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The History of Hong Kong-China Relations and Conflict

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

With protests emerging in the territory of Hong Kong, more and more activist groups are speaking up and fighting for justice for the islands. However, in order to understand the reason behind the conflicts, we must go back to the mid-1800s to see the birth of Hong Kong.

Modern Hong Kong is Born

The Opium Wars were a series of wars fought between the Western World and mainland China between 1839 and 1860. In 1842, part of Hong Kong, which was controlled by the Qing Dynasty, was given up to the British. Over the next few decades, a lease was created and signed, giving the entire region to the British empire for 99 years, beginning in 1841.

Fast forward to the early 1980s, as the lease was beginning to expire the status of Hong Kong had to be reconsidered. The Communist Party of China claimed that the islands should be returned so, in 1984, both parties decided to sign an agreement which allowed Hong Kong to return to mainland China in 1997.

They decided upon adopting a ruling concept of “One Country, Two Systems” which stated that while Hong Kong would be a part of China, its ruling system would be different. While the city would be a part of China, it would have its own currency, language, and legal system. Essentially, the islands would have their own unique identity, as well as a degree of political autonomy.

This was a drastic difference in contrast with China’s strict censorship and ruling. The heavy media control has been around for many years, with the government monitoring firewalls, websites (including news sites and blogs), and activists. There have been multiple reports of President Xi Jinping, the current ruler of China, jailing bloggers, human rights activists, and those speaking up against the Chinese government.

Tensions Increase in Recent Years

Over the past few years, civil rights groups and others have been concerned that China may be trying to take over Hong Kong and suppress communications to and from the islands. In 2015, five booksellers from Causeway Bay Bookstores disappeared in the dead of night.

The sudden vanishing of these small booksellers sparked citywide outrage and China was immediately suspected. In early January 2016, British foreign secretary Philip Hammond said the incident was “a serious breach of the Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of one country, two systems.” A month after Hammond released his statement, Chinese authorities confirmed that all five booksellers had been taken into custody by the Chinese police forces.

The confession added fuel to the fire and activists began speaking up, sharing their personal stories, claims, and suspicions against the Chinese government. Protests began around the city, as the Hong Kong people, demanded justice for the booksellers, specifically Lee Bo, one of the Causeway Bay Bookstores co-owners. They took to the streets, holding colonial-era flags, shouting “Today’s Lee Bo is you and me tomorrow!” In 2016, hundreds of writers, publishers, and booksellers signed petitions vowing to fight the fear against political and literary persecution. From there, the fight for justice continued.

Extradition Bill Elicits Protests

The Hong Kong extradition bill, also called the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Amendment, was proposed in early 2019. The legislation was drafted to establish a reliable transportation method for fugitives between Taiwan, China, and Macau, and was proposed in February 2019 by the Hong Kong government.

Additionally, the bill would allow China to arrest activists, civil rights groups, protest organizers, and human rights advocates who voiced their political opinions. The amendment brought the fear of the dissolution of Hong Kong’s legal system and the protection it provided its citizens including the freedom of speech, assembly, and press.

The introduction of the bill once again sparked outrage on the islands and thousands of Hong Kong citizens evaded the streets carrying signs, posters, and their voices. In the first week of protest over one million people marched against the bill. While they started peaceful, many protests quickly turned violent. Since the protests began in 2019, over 3,000 people have suffered injuries and over 9,000 have been arrested.

Protesters attacked Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Building, shattering glass partitions, tearing down metal walls, raiding cabinets, and spray painting and vandalizing the entire property in July 2019. The incident further weakened the relationship between protesters and the government and the situation intensified.

A month later, a young woman’s eye was ruptured during the protest as a result of the police force firing flexible baton rounds into the crowd of protesters. She was immediately hospitalized and had to undergo surgery and treatment. Her story was told across the region as more and more protesters demanded justice against the government and police brutality. 

Finally, in late October, the Hong Kong government officially discarded the extradition bill as a result of the protests. While this milestone was celebrated across Hong Kong by hundreds of thousands, many activists believed the fight was far from over.

Protesters emphasized that the withdrawal of the bill met only one of the five demands that they were originally fighting for. They wanted protests not to be characterized as riots, amnesty for arrested protesters, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, and the implementation of universal suffrage. Renowned Hong Kong student activist and politician Joshua Wong tweeted that the discarding of the bill was far too late and was not enough to bring justice to the protesters who were injured, arrested, or killed. 

Initial response to Carrie Lam: 1. Too little and too late now — Carrie Lam's response comes after 7 lives sacrificed, more than 1,200 protestors arrested, in which many are mistreated in police station. — Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) September 4, 2019

After nearly six months of anti-government protests, another victory was celebrated in late November when democratic candidates secured 90% of the 452 council seats, during the district council elections. With more voter turnout than ever seen before and a total of three million voters, this was a historical election for Hong Kong. Cheers echoed through the region for days.

Protests Continue in the Age of COVID-19: Interview with Michael Mo

In early 2020, the coronavirus outbreak emerged in Wuhan, China, and other parts of eastern Asia, and protesting died down. Social distancing practices were strictly imposed by the government to limit the spread of the virus. However, protestors and activists found ways to make an impact, even from their homes. A union of hospital employees went on strike in February, calling for the government to close mainland China’s border to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

During the last couple of months, protestors raided the streets once again showing their anger and resistance towards the plan to impose new national security laws from Beijing. Once again, citizens feared that Hong Kong’s political freedom and independence would be sacrificed. On June 29, the law was put into effect after being kept a secret from the public for many months. The law gave Beijing more control over Hong Kong, allowing stricter and more thorough investigations, prosecutions, and punishments.

The drafting of the law was done by the National People’s Congress (NPC), a lawmaking body in Beijing, which bypassed Hong Kong’s own legislative council that was elected last November. The NPC gave the Chinese government explicit permission to enforce its own law enforcement systems and a secretive committee dedicated to national security.

Michael Mo, a well-known activist and district council member in Hong Kong, shared his experiences as a protestor during an interview with Lenses. He told us about how he feels that “the government has become unresponsive to peaceful protests over the years and the crowd control tactics have become way heavier since the Umbrella Protest.” The Umbrella Movement he is referring to was a tactic protestors used in 2014, shielding themselves from tear gas and police brutality by using umbrellas.

We asked Mo about his opinion on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the protests in Hong Kong, against the law. He told Lenses that he believes that “it is clear to everyone that the ‘so-called’ pandemic-control measures are just excuses, in order to, stop people from organizing protests.” He further explained that while younger citizens would not care if organizers had protest permits or not, peaceful protests, including those who are in their late 30s or older, might be more fearful of the implications.

In our interview, Mo explained that this wasn’t the first time the government has bypassed a piece of legislature. Big infrastructure projects, such as expanding the Hong Kong airport, have also been bypassed before and the construction has begun without any official voting. He told us that the Peking Authority has always held the power to impose laws on Hong Kong without ever passing local legislature. Since the latest law by China has been bypassed, protestors are struggling to find a mandate. He says, “Legislature is just a rubber stamp. Even if we voted for a bunch of new progressive candidates, we still need to be able to manage the gaps between expectation and reality.”

Angered citizens, activists, and civil rights groups fear that the law signals the end of the “one country, two systems” principle, and Wong tweeted that “marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before.”

[End of Hong Kong, Beginning of Reign of Terror] 1. #Beijing has just passed the sweeping #nationalsecuritylaw. It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before. — Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) June 30, 2020

Two weeks ago, hundreds and thousands of citizens voted in the pro-democracy primaries. With over 600,000 people showing up to vote and the majority of those voting against the new security laws issued by Beijing, a few weeks ago. Mo believes that the election “reflects how angered people were at the National Security Law.” Furthermore, he believes that the raid conducted by the Hong Kong Police on the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) office the night before the election further aggravated the situation. The office, which was a polling organization, was a co-organizer of the primary election and was accused of ‘dishonest use of a computer.’ Mo cannot wait until September, where he imagines that the voice of the people will be even stronger.

As a council member, he urges all leaders and activists to follow the advice of an old Chinese proverb: “You should only be able to negotiate for peace if you have the power to fight.”

Today, the protests are continuing as thousands march the streets despite the lingering coronavirus pandemic. As protest leaders flee the country and others pledge to fight for democracy, there is a tremendous amount of social unrest in the region. The streets of Hong Kong are echoing with the same chant from one year ago: “Liberate Hong Kong!”

Through Teen Lenses: What’s your reaction to the China-Hong Kong conflicts? Do you think China should have handled the situation differently?

“Instead of working with Hong Kong on a solution, China took matters into their own hands and decided to try and meddle and influence the people of Hong Kong, even though most people in Hong Kong don’t even consider themselves as Chinese. Since Hong Kong is only such a small part of China, its voice isn’t really heard unless they protest. And, when they try to protest China responds with police action and it becomes violent, kind of like what’s currently happening with our country. I feel like China should’ve taken a more civilized approach. Instead of trying to reason with Hong Kong, they used fear tactics and tried to arrest activists and peaceful protestors. If the situation were to be handled with less chaos, I believe that Hong Kong and China may have been able to reason and negotiate a proper plan for the future.”Arjun Aneja, rising sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia
“I think it’s an issue of sovereignty and democracy. As the world moves more progressively, pro-democracy, and anti-autocracy, protests and sentiments are bound to arise. And, China being a communist nation obviously cannot handle that. Also, one thing to remember is how the liberties that are enshrined in our constitution are not at all guaranteed in other parts of the world (i.e. China). And, the difference is just glaring since China has a history of meddling in other countries’ affairs especially in spheres of influence and it’s totally predictable because this conflict has been going on for 20 years.” Student at New York University, who preferred to stay anonymous
“The whole situation reminds me of Canada and how it’s associated with Great Britain – I feel like China has a heavy influence on Hong Kong’s government. It should be structured more like a democracy, where the region of Hong Kong has a greater say, instead of China controlling their government and forming a dictatorship. With China’s past ethics, Hong Kong can’t escape their graph and I feel like in the likes of democracy, it wasn’t respected as much as it was in the likes of a dictatorship.”Rohan Misra, rising sophomore at Academies of Science, Ashburn, Virginia


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