You may have heard or seen images of massive popular protests in Hong-Kong. For the past few years, the situation has been really tense in this area, especially regarding its relations with China. Alma Mater offers you a quick summary of Hong-Kong’s history and latest news to better understand the ongoing issues of the island.
A quick historical recap
As you may know, Hong-Kong is a former British colony. After the Opium War (1839-1842), China ceded this territory to the United-Kingdom through the Treaty of Nanking. The island was under British governance for over 150 years and became an international harbor, especially as from the 1950s. However, Hong-Kong was given back to China on July 1st, 1997. With the transfer, Hong-Kong earned the title of “Chinese special administrative region”. This qualification meant that the island was considered an autonomous region, unlike the rest of China.
Hong-Kong was, and is still, governed under the principle of “one country, two systems”. It has its proper Constitution called the Basic Law in which this status is enshrined. This legislative text also indicates that Hong-Kong should have a “high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs ». For all of Hong-Kong’s inhabitants, the Basic Law guarantees freedom of assembly and speech, freedom of press, protection of democratic rights and an independent judiciary. The deal between China and Britain should guarantee the autonomy of the region for 50 years, until 2047. However, China does not seem willing to wait until then and has already strengthened its power on Hong-Kong over the past few years.
From pro-democratic protests to the National Security Law
From 1997, pacific demonstrations were organized each 1st of July, the day of the Retrocession, to defend democracy and oppose China’s interference. Some of the protests became particularly significant such as “the Umbrella revolution” that took place in 2014. This series of protests was held by hong-kongers to ask for the right to elect their own leader.
More recently, in June 2019, Hong-Kong experienced a wave of massive popular demonstrations that became worldwide. Hong-kongers were protesting against the government’s plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. Even though the law project was abandoned, pro-democratic manifestations went on. Hong-Kong’s people demanded full democracy and an independent inquiry into police actions (that had been very violent the past months). These protests were without precedent by their extent.
Facing this massive anti-China movement, the Chinese government submitted a new project of law, the National Security Law, in May 2020. The Basic Law mentioned that Hong-Kong should have its own security law but it never really happened since it was known to be a very unpopular legislation. However, timing was suitable for Chinese authorities since the pandemic had completely stopped the wave of street protests. Therefore, the National Security Law was passed by force on 30 June, even though it was very controversial. According to the Chinese government, this legislation had become necessary to return to stability. But for many critics, the National Security Law marked “the end of Hong-Kong”.
Indeed, the National Security Law could represent a real danger for Hong-Kong’s independence as it prohibits and criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreing countries. In short, this law punishes any form of contestation to the Chinese regime. Therefore, it has been seen as a massive threat to freedom of speech and more widely to democracy. Since then, different measures have been added to this legislation that strengthen the power of China over Hong-Kong.
A critical situation for media
The National Security Law has had alarming consequences, especially in the field of media. In the past, Hong-Kong was famous for its freewheeling media industry. But this law marked the beginning of a hardening regarding free speech and democratic media.
According to Reporters Without Borders, since June 2020, more than twenty journalists and press freedom campaigners have been arrested. Most of them have been charged for publishing seditious content. Along the same lines, Hong-Kong’s media environment is being narrowed. A case in point is the shutting down of Apple Daily in 2021. This newspaper was known to be the most important democratic paper in the territory. More recently, it is The Stand News (also pro-democracy) that has been forced to shut its doors. Its reporters have been arrested by Chinese authorities, just like what happened for Apple Daily.
In addition to the shutting-down of local newspapers, international news outlets are now also moving out of Hong-Kong. The region is no longer considered safe for the practice of journalism and free speech.