The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region wants to preserve its autonomy. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is trying to gain more influence.
The former British crown colony of Hong Kong is located on the south Chinese coast, right at the mouth of the Per River. Due to this favorable location directly on the South China Sea and with a natural harbor, the city has always been an important hub of global trade. Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor” in Chinese. This port is surrounded by high, densely vegetated mountains, on the slopes of which more and more high-rise buildings have been built, giving the city a spectacular skyline. The climate is subtropical, with hot, rainy summers. Hong Kong itself is an island. In addition to Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula on the other side of the port and the New Territories in the hinterland belong to the colony and today’s Special Administrative Region.
During the time of British colonial rule, the city grew into a metropolis and became a center of the international financial sector by the second half of the 20th century at the latest. In 1997 Great Britain returned its colony to China in accordance with the 1984 “Joint Declaration” by both sides. Since then, Hong Kong has had the status of a Special Administrative Region for 50 years. Under the principle of “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong therefore formally has the right to its own legislation, independent of the communist government of the People’s Republic of China.
However, this unique system has come under increasing pressure in recent years. The Hong Kong democracy movement called for freer elections for local government leaders and local parliaments. However, the Hong Kong government and Beijing prevented this. Protests, some of which were violent, broke out in 2014 and 2019. In 2020, the National People’s Congress in Beijing passed a security law banning all activities that Beijing considers subversive, separatist, terrorist or conspiratorial. In March 2021, China also passed an electoral reform for Hong Kong that further restricts freedom of choice.
Hong Kong’s status as the world’s most liberal market economy made the metropolis an oasis of capitalism for decades, but also a place of financial and social inequality. The status of the city as a special administrative zone is contractually defined until 2047. However, it is questionable whether Hong Kong can maintain its status as an international trade and financial center despite Beijing’s most recent interventions.
Hong Kong: A densely populated yet green metropolis
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is one of the most densely populated areas in the world; only Monaco can boast more inhabitants per square kilometer on average. About 95 percent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents are Chinese. The remaining five percent are mostly immigrants from other Asian countries. Filipinos and Indonesians make up the majority of them. The official languages in Hong Kong are English and Chinese. Traditionally, Hong Kong residents speak South Chinese Cantonese; For some time now, standard Chinese, which is spoken in the People’s Republic of China, has also been gaining ground. In addition, Hong Kong people like to use Anglicisms in everyday life, and speakers often switch back and forth between Chinese and English fluently.
Not least because of its colonial history, a large number of religions are represented in Hong Kong, whose places of worship and temples make the city a tourist attraction. Due to its reputation as a cosmopolitan metropolis, Hong Kong is also said to have a special quality of life. In reality, however, the situation for many residents is precarious. The special location between the sea and the mountains allows only small spaces for development. This applies not only directly at the port, but also in the so-called “New Territories”, the hinterland that extends to the border with China. That is why Hong Kong relied on tall residential towers and many social housing decades ago. Still, housing in Hong Kong is extremely expensive. Wherever skyscrapers cannot be built on steep slopes, evergreen trees and bushes grow, which serve as the green lungs of the metropolis.
Social inequality is great in Hong Kong, mainly because of the exorbitant housing costs. Many people live in tiny apartments, and many young professionals have to live with their parents for years to come. Critics also consider the social system to be inadequate.
Hong Kong: The History of the British Crown Colony
The history of Hong Kong begins with the colonization. When British commercial agents first set foot on the island, the rocky islands of the “fragrant harbor” were largely uninhabited. Only a few fishermen lived there, the lush green of the slopes – which can be seen again today – had been cleared. British trading houses tried at that time to open up the isolated Qing Dynasty China to trade. Britain imported tea, silk and china from China, to which it sold luxury goods. The import surplus became so great that the British began selling their Indian-grown opium to the Chinese. Opium addiction spread in the Qing Empire, so the Chinese Emperor Daoguang banned the drug trade in 1839. However, Britain refused to forego the opium receipts and sent warships. China lost the First Opium War (1839-1842) and had to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British in the Treaty of Nanking. It was henceforth a British crown colony. After the Second Opium War (1856-1860) the area of the Kowloon Peninsula followed. With a lease signed in 1898, the British also gained control of the so-called “New Territories” for 99 years, which significantly enlarged the colonial area.
The city, with its natural harbor protected from typhoons, served as the trading center of the British Empire during the colonial period. At the beginning of the Second World War, Hong Kong initially offered numerous mainland Chinese a refuge from the Japanese, who were about to conquer large parts of China and Asia. Hong Kong also fell to Japan in December 1941; over half of the population fled the city. After the end of the war, the civil war in China, which lasted until 1949, began, and mainland Chinese fled again to British territory. At the beginning of the 1950s there were already 2.2 million people in Hong Kong.
Great Britain guaranteed the crown colony great economic freedom, which made Hong Kong an international center of trade and finance. International companies started their first business in the People’s Republic from here. In the 1980s, however, Britain and China began talks about the return of the city as the lease for the New Territories, which supplied Hong Kong with food and water, expired in 1997. Without these areas, the inner city on Hong Kong Island or in Kowloon would not have been viable. Both sides agreed to return Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. With the formula “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong became the special administrative region of China. The city will therefore retain a free market economy, its own currency and its own political and legal system for 50 years – i.e. until 2047.
Hong Kong: “One country, two systems” – formal autonomy under pressure
For the time after the return, Hong Kong was given a constitution that regulates the political system, the economy and the judiciary. It stipulates that Hong Kong may, for example, levy its own tariffs or have individual relationships with other countries. The Chinese President acts as the formal head of state of Hong Kong. The local Hong Kong head of administration is in charge of government affairs. The Chinese Communist Party is officially banned in Hong Kong. However, their interests are represented in the metropolis by so-called “pro-Beijing parties”. Opposite them are the so-called pan-democratic parties.
Human rights organizations and sections of the urban population viewed the political system critically from the start. Only about half of the parliament was freely elected in the respective constituencies; the remaining representatives are elected from among 28 professional groups. These professional groups were often oriented towards economic and less towards political and social interests and belonged to the pro-Beijing camp from the start. This is one of the reasons why the China-friendly camp has always had a majority in the Legislative Council. In district elections, the advocates of greater democratization, the so-called pan-democratic camp, were ultimately able to win large elections – to the annoyance of Beijing. The Pan-Democrats and their supporters criticized the election of the head of government by a hand-picked, Beijing-friendly election committee. They called for free direct elections.
Even without full democracy, however, the judiciary was independent and the press free. Every year on June 4, tens of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square to commemorate the bloody crackdown on the Chinese democracy movement in 1989.
Hong Kong: Protest Movement for More Democracy and Beijing’s Response
In 2003 there were the first violent protests against the planned introduction of an anti-subversion law, which would criminalize the demand for the separation of Hong Kong from the People’s Republic. The law has been put on hold for the time being. Protests broke out in 2014 when Beijing announced that it would again pre-select candidates for the position of head of administration. The demonstrations baptized the umbrella movement mobilized more and more Hong Kongers to mobilize for their demand for more democracy. Sometimes the meetings are ended with violence. In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers disappeared, among other things they published books on piquant details from the private lives of Chinese politicians – which further increased the fear of Beijing’s invisible hand.
When a law on the extradition of prisoners and suspects to the People’s Republic was planned in 2019, mass protests broke out again, which increasingly turned into violence. Well over a million people took part in these protests. But some citizens also rejected the movement during the destruction of uninvolved shops. Feeling challenged, Beijing passed harsh security law for Hong Kong in 2020 in response to the ongoing protests. Many prominent activists were subsequently arrested and brought to justice, while others fled abroad. In March 2021 a reform of the electoral law followed and a requirement that only “patriots” in Hong Kong may be elected to offices.
To what extent these reforms will change the character of Hong Kong in the long term is still unclear. Europe and the USA have criticized the measures and, for example, suspended extradition agreements with Hong Kong.
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