The proposed marriage of Hong Kong’s capitalist, democratic system with authoritarian Chinese rule has been marred by a stream of mass protests and civil unrest. Modern Hong Kong, the 6th largest financial centre in the world, home of 7.5 million people is fashioned from political, economic, and social influences contrary to the paradigms of mainland China. Until 1997, Hong Kong flourished separately from China, developing under British rule, and associated legal, political, and economically capitalist systems. However, 23 years after the inception of the 50-year transition period to Chinese rule, Hong Kongers fear for the democratic freedoms they once enjoyed. Trust in authority, financial stability, and protection of liberties are under threat in the territory which flourished from its embodiment of these standards.
The 2019 protests predominantly responded to a proposed bill which, if passed, would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Pro-democracy protesters fear the move not only undermines Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” policy founded in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, but that it could also facilitate imprisoning opponents of the Chinese regime. Further concerns cite the possibility that the bill can be used to subject prisoners to unfair trials, a potential political weapon. Three months following the bill’s proposal in June 2019, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, withdrew the bill amid in months of public outcry. Despite the withdrawal, the sentiment of the protestors remained, and a long-term pro-democracy movement has emerged. Even with the bill no longer on the table, the events preceding the withdrawal have triggered further discontent, namely, calls of police brutality. The movement mobilised against the bill has founded a wider campaign, resolved to fight for the continuation of Hong Kong autonomy.
Aggressive responses to peaceful protests is a growing source of concern for Hong Kongers, exacerbated by the authorities’ disinclination towards acknowledging it, or even facilitating discussion on police brutality. Hong Kong authorities permitted the usage of riot officers, tear gas, mass arrests, and other non-peaceful deterrence tactics. A lack of accountability makes systematic change a distant prospect. No officers have been arrested in the wake of the protests, even after one officer used rubber bullets against a crowd. The Hong Kong police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council, does not meet international accountability standards and is headed by a chair picked by the Hong Kong chief executive, which is vetted by Beijing. Of 8000 complaints filed against officers in 2019, 242 were referred, and only two officers were reprimanded. Based on this precedence, the political will for police accountability is minimal. Protesters calling for an independent investigation into police brutality are backed by support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights who has urged “effective, prompt, independent and impartial investigation.” The ability of the police to function depends, in part, on public trust in government and authorities. As confidence in these authorities fades, institutions’ ability to de-escalate tension also fades, a situation not aided by Hong Kong police’s excessive uses of force. Furthermore, the poor social cohesion exemplified in the authorities-citizens relationship has bled into Hong Kong’s economic health.
Over time, Hong Kong has built a reputation as one of the leading financial centres in Asia. English’s status as an official language, developed infrastructure, along with British-inspired legal and political frameworks morphed the former colony into a lucrative stage for companies across the globe. However, the tightening grip of China, and escalating political instability over the last decade prompted analysts to question the future of Hong Kong’s financial sector. Neighbours like Singapore slowly gained investment which may otherwise have flown to Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s diminishing autonomy and political stability will force its government to address its economic weaknesses by devising additional incentives for investment. However, the self-fulfilling nature of Hong Kong’s uncertain future propagates investment stagnation, or even decline and could hamper efforts to maintain the city’s status as an international financial hub. This, along with the wider economic impacts of social unrest is a cloud on the quality of life and job security of Hong Kong’s residents, some of whom have heritage in Chinese migrants fleeing the communist revolution.
The protestor’s efforts to preserve their democratic freedoms have caught the attention of the world, portraying the acute discomfort of finding your entire way of life in jeopardy. Hong Kong leaders have so far been loath to placate their citizens, who appear predominantly united in their determination to fight, at all costs, for their ultimate liberty. Calls for police accountability, and universal suffrage whereby citizens could directly elect their leaders, have been fruitless. It remains to be seen if the economic challenges presented by the discontent will influence leaders, and how both citizens and leaders will respond to the changing nature of life in Hong Kong. In any case, neither side looks likely to change their stance soon, and discontent appears to be the next chapter in Hong Kong’s history.