March 29, 2019
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.