The recent protests in Honk Hong have been creating turmoil for the past few weeks. While its potential impact on Chinese society is yet to be seen, this movement of passive resistance, also called the “Umbrella revolution”, has caught the attention of the international stage. The government of Honk Kong is, of course, especially concerned with this matter. But what exactly triggered this chain of events, and why Honk Kong in particular, and not any other region of China?
Until the middle of the 19th century, Hong Kong was part of China. However, due to some serious economic and political tension between China and the British Empire, a war between the two empires broke out in 1839. Also called the “First Opium War”, this conflict ended in 1842, and resulted in a British victory. For China, this defeat led to the “Treaty of Nanking”, which almost exclusively gave advantages to Britain. It had a strong, negative impact on China, especially on its foreign trade system. Among those changes, China was coerced into giving one of its regions, Hong Kong, to the British Empire. This lasted until 1941, which marked the beginning of Japan’s involvement in WWII. The Japanese army attacked Hong Kong on 8 Dec. 1941, which was equivalent to declaring war against the British Empire, since Hong Kong was still under the rule of Britain.
The battle lasted until the 25 December, and was won by Japan. Then began a period of occupation for Hong Kong that will last until 1945, crippling Hong Kong’s economy. At the end of WWII, Hong Kong was finally freed by Chinese and British troops after being left in a weakened state.
Hong Kong then came back under Britain’s jurisdiction, despite the fact that most colonial empires were beginning to fall apart after the war. Still, the then Governor of Hong Kong, a British politician named Mark Young, tried to implement new democracy-oriented reforms, such as the “Young Plan”, so that the people of Hong Kong could elect, at least to some levels, their own representatives. Those reforms were popular in Hong Kong, and the prospect of a more democratic government began to appeal to people throughout China, leading to Chinese immigrants coming from China, especially from Shanghai, to Hong Kong. This was a turning point in the development of the region, as it needed to get back on its feet after all the damage done by the occupation.
Hong Kong then began to progressively improve its economy and industry, leading to a period of fast development that will last throughout the second half of the 20th century. It will also be a period of social progress, with more reforms aimed towards equal rights between men and women.
By the end of the 70s, Hong Kong was already a force to be reckoned with in the Asia-Pacific region. However, as time went by, Hong Kong’s government began to grow more and more distant from the United Kingdom, mainly because of economic and administrative issues. China, now called the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC), was also more and more interested in getting back Hong Kong into the fold, mainly because the reasons that led this region to be evicted from China were unfair to begin with. This led to new diplomatic discussions between Hong Kong, the PRC and Britain, and eventually resulted in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984: the region of Hong Kong was to be reintegrated in China by 1997, so that Hong Kong could solve its territorial issues, but its status would be special, since Honk Kong’s capitalist development and social structure contrasted too much with the CPR’s socialist system.
The idea was that Hong Kong would indeed be back under the sovereignty of China, making Hong Kong officially part of the Chinese territory again, and would be regarded as such on the international stage. The foreign and defense policies of the Chinese government would also affect the whole region. However, Hong Kong was free to keep its current capitalist system and its current laws, rights, freedoms, currency… This system was called “one country, two systems”, and was made to allow Hong Kong to be a singularity in China. Still, this system wasn’t popular in the whole region, and many people left Hong Kong before 1997 in order to live in the United Kingdom.
After the declaration became effective in 1997, one of the most significant changes was the modification concerning the head of the Government of Honk Kong. Under British sovereignty, it was a “Governor” appointed by the United Kingdom. It is now a “Chief executive”, elected by an “Election Committee”. This committee was first composed of 800 people, but it went up to 1200 people in 2012. The composition of the committee is very specific : the members are divided in a certain number of subsectors (38 currently), such as the Social Welfare subsector, Tourism, Industry (there’re two of them actually), but also Finance, Education, Religion, Medicine, and eventually the Engineering subsector… For each subsector, there’s a certain number of committee members. This number is decided by the PCR. For instance, there are 30 members in the Engineering subsector, 18 for Tourism, and 60 for Social Welfare… Those members are influential people in Hong Kong who are specialized in their respective subsector. Thus, in the Engineering subsector, engineers (who must be members of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers) can be found. After the Election Committee is fully formed, it’s up to it to elect the Chief executive through an election. The formation of this committee is largely controlled and supervised by the government of the PRC, and not really by Hong Kong. The PRC also approves the Chief Executive, so it’s really Beijing who calls the shot, not the people of Hong Kong.
The problem is, there’s been an increasing number of citizens in Hong Kong wanting fully democratic elections : basically, more and more people would rather directly vote for the Chief Executive they want, than lett the Election Committee, that is strongly influenced by the PRC, decide for them.
The CPR, in reaction to this growing discontentment, announced in 2007 that the citizens of Hong Kong would be able to directly elect their Chief Executive by the elections of 2017. However, in august of this year, they went back on their word, and instead proposed an alternative system between the old one and the one they promised in 2007: there would still be an Election Committee, but instead of electing directly one candidate, the committee would elect 2 or 3 candidate, and the citizen of Hong Kong would finally get to choose between those few candidates through their votes.
This abrupt change of heart from the CPR created an uproar amongst those in favor of democratic elections and triggered the recent protests that began in September. The protesters come from different movements, such as “Scholarism”, “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” or the “Hong Kong Federation of Students”.
So far, they haven’t been able to get any results from the government. But no matter what will be the outcome of these events, one thing is certain : there are people who are ready to raise their voices in Hong Kong. Whether this will really influence Hong Kong, and maybe even spread throughout China, only the future will tell.