Hong Kong handover, 25 years later

Hong Kong marks 25 years under Chinese control on July 1. Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, discusses where Hong Kong stands now and what the future might hold.

Hong Kong and Chinese flags fly in advance of the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain
Chinese and Hong Kong flags are hanged to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of Hong Kong handover to China, in Hong Kong, Friday, June 17, 2022. Hong Kong marks the anniversary on July 1, 2022. (Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

July 1 marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover after 156 years of British colonial rule. The global financial hub returned to China in 1997 with promises of freedoms and autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle of governance.

Critics say China has backed away from those promises in recent years as it expanded its influence and control, particularly after it instituted a sweeping national security law in response to pro-democracy protests.

Penn Today spoke to Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China and Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law and professor of political science, to get his take on where Hong Kong stands now and what the future might hold.

China promised wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy when it regained control of Hong Kong. Has China kept those promises?

The 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule is a bleak moment. The initial deal struck between the United Kingdom and China for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule included promises that Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy in its government, economy, and society for at least 50 years. We’re halfway through that 50 years, and many of those promises are not being fulfilled. We’ve seen, most dramatically, the adoption of the national security law two years ago, which came in the wake of the protests against a Hong Kong bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. The law had provided a mechanism for shutting down, including through prosecution and imprisonment, anyone in Hong Kong who is actively critical of the government. 

Under the new law, there have been scores of arrests, and some convictions, of people in academia and media, as well as pro-democracy activists. This has had a far-reaching chilling effect. The business community has so far been relatively supportive of the national security law and other moves by the Hong Kong and central governments, mostly on the grounds that such measures promote stability in the wake of the 2019-20 protests. But we don’t know yet whether, ultimately, the deterioration in Hong Kong’s freedoms and liberal rule of law will lead to an exodus of talent or lead to pressure on transnational corporations from pro-human rights groups, shareholder activists, foreign governments, or others who may take a stand in favor of the rights and protections that Hong Kongers previously enjoyed but that have been under siege and facing erosion, most dramatically through the national security law but also through a number of other developments in the preceding two decades.

How has life changed in Hong Kong since the handover? What have been some high points and low points?

The relative high points for a significant part of the period following 1997 were when some of the promises made in connection with Hong Kong’s reversion to China were kept. The legal system continued to function autonomously and with much continuity and even with foreign judges from common law jurisdictions serving on the bench, preserving much the rule of law legacy the British left in place. These features were embedded in the Basic Law, a mini-constitution for Hong Kong adopted by China’s national legislature. The Basic Law also included a promise of progress toward more democratic governance, including in the process for selecting the chief executive, who wields much of the power in Hong Kong’s executive-led government. 

Proponents of liberal rights and legality scored some notable successes in blocking initiatives that threatened liberal rights and a robust rule of law. For example, in 2003, the government in Hong Kong sought to introduce a law broadly akin to the national security law, but this effort failed in the face of large-scale popular protests. 

By 2020, the situation had changed drastically. The national security law is much more draconian than the 2003 law would have been. It also was a law not passed by the local legislature in Hong Kong but imposed on Hong Kong by the national legislature in Beijing. Although the 2020 law addresses some of the same issues that would have been addressed in 2003, the principal criminal offenses are extremely broad and vague: counts as subversion, treason, secession, or improper collaboration with foreign organization resemble what one finds in mainland laws on similar topics. Moreover, the national security law has created what is in effect a parallel system that operates outside of Hong Kong’s ordinary legal structures and principles of judicial review and legal accountability. It established a national security office in Hong Kong that is an arm of the central government and an opaque national security commission in the Hong Kong government. Cases can be sent to mainland courts or, more commonly, tried in Hong Kong by judges chosen by the chief executive. One provision in the law appears to reach extraterritorially, purporting to prohibit actions outside China by non-Chinese.   

The national security law has been used to round up many of the most prominent critics of the government. Many prominent pro-democracy activists are now in de facto exile. Some of the most prominent lawyers in Hong Kong have been arrested on very questionable bases. Some academics have lost their positions because of their role in supporting peaceful protests. Even the Catholic cardinal of Hong Kong was arrested for his involvement in a charity that supported providing humanitarian support for participants in 2019 protests. Some of the most outspoken media outlets in Hong Kong—businessman Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily and the upstart Stand News—have been shut down, and foreign journalists have left out of concern that reporting may run afoul of the new law.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will swear in new city leader John Lee on July 1. What does this mean for Hong Kong going forward?

John Lee’s selection is a bad omen, or, more accurately, another symptom of what ails Hong Kong. It indicates the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and progress toward democracy in at least two ways. First, Lee was selected by an even more undemocratic process than his predecessors, running unopposed and receiving near-unanimous support from an election committee that had been revamped to be even more reliably pro-Beijing. Second, his background is in the security sector, which sends a signal of the priority Beijing places on order and stability in Hong Kong, to be achieved by repressive means if necessary. It’s also a further slap to pro-democracy elements in Hong Kong. The police, which were once highly respected, are now despised in some quarters of Hong Kong society because of their violent role in quashing the 2019-2020 protests. Beijing making John Lee chief executive is a pointed dismissal of both local and international criticism of the crackdown on the protests and the national security law that followed.

Most of the prior chief executives in Hong Kong have not been terribly successful, but they have come from a background that is consistent with what has long been seen as the job of governing Hong Kong. They’ve been from the business sector, the financial regulatory administration, the pool of professional civil servants. Apparently, job one for Hong Kong’s leader is now maintaining a particular vision of order and stability, including through coercive and repressive means.

Do the events in Hong Kong tell us anything about changes in China?

What we’re seeing in Hong Kong is are consistent with broader changes in China during the Xi Jinping era. We’ve seen a turn toward greater authoritarianism and greater apparent indifference to reactions and criticism abroad. What has happened in Hong Kong fits this pattern. Rule in Hong Kong is now clearly more authoritarian. In terms of reaction elsewhere, what’s happened in Hong Kong since 2019 has driven Taiwan even farther away from any interest in finding a political accommodation with Beijing. It’s further worsened China’s relations with the U.S., Great Britain, and others. This was part of a broader pattern and trend we’ve seen from the human rights violations in Xinjiang to Beijing’s pro-Russia positions on Ukraine.

Where do you see the future for Hong Kong?

The near-term future is bleak for all the reasons we've been discussing. Still, things can change. When democratic and liberal values have come under siege in a political system that once embraced them, it has sometimes been possible to restore them. It’s going to be tougher for Hong Kong, given its lack of autonomy from Beijing. But there are many people in and from Hong Kong and their allies who believe strongly in the values that were promised protection in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and in the Basic Law. They’re not really in a position to achieve much success, at least in the near term. So, it’s important for the outside world to do what it has been doing in terms of putting officials associated with what’s going on Hong Kong on sanctions lists, taking away Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, and calling out Beijing’s actions. Such moves are not going to be transformative, but they do provide some moral support to those who want to see Hong Kong return to the path that was promised.