The state of Hong Kong, two decades after British cession

Director of the Center for East Asian Studies Jacques deLisle reflects on the goings-on of Hong Kong since British release of the region in 1997.

Hong Kong skyline as sun sets over its port

Hong Kong is a region of intrigue in the world, unique in its relationship with China as part of a “one country, two systems” arrangement. And yet, seldom is it reported how the system has fared since the United Kingdom ceded the region back to China in 1997. 

It’s worth asking: What is the state of Hong Kong today?

Some background: The British ceded the region approximately 150 years after initially taking control of Hong Kong Island in the First Opium War in 1842, and then additional surrounding territories in subsequent wars. In 1898, a 99-year lease was signed that gave the British control over most of the area that comprises Hong Kong. When 1997 and the end of the lease neared, the U.K. already had given up most of its colonial empire, and China insisted on Hong Kong’s return. London and Beijing negotiated terms for giving the region back to China—though, notably, China would argue the cession of Hong Kong to Britain had never been legitimate or legally effective.

The negotiation resulted in the Sino-British Joint Declaration—a bilateral international agreement that China would allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and continuity of its economic, social, and legal systems, and “way of life.” In the interest of establishing a two-system model as a proof of concept for regaining Taiwan, China implemented some of its promises in the Joint Declaration through a “Basic Law”—comparable to a constitution—that sets up a governmental structure and sets forth individual rights for Hong Kong. It allows Hong Kong courts the power of judicial interpretation of the Basic Law. But Beijing can override Hong Kong courts’ interpretations, can alter the Basic Law, and has de facto control over the selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive (the equivalent of a powerful governor).

While the promises of the Joint Declaration are binding as international law, and foreign laws such as the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act seek to promote adherence to the promises of autonomy and continuity in the “one country, two systems” model, recent years have seen signs of growing encroachment: ongoing intervention in the affairs of Hong Kong universities, strong pushback to protests (see: the 2014 “Umbrella Movement”), and a slew of legal and political maneuverings for increased influence in Hong Kong’s government. 

Here, following the Human Rights and China symposium held in February at Perry World House, hosted by the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS), the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, the Center for Asian Law, Perry World House, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, CEAS Director Jacques deLisle discusses the state of affairs in Hong Kong today. 


What is mainland China’s idea of a good system between it and Hong Kong? The government in Beijing seems to be encroaching on Hong Kong with human rights and free speech incidents.

The problem is that China can’t seem to stop itself. Beijing is either worried that democratization and liberal politics in Hong Kong are a threat to its control and a potential contagion that could spread to the mainland, or is confident that it can simply ignore pressures for political change in Hong Kong from local and foreign critics and activists. Whatever one’s theory of what lies behind what China has done, clearly there have been a series of incidents, many in the form of—or linked to—formal interpretations of the Basic Law that have been real setbacks for those that see the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration—and those two documents’ commitments—to Hong Kong’s autonomy [as a means to] eventual democratization.

There have been six formal interpretations of the Basic Law issued by China, and each one has gone relatively badly for Hong Kong’s autonomy. The most prominent ones rejected calls from Hong Kong to move more quickly toward democratic elections for the legislature and the chief executive—the governor, in effect. Most recently, in 2016, one interpretation held that elected members of the legislature who were very critical of Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong, and who intentionally changed the words of the oath they took upon taking office, were disqualified from serving. They were essentially kicked out of the legislature despite being democratically elected. 

In terms of the election for the chief executive and members of the legislature, the hope among pro-democracy elements in Hong Kong has been to move forward relatively quickly with full universal suffrage, but that hasn’t happened. The chief executive is subject to a degree of election, but the electorate consists of a small, heavily pro-Beijing committee. In the legislature, even though the pro-democracy parties regularly win a majority of the votes, they do not win a majority of the seats, in part because a significant number of seats are chosen by ‘functional constituencies’ with narrow electorates.

With Beijing’s rejection of greater democratization have come risks that Hong Kong could become ungovernable or, at least, less governable and thus less economically vibrant. We saw protests that followed the interpretation of the Basic Law that rejected more progress toward democratic governance. The Hong Kong police used tear gas and the protesters used yellow umbrellas to shield themselves, giving the 2014 Umbrella Movement its name. The protests grew out of Occupy Central—a pro-democracy protest and movement that was initially led by university-based intellectuals but was soon overtaken by student-led activism. The focus was opposition to the lack of progress toward democratization. ‘Central’ refers to the downtown business district, but the ‘occupation’ largely targeted the nearby government offices and several other places across Hong Kong.

And that’s a recent headline hitter, right? Student pushback?

Student activism was the big thing in the Occupy Central/Umbrella Movement following the last rejection of calls from Hong Kong for movement toward democracy. Every couple of years there is a move either by Beijing or by the Hong Kong local government, sometimes in response to pressures from Beijing, that triggers street protest in Hong Kong. The Umbrella Movement protests got more attention in the West because they lasted a relatively long time and had a big visible impact. Protesters shut down important parts of the city, including government operations, and the authorities used force—not violent by the standards of authoritarian regimes, but striking by Hong Kong standards. Moreover, numerous leaders of the movement have faced criminal prosecution, including significant jail time, which is also an escalation from the response to past protests over democracy in Hong Kong. 

But, again, the events of 2014 did not come out of nowhere. Back in the early 2000s, for example, the Hong Kong government attempted to introduce an anti-sedition law, which opponents saw as intolerably restrictive of free speech critical of Beijing, and that led to street protests as well. Ultimately, that law wasn’t passed because of the blowback. We’ve seen street protests every time there’s been an interpretation of Basic Law that postpones or limits movement toward democracy.

What role do universities play in Hong Kong?

Universities, in some ways, are microcosms of what goes on more generally in Hong Kong politics and society. Universities have been under mounting pressure, not least because the local and national governments see them as hotbeds of pro-democracy activism and opposition. Probably the most notable recent example is Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement protests.

One of the intellectual leaders was a university professor named Benny Tai, from the law faculty at the University of Hong Kong. He was one of the people pushing the idea of more rapid progress toward free and fair democratic elections—particularly of the chief executive. His group conducted online polls to demonstrate public support for democratization. He became one of the somewhat older-generation intellectual leaders or inspirations of the Occupy Central Movement. He has been facing prosecution for his role and is very likely to go to jail. 

He and a couple other academics were very prominent as intellectual leaders, but the shock troops and the charismatic faces of the movement were mostly students, including university students. As happens in many societies, universities are hotbeds of what would be considered left-leaning politics, but what’s left and right is complicated in China where you have an ostensibly communist government in Beijing backing a local government that has long been friendly to captains of industry and hostile to full democracy.

Are universities falling in line or are they doing pushback on an administrative level?

There is a good deal of concern in Hong Kong about political pressure being brought to bear on universities and what it means for academic freedom, particularly the freedom to espouse views that are critical of the existing Hong Kong and Beijing governments. People who have been associated with liberal pro-democracy movements have sometimes come under pressure. Some notable foreign academics have left Hong Kong institutions or been essentially forced out …. Benny Tai has faced prosecution. The dean of Tai’s faculty, Johannes Chan, was criticized as well, essentially for not stopping Tai and his ilk, and has faced an all-too-familiar corrosive form of retaliation, being pilloried in the pro-China press and denied a major promotion. 

As yet, there’s been nothing akin to the ham-fisted techniques one sees in Beijing, with professors being denied the opportunity to teach or directed to exclude certain course content, or that kind of thing; there’s much more academic freedom than on the mainland. But there is a chill in the air at the universities, and it threatens their standing and reputation abroad. The atmosphere hasn’t stifled people entirely by any means. There are plenty of highly critical active scholars and scholar-activists, but they feel the pressure, and some leave.

What is the path forward for democracy in Hong Kong and how realistic is that?

The confrontation over democracy is not likely to go away, and has in some respects been escalating. There is now something that never existed before, which is a small and sure-to-fail Hong Kong independence movement. Nobody thinks it’s realistic. But the fact that it exists at all shows the consequences of Beijing’s heavy-handed and intransigent dealing with calls for democracy from Hong Kong. 

What the path forward should be depends on your views. I tend to be a fan of liberal democracy, so I think it would be a good thing if Hong Kong were to enjoy the opportunity to go down the path that was sketched out in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, which is for Hong Kong to have a very high degree of autonomy—albeit under Chinese sovereignty—and to move to a system of democracy under which people are generally free to elect their legislators and chief executive without narrow constraints on who may run and what they may say in campaigns or in office. I think that would be a situation acceptable to most in Hong Kong, and it need pose no significant threat to Chinese sovereignty because there’s a recognition independence is not conceivable for Hong Kong, and there’s not pressure from Hong Kong for Beijing to give up powers that the Basic Law and Joint Declaration clearly give Beijing—things like foreign affairs and defense. It’s really more a matter of internal self-governance and enjoyment of a liberal set of rights and democratic accountability. 

I think Beijing has overreacted to pro-democracy voices and movements in Hong Kong, in part because of paranoia about what protests mean. The Chinese regime has had experiences of much more volatile protests in the mainland. Chinese leaders may misperceive Hong Kong events partly because they’ve listened too much to the pro-Beijing segments in Hong Kong—including some of Hong Kong’s wealthiest business leaders who have misrepresented or misunderstood how strong the pressure for liberal and democratic values in Hong Kong is. I think there was some belief that China could outlast the older generation, people my age, the Western-educated leaders—often trained as lawyers—of the pro-democracy camp. For Beijing, the hope or expectation was that a younger generation, raised under Chinese rule, would revert to the focus on economics or wanting comfortable, well-paid lives that many in China and its allies in Hong Kong seemed to believe was what Hong Kongers wanted. So far, that has turned out to not be true.

A major difficulty is that it’s not clear that Beijing accepts that what is going on in Hong Kong does not pose a serious threat. Beijing is understandably worried that if people in Hong Kong enjoy the kinds of rights and democracy that many in Hong Kong seek, then aren’t people elsewhere in China going to ask why they don’t get to do the same thing?

Why did you decide to host this China and Human Rights symposium?

There are several reasons. One is that human rights in China directly concerns the human rights of 1.4 billion people, including the Chinese heartland, Tibet and Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and, indirectly, Taiwan. If human rights matter at all, human rights in and near China matter. We’re talking about 20 percent or more of humanity. 

Secondly, human rights are a perennial issue in U.S.-China relations and are among the many points of friction right now, in part because of Chinese behavior. At our symposium, we talked about the betrayal of promises in Hong Kong, the continuing crackdown on a variety of forms of civil society, political dissent, and human rights lawyering in China, all of which has gotten worse under the leadership of Xi Jinping, and about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang whose current treatment constitutes a major human rights problem. Chinese authorities have been rounding up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs without a solid basis in law and putting them in detention camps, essentially trying to reeducate them and abandon some of their values. Although attention has been growing, this is probably one of the most underreported human rights stories today. It’s not Yemen, to be sure. But, as political oppression, and deprivation of liberty, and attack on a distinctive culture on a large scale, it warrants more attention.

Thirdly, in a world where the U.S. and China are the two biggest powers, there is rivalry on a lot of fronts, geostrategic, economic, and so on, but the values issue is important, too, and human rights is an area of significant conflict over values. In particular, China and other authoritarian regimes often invoke human rights relativism to rebuff criticism. Paying attention to human rights in the peripheral areas around China—in Taiwan and Hong Kong—shows that Chinese culture is compatible with liberal democratic politics. And focusing on Xinjiang and Tibet reminds us that there are people who live under Chinese rule who are not fully part of Chinese culture. They are ethnically, culturally, and religiously different, and thus any ostensibly Chinese views on human rights cannot be assumed to be shared by them. 

Finally, some would say—and I would agree—that U.S. foreign policy has always had no better than a mixed record in embracing and supporting universal human rights, and that at the moment we are doing a much weaker job of it than has even been our norm. In these circumstances, it is all the more important in the U.S. to discuss human rights issues abroad, including in China.