in 2047, assuming the situation doesn’t implode before then. This 50-year period was intended as an adjustment period for Hong Kong, to help them find their footing as they transition from democracy to communism. However, what actually happened was they were essentially given their freedom, but only for 50 years.

Does anyone really expect them to go from an all but independent nation to a communist province willingly, especially when the people who negotiated these terms aren’t even alive anymore? This is a whole new batch of people we’re dealing with, a new generation. They’ve grown up in a democratic, and now an autonomous nation.

They ain’t going back to China.

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