By: Lauren Dickey
China in the late 1970s saw a proliferation of democracy walls (民主牆) in a short period of liberation known as the ‘Beijing Spring.’ Beginning on a brick wall in Beijing, posters decrying political and social issues in China spread to other major cities. Today, democracy walls have been given new life on university campuses across Hong Kong. Posting signs and notes on democracy walls calling for Hong Kong’s independence, the young generation is particularly outspoken when it comes to fighting for their rights. At a broader societal level, one of the clearest signs of Hong Kong’s vibrant democracy is its demonstrations against Beijing’s political interventions.
Two young, pro-Hong Kong politicians elected in September, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, deviated from acceptable formalities by inserting derogatory slang against China into their oaths of office. The government of Hong Kong refused to accept their swearing-in proceedings, demanding that they be rescheduled. Additionally, while the government of Hong Kong attempted to disqualify the politicians for failing to properly undertake the oath of office, it did not explicitly request that Beijing issue an interpretation of local law. In Beijing, the decision to interpret local law without the request of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal was ultimately spurred by concerns over Chinese sovereignty. With rumblings of Beijing’s imminent involvement beginning to bubble over, thousands of demonstrators clashed with police on 6 November – donning swimming goggles and opening yellow umbrellas to shield from pepper spray – but ultimately deterred from the property around China’s liaison office by local police. On 7 November, as many had come to expect, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted an interpretation of the Basic Law (Article 104) that prevented the two pro-Hong Kong independence politicians from taking office. Specifically, it ordered lawmakers to ‘accurately, completely and solemnly’ take the oath of office. On 15 November, one week later, Hong Kong’s high court followed suit in officially disqualifying Yau and Leung from assuming their elected positions.
Beijing’s recent move – and the falling in line of Hong Kong’s high court thereafter – is an extraordinary intervention with significant implications for the future of Hong Kong’s political system. Since the formal handover of Hong Kong as a British colony to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, Hong Kong’s colonial constitution was replaced with the Basic Law. Drafted in accordance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, the Basic Law set forth Beijing’s policies for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and, in doing so, established the ‘one country, two systems’ principle of governance in Hong Kong until 2047. After 2047, China’s promise to allow Hong Kong to maintain its own ‘system’ and way of life effectively expires.
Developments in Hong Kong’s political scene over the last few years have many wondering if Hong Kong is facing a tighter deadline. For Beijing, Hong Kong’s territorial integration is a domestic issue, and one crucial for maintaining the legitimacy of the Communist Party. For Hong Kong, Beijing’s interference challenges the independent court system, rule of law, and principles of self-rule – all of which are factors contributing to the island’s success as a global financial centre.
Beijing’s moves were aimed at clamping down on pro-independence sentiments in Hong Kong, a frequent occurrence under President Xi Jinping. But by choosing the ‘stick’ over the ‘carrot,’ China risks fuelling continued backlash from the residents of the SAR. Intervention and interpretation of the Basic Law without Hong Kong’s explicit request or consent sets a dangerous precedent for Beijing to take similar actions in the future. Under Xi, Beijing has not hesitated to impose its interpretation of Basic Law and re-assert the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. As we look toward the future, such actions set a baseline for Beijing to screen out other legislative officials and politicians not seen as sufficiently pro-China in their views and sentiments.
Hong Kong’s trajectory over the last few years suggests that the reality of ‘one country, two systems’ is increasingly more fiction than fact. Whether the people of Hong Kong are willing to acknowledge it, Basic Law grants Beijing sanction to intervene under the ‘one country’ element of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. For Beijing, ‘one country’ will always mean that the Communist Party of the PRC has the final say. With elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive looming in the distance, it may only be a matter of time before the Hong Kong legislature is entirely recast to Beijing’s liking. By preventing two pro-Hong Kong politicians from taking office, the Chinese government has set a precedent for disqualifying any individual deemed disloyal to Beijing. Rather than ruling by law, Beijing is now ruling Hong Kong by decree – a shift that may signal the beginning of the end for the ‘one country, two systems.’
Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on relations between China and Taiwan. She is a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS and a senior editor for Strife.
Feature image credit: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/03/china/hong-kong-tiananmen-june-4/