HK: from colony to colony

(Ah, it’s good to be writing again.)

With several parties in the upcoming LegCo elections outright calling for the independence of Hong Kong, it seems like a good time to review how we got to where we are today. What are we? What does it mean to be an SAR? And is the Joint Declaration/Basic Law worth the paper they’re printed on?

PART I: 1841-1997

1.1 — Opium

The UK was running a huge trade deficit with the Qing. Then, shortly afterwards, the Qing were running a huge trade deficit with Britain. The reason: opium.

Eventually, the International Opium Convention of 1912 placed heavy controls on the production and trade of opium, including in UK. But at the time of the Opium Wars, opium was in fact perfectly legal in the UK, in contrast to Lin Zexu’s open letter to Queen Victoria:

I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries — how much less to China!

In any case, Queen Victoria never got the letter, and by 1860 Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were British. The New Territories would follow, but in the form of a 99-year lease, to expire in 1997. At the time no one could imagine the implications of the lease’s expiry.

1.1.1 — The other issue: extraterritoriality

In a sense, the First Opium War began when two British sailors beat a Chinese man to death. Superintendent of Trade Charles Elliot had in fact offered compensation to the family of the victim and invited Lin Zexu to attend the trial of the two suspects, but Lin protested against British extraterritoriality and demanded that the two be tried under Qing law. Lin expelled all British from the empire and requested that Macau (which was already Portuguese at the time) to do the same.

Eventually, the Qing allowed Brits to return to shore if they agreed to be subject to Qing law (including, of course, no opium), but Elliot ordered all British ships not to accede to the deal, forming a blockade on the Pearl River to prevent trade with Canton.

The Royal Saxon tried to run the blockade and was shot at by British ships. Qing warships were sent to protect the Royal Saxon, but were ironically destroyed by the ships which fired upon the Royal Saxon in the first place.  The rest is history (if you want the details of the First Opium War, watch the YouTube series on the matter by Extra Credits: I/II/III/IV).

In a sense, the issues of opium and extraterritoriality were intertwined: the Qing simply could not accept the British doing whatever they wanted on their shores. Unfortunately for the Qing, their military was no match for the Brits and many of their officials were corrupt and high on opium themselves.

British extraterritoriality in China would not be repealed until World War 2.

1.1.2 — What the hell is an “unequal treaty”?

Face it: China was treated like crap in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. That being said, there is nothing actually illegal regarding the UK’s three “unequal treaties” with China despite China’s protestations.

The United Nations’ [Vienna] Convention on the Law of Treaties (Article 52), which emerged in 1969 after years of drafting, codified the customary law rule that the unlawful use of military force in the treaty-making process voids the resulting treaty. However, it is absolutely clear, from the text of that convention and from the record of its negotiation, that this newer rule of customary international law does not apply to any treaties entered into prior to the drafting of the U.N. Charter in 1945.

— Prof. STUART S. MALAWER to the New York Times, September 12, 1983

We must therefore start with the fact that until 1997, Hong Kong was legally British.

1.2 — UN General Assembly Resolution 1514

(Also known as the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples)

The Resolution, passed in 1960, states the aim of independence for all non-self governing territories (par. 5). Until 1972, Hong Kong was on this list. It turned out all it took to get Hong Kong off the list was a stern letter from China:

“Hong Kong and Macau are part of Chinese territory occupied by the British and Portuguese authorities. The settlement of the questions of Hong Kong and Macau is entirely within China’s sovereign right and does not at all fall under the ordinary category of ‘colonial Territories’. Consequently, they should not be included in the list of colonial Territories covered by the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. With regard to the questions of Hong Kong and Macau, the Chinese Government has consistently  held that they should be settled in an appropriate way when conditions are ripe. The United Nations has no right to discuss these questions. For the above reasons, the Chinese delegation is opposed to including Hong Kong and Macau in the list of colonial Territories covered by the Declaration and requests that the erroneous wording that Hong Kong and Macau fall under the category of so-called ‘colonial Territories’ be immediately removed from the documents of the Special Committee and all other United Nations documents”.

Upon receiving the letter, the Working Group of the Special Committee on Decolonisation made a recommendation:

The Special Committee should recommend to the General Assembly that Hong Kong and Macau and dependencies be excluded from the list of Territories to which the Declaration is applicable.

Despite reservations by several countries, the recommendation was adopted by the Special Committee “without objection”, and shortly afterwards by the General Assembly (Resolution 2908).

1.2.1 — How did the PRC replace the ROC at the UN in the first place?

From 1960 to 1970, the PRC made repeated attempts to replace the ROC at the UN, but each time, the ROC was able to defeat the motion, largely due to the help of the United States. Attempts were made to broker a two-state solution, but neither side would accept: Chiang Kai-shek said of the proposal, “漢賊不兩立” (Patriots and thieves cannot co-exist).

The ROC lost the 1971 vote, however, and was unceremoniously kicked out of the UN, with the PRC taking over all of the ROC’s old seats, including its permanent seat in the Security Council.

It is worth noting that if the motion was framed as separate decisions to expel the ROC from the UN and admit the PRC as a new nation, then both questions would have been subject to a two-thirds majority requirement as per Article 18 of the UN Charter. However, the PRC successfully framed the decision as merely assigning China’s seat at the UN to a new government, rather than a change of membership, thus the two-thirds majority requirement did not apply and the ROC was kicked out of the UN by simple majority.

1.2.2 — The normal ways a territory can be removed from the list of non-self-governing territories

Principle VI  and IX of UN General Assembly Resolution 1541 states:

A Non-Self-Governing Territory can be said to have reached a full measure of self-government by:

(a) Emergence as a sovereign independent State;

(b) Free association with an independent State; or

(c) Integration with an independent State.

Integration should have come about in the following circumstances :

(a) The integrating territory should have attained an advanced stage of self-government with free political institutions, so that its peoples would have the capacity to make a responsible choice through informed and democratic processes;

(b) The integration should be the result of the freely expressed wishes of the territory’s peoples acting with full knowledge of the change in their status, their wishes having been expressed through informed and democratic processes, partially conducted and based on universal adult suffrage. The United Nations could, when it deems it necessary, supervise these processes.

Hong Kong was integrated into the PRC without regard to the wishes of the territory’s people, in violation of Principle IX, under the pretence that it never should have qualified as an non-self governing territory in the first place.

1.3 — The negotiations

In 1982, the British compiled a Report titled “The Future of Hong Kong”. Annex F listed possible options for this future, including “options theoretically available, but likely to be nonnegotiable or otherwise impracticable”. The first five options under this category were:

  • Doing nothing
  • Independence of Hong Kong
  • Renewing the lease on the New Territories
  • Unilaterally holding onto the New Territories after 1997
  • Returning the New Territories and retaining the ceded part of Hong Kong

The sixth and last option, considered unacceptable at the time but ultimately the one chosen upon, was the “incorporation” of Hong Kong into China:

This could be acceptable only as a last resort, if all other attempts to reach an accommodation with the PRC had failed. The UK would be seen as having mishandled the situation and failed to protect the interests of the territory unless the new constitutional arrangements for the territory were acceptable to the majority of the inhabitants and… The PRC might of course impose this solution unilaterally, possibly with some local support, but in that event British diplomacy would be seen as having signally failed.

At first, the British tried to separate the notions of sovereignty and administration:

…But if the Chinese would accept the continuation of British administration of the whole of Hong Kong it might be possible for the British Government to consider recommending to Parliament that sovereignty should be ceded to China.

Having no understanding of how a free society worked, the Chinese leadership failed to grasp that public assurances that life in Hong Kong, under the control of a Communist government, could go on as before would be insufficient to maintain commercial confidence; and that this was dependent on the continuation of a British administration.

(I would like to point out here the heavy focus on commercial interests in Hong Kong over the interests of the Hong Kong people, a recurring theme in the UK government’s Hong Kong-related documents from that time.)

In the end, the Chinese stood firm and negotiations continued with the understanding that Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region of China. Due to Chinese pressure, at no point were the people of Hong Kong allowed to partake in the negotiations. This led to the famous motion by Sir Roger Lobo:

This Council deems it essential that any proposals for the future of Hong Kong should be debated in this Council before any final agreement is reached.

In the words of Lobo himself:

The people of Hong Kong are being asked to take a great deal on trust. We are asked to believe that under a Chinese Administration, our way of life and our institutions would not be changed. We are asked by the British Government to take it on trust that by the time they reach an agreement on our future, it will mirror the wishes of the Hong Kong people and will be acceptable to us.
The motion was passed much to China’s dismay, but the effect was minimal, and what was to become the Sino-British Joint Declaration continued to take shape without Hong Kong input.
In other words, the UK, despite all negotiations, failed to obtain anything more for Hong Kong than what they saw as a “last resort”.

1.3.1 — Aside: Meeting Point and the local “reunification” movement

Meeting Point (匯點) was founded in 1983 with a clear “pro-reunification” agenda, under the some form of autonomy deal which would allow for a democratic Hong Kong within China. They were in fact well-regarded by the Chinese government, who sent Xu Jiatun to attend their first anniversary dinner. (Xu was Director of the Hong Kong Branch of the Xinhua News Agency at the time.)

Xu would later be exiled for his sympathetic stance towards the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. Meeting Point would eventually become the Democratic Party.

1.4 — Tiananmen

I cannot help but wonder whether those Brits who voted ratified the Joint Declaration in Parliament looked upon the events of June 3-4 1989 and thought: “what have we done?”

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield):

Would my right hon. and learned Friend accept that a number of hon. Members were deeply concerned when we transferred the sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1984, and therefore affected the future of its people, without any meaningful discussions with them? Will he take seriously the recommendations of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which were reinforced by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), who said that the one way of re-establishing confidence in Hong Kong and guaranteeing its future is to implement a meaningful system of democracy, involving the franchise for all the people of Hong Kong, before the transfer of sovereignty in 1997?

Sir Geoffrey Howe (Sect. of State and Foreign Affairs):

On the first point, my hon. Friend may not have observed the immense attention that we paid at the time, in consultation with the people and the leaders of Hong Kong as well as hon. Members—

Mr. Winterton:

The leaders, not the people.

—House of Commons, 5 July 1989, vol 156 col 321-2

It was at this meeting that Howe introduced plans to introduce a Bill of Rights for Hong Kong (HKBoR), which was modelled after the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and remains part of the Laws of Hong Kong. However, due to Hong Kong not having democratic elections at the time, a saving was introduced to the HKBoR omitting the need for the Legislative and Executive Councils of Hong Kong to be democratically elected. This saving has been cited in the post-97 era as a reason Hong Kong does not yet have universal suffrage.

Hong Kong was debated again in the Commons less than two weeks later:

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

While it was acknowledged that the people of Hong Kong had no real choice but to accept the agreement concluded between the United Kingdom and China, the underlying theme was that a sophisticated and skilled United Kingdom team had obtained a good deal from a Chinese Government…What we have in fact, long before the fateful date of 1997, is a manifest failure of that agreement to maintain the Hong Kong people’s sense of security and confidence and I am not surprised…

The much-vaunted Joint Declaration cannot be enforced by Britain, but it can be broken by the Chinese. People say that the Chinese keep their agreements. They might keep their external agreements but, as Tibet has shown, they do not keep their internal agreements when they have sovereignty.

The content of this meeting was most about Howe shooting down the possibility of granting right of abode in Britain for all British dependent territories citizens in Hong Kong. The strongest arguments against Howe were probably by Mr. Ashdown, the member for Yeovil:

Unless the assurance of the ability to leave is given, the people of Hong Kong will begin to leave. That is exactly what is happening. The Canadians are setting up seminars in hotels in Hong Kong to attract the best people to Canada because they do not have the confidence to stay in Hong Kong. The French are issuing passports to those working in French banks. When Singapore offered the opportunity of relaxation, there were 25,000 people outside the Singapore offices. Just down the coast, there is a large population of Chinese with Portuguese passports and the Portuguese have given them the right of abode.

As a result, families are being split and the best and the brightest are leaving Hong Kong. There are the beginnings of a flight of capital…

There is another broader consequence. The sense of betrayal and anger and the concern about Britain not living up to her responsibilities are not confined to Hong Kong but are spreading to other nations round the Pacific rim…

I am depressed at the attitude that the House takes to these matters. We have never in our history taken a decision like this. Of course, we must hand back Hong Kong in 1997—we have no other option—but that means the territory, not necessarily the people. I ask the House to pause and think of the enormity of the act that we are contemplating. We hand over 6 million people to a Communist tyranny, all of whom are our responsibility, half of whom are our passport holders and the majority of whom fled from that tyranny in fear of their lives. We hand them over to a tyranny of old men who have only recently slaughtered their young citizens on the streets of the main square of their capital city for daring to believe in democracy.

The House shrugs its shoulders. It says, “We can do nothing about this. There is no way that we can help in that circumstance.” My party does not believe that, and we shall divide the House.

1.5 — The first breach: the Provisional Legislative Council

The 1995 LegCo elections saw 17 of the 20 geographical seats go to the pan-democratic camp, out of a total of 60 seats. China declared that the electoral reforms initiated by Governor Patten for these elections would not be acceptable to China and that the 1995 LegCo would not be allowed to continue past June 30, 1997. In addition, China would install its own (wholly unelected) Provisional LegCo.

Back in London, the reaction to the provisional LegCo was vigorous, if only by some:

Lord Willoughby de Broke:

The present LegCo was elected by nearly 1 million voters in open and fair elections. The provisional LegCo is, it is proposed, to be elected in a smoke-filled room by a handpicked 400, who themselves will be chosen by Chinese nominated members of the Preparatory Committee. Significantly, not a single democrat or independent who won a popular mandate in the election has been invited to sit on the Preparatory Committee. If that is “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong“, I will eat my Peer’s robes.

Lord Robert Skidelsky:

Each step in the move from general promises to concrete institutional guarantees has been resisted by China, despite all efforts to secure its co-operation. Now China has said that it will restore the “colonial” clauses in the Bill of Rights and abolish the recently elected LegCo…

The message from all this is clear. The Chinese Government do not want any local institutions which might weaken their own control over the political life of Hong Kong. To put it bluntly, they will not tolerate democracy in any shape or form. China’s vision of “one country, two systems” is confined to economics. In politics, it is “one country, one system”—the system which produced Tiananmen Square.

Alfred Dubs, Baron Dubs:

I regret that, in referring to a possible breach of the Joint Declaration, the Foreign Secretary said in a letter to Christine Loh—one of the many eminent members of LegCo: “I see no benefit in speculating now on precisely what we would do in such circumstances”.But those circumstances have arrived as of this moment. The suggestion that a provisional LegCo should be established in competition with the proper LegCo is already a breach of the Joint Declaration.

Regarding Patten himself, Dubs said:

I am impressed by Chris Patten in his role as Governor of Hong Kong. I regret that he is under attack from so many quarters, including at least one ex-Foreign Office official. The more Chris Patten is undermined by people here who should not undermine him, the weaker his position will be in speaking up for the rights of people in Hong Kong in the next year or so before Hong Kong passes to China.

In the House of Commons:

Mr. Banks (Newham North West):

During the Secretary of State’s speech, we heard a lot of wishful thinking. I do not share his trust in pieces of paper when the signatures on them are those of Chinese politicians…

Hoping that China will not go back on the joint declaration is rather like hoping that it will not snow in Siberia this winter…

The Foreign Secretary says that we must wait and see—but we already know what will happen; the timetable is as good as written. It is too late to wait until everything is in place and then start protesting. Time is of the essence. What authority will LegCo be able to exercise in the shadow of a puppet legislature set up by China? What will the British Government do about the situation due to emerge in December? The joint declaration is an international agreement. The elected legislature is crucial to that declaration, and it has certainly been breached and will continue to be breached. The British Government must therefore act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said that we should involve the international community in condemning China’s breach of the joint declaration. We should also refer it to the International Court of Justice. China, of course, will not submit to that court, but at least we can embarrass the Chinese Government.

Unfortunately, some MPs placed blame for the breach on Governor Patten, rather than on Peking:

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East):

However, the arrogant and ill-informed Governor Patten pursued his policy of constitutional reform. It had all been agreed and then Patten introduced constitutional reform. He reneged on the through-train arrangement, and on the seven letters, and pressed ahead with local legislation to change unilaterally the system for the 1995 Hong Kong election which introduced a different plan for the composition of the last Legislative Council. That clearly violated the agreements between the two countries—it is no good either Front Bench trying to dissimulate or pretend it is not so. It is disingenuous—I use a charitable expression—for the Foreign Secretary to claim otherwise.

Understandably, China could not accept this breach of the agreement and stated that the LegCo, thus introduced by Patten’s reforms, would cease on 30 June 1997.

The Provisional LegCo (PLC) was formed in 1996 and operated across the border until July 1, 1997. All pan-democratic parties boycotted it, except the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood. One of ADPL’s four provisional LegCo members is still a legislator today: Frederick Fung.

PART II: 1997-now

2.1 — The Provisional LegCo in power

The PLC:

  • Reverted the notification system in Section 5 of the Societies Ordinance to a registration system
  • Undid 1995 amendments to the Public Order Ordinance, also reverting the new notification system to a registration system (by requiring that all protests obtain a Letter of No Objection)
  • Undid the Hong Kong Bill of Rights (Amendment) Ordinance 1997
  • Undid the Employee’s Rights to Representation, Consultation and Collective Bargaining Ordinance 1997 and the Employment (Amendment) (No. 4) Ordinance 1997
  • Unilaterally set the rules for the 1998 LegCo election, so that the pan-democrats would lose 11 seats compared to 1995, from 31 to 20. This included a return of corporate voting in the Functional Constituencies and a change to multi-seat geographical constituencies.

Regarding the change to multi-seat GCs, Federick Fung proposed an amendment to the Legislative Council Bill 1997 that would undo this change, but President Rita Fan threw it out:

As the single-seat, single-vote system proposed in Mr. FUNG’s amendments is not
one of the systems laid down by the Preparatory Committee, the amendments are incapable of giving effect to the decision of the Preparatory Committee. Therefore, they are outside the scope of the bill and cannot be moved.
By the time the PLC disbanded in 1998, irreparable damage had already been done to Hong Kong.

2.2 — Article 23 of the Basic Law

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.

There was no timeline for such legislation, much as there was no timeline to implement “universal suffrage” as mentioned in Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law. However, in 2002, China spoke, and the process of drafting a bill begun.

Critics derided the bill as infringing on Hong Kongers’ rights and as intentionally unclear and poorly worded:

A person commits secession if he withdraws any part of the [PRC] from its sovereignty by … means that seriously endangers the territorial integrity of the [PRC].

The bill also allowed police to search premises without a court warrant, and even applied to acts committed outside of Hong Kong or China.  The bill also allowed the Secretary for Security to ban any organisation it deems “necessary in the interests of national security”, including all organisations banned in China.

In the face of fierce public opposition, the government proposed amendments to water down the bill, but it wasn’t enough. 500,000 people marched in the streets on July 1, 2003 to protest the bill, and on 6 July, James Tien’s Liberal Party announced it would withdraw support for the bill, effectively killing it.

A detailed look at the national security bill can be found here.

In many ways, some aspects of the old Crimes Ordinance were even more draconian than the proposed ones in the bill. However, it was thought by many that the Crimes Ordinance was up to then a dead law, and that the repercussions of any politicians invoking that law would prevent it from being applied in most cases.  This would not be the case with China, where “inciting subversion” is a common charge.


2.3 — 2004: China unilaterally “interprets” the Basic Law

Whereas the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) has been invited to “interpret” the Basic Law from time to time in accordance to Article 158, there have also been two times where it has “interpreted” the Basic Law on its own. The first time was in 1997, before the “handover”, when the NPCSC declared 24 Hong Kong ordinances as incompatible with the Basic Law, in effect changing Hong Kong legislation without any input from the people of Hong Kong.

The second time was in 2004, where the NPCSC simply declared that Hong Kong would not have universal suffrage for the 2007 chief executive and 2008 LegCo elections. This was (very briefly) debated back in Westminister:

Peter Baker, Baron Baker:

My Lords, China has, in many ways, observed the joint declaration very well. Nevertheless, is not the decision of the Standing Committee of two weeks ago unsatisfactory? It seems to be saying, from the reports that I have seen, that the Basic Law of Hong Kong will mean whatever the Standing Committee decides it means.

In the Commons:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell):

We have expressed concern because the decision by the NPC appears to be inconsistent with the high degree of autonomy that was put forward in the joint declaration. We have expressed that view both publicly and privately, and we will continue to do so.

2.4 — The White Paper

I plan here to skip over most of Hong Kong’s modern history as it can be found elsewhere. Notable, of course, is the gradual fragmentation of the pan-democratic camp, with the government’s 2010 electoral reform package (which created the five “superseats” but did little to change the actual balance of power) perhaps the final blow.

The 2014 White Paper was incendiary. Within were statements to the effect that any powers not explicitly granted to the Hong Kong government were retained by the central government, and that Hong Kong’s “level of autonomy” was not guaranteed but up to the central government to decide.

2.4.1 — Part V of the White Paper

As a groundbreaking initiative, “one country, two systems” is a major issue of governance to the central leadership, and marks a major historical turning point for Hong Kong and Hong Kong people as well. While comprehensive progress has been made on all fronts in the HKSAR, the practice of “one country, two systems” has come to face new circumstances and new problems. Some people in Hong Kong have yet felt comfortable with the changes. Still some are even confused or lopsided in their understanding of “one country, two systems” and the Basic Law. Many wrong views that are currently rife in Hong Kong concerning its economy, society and development of its political structure are attributable to this…

The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is subject to the level of the central leadership’s authorization. There is no such thing called “residual power.”

The “one country” is the premise and basis of the “two systems,” and the “two systems” is subordinate to and derived from “one country.” But the “two systems” under the “one country” are not on a par with each other.

The following excerpt basically tells the pan-democrats to shut up about the promises of universal suffrage in Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law and to stop stalling on Article 23:

All the provisions of the Basic Law underlie the HKSAR system. They are not isolated from but interrelated with each other. Each of these provisions must be understood in the context of the Basic Law and the HKSAR system as a whole. The implementation of the Basic Law shows that if we comprehend individual provisions of the Basic Law in an isolated way without taking into account the Basic Law as a whole, stressing one aspect while ignoring others, ambiguity or even contentious interpretation will occur, which will severely hamper the implementation of the Basic Law.

The following excerpt was an attack on Hong Kong’s independent judiciary as “guaranteed” in the Basic Law:

Under the policy of “one country, two systems,” all those who administrate Hong Kong, including …judges of the courts at different levels … In a word, loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators.

In a sense, the White Paper broke no new ground. What it did do was awaken certain people to what really was China’s policy towards Hong Kong all along. Nevertheless, the White Paper was seen as a worrying development and a sign that China would become more aggressive in how its Hong Kong policy would be enacted.

2.4.2 — Other parts of the White Paper, and historical context

What is more interesting than China’s new statement on “One Countries, Two Systems” may be China’s attitude towards Hong Kong in aspects beyond that defined in the Basic Law. One important aspect is China’s views on the trade of physical goods. The following passage from the Qianlong Emperor to King George III would not be out of place today:

There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.

Or from Lin Zexu to Queen Victoria, requesting that she ban the opium trade by basically insulting the UK:

The products that foreign countries need and have to import from China are too numerous to enumerate: from food products such as molasses, ginger, and cassia to useful necessities such as silk and porcelain. The imported goods from foreign countries, on the other hand, are merely playthings which can be easily dispensed with without causing any ill effect. Since we do not need these things really, what harm would come if we should decide to stop foreign trade altogether?

The corresponding passage from the White Paper carries a similar imperial tone, portraying HK-China trade as charity towards a  “vassal state” with benefits to Hong Kong alone. No mention was made in the White Paper of any economic benefits to China resulting from this trade:

 Ensuring Secure and Stable Supplies of Basic Necessities to the HKSAR

Because of the limitations of its natural environment, Hong Kong mainly relies on the mainland for the supply of fresh water, vegetables, meat and other basic necessities. Since the early 1960s, when the mainland opened “three express trains” to supply Hong Kong with fresh and frozen goods, and started the Dongjiang-Shenzhen Water Supply Project, the central government and the relevant local governments on the mainland have made great efforts to ensure the supply of foodstuff, agricultural and sideline products, water, electricity, natural gas, etc., to the HKSAR. By the end of 2013, some 95 percent of live pigs, 100 percent of live cattle, 33 percent of live chicken, 100 percent of freshwater fish, 90 percent of vegetables and 70 percent or more of flour on the Hong Kong market had been supplied by the mainland. The first pass yield of foodstuff supplied by the mainland to Hong Kong has maintained at a fairly high level. In 2013, in accordance with the revised agreement, Guangdong supplied Hong Kong with 606 million cu. m. of fresh water. From 1994, the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant started to supply Hong Kong with electricity, and now its annual power supply accounts for a quarter of the annual power consumption of Hong Kong. In 2013, the mainland supplied Hong Kong with 2.531 billion cu. m. of natural gas.

The White Paper also rewrote China’s role in SARS, neglecting to state how it hid news of SARS from the world until it was too late for Hong Kong, and acting as if it was Hong Kong saviour instead:

To ensure the safety of life of the Hong Kong people and help the Hong Kong economy climb out of recession, the central government promptly lent a helping hand. Although the mainland also needed medical supplies in the fight against SARS, the central government provided a large quantity of free medical supplies to Hong Kong. The Chinese leaders also went to the hardest-hit areas and hospitals of Hong Kong to inspect local conditions and console victims. On June 29, the mainland and Hong Kong signed the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), which outlines the steps that the mainland and Hong Kong should take in trade in goods and services, and trade and investment facilitation as well as the goals to be achieved. Later, the Individual Visit Scheme was introduced, allowing mainland residents to visit Hong Kong on their own. These measures helped Hong Kong overcome the SARS attack and boosted its economic growth.

2.5 — 31 August 2014: redefining “universal suffrage”

The 31 August decision basically granted “universal suffrage” to Hong Kong to elect its own chief executive, but only a twisted version that would see nomination rights retained by a cherry-picked elite.  This is not universal suffrage by any means, even by Communist Party standards (at least, before the CCP won the civil war and undid all their pro-democratic policies):


…If restrictions are placed on the right to run for election, or if the list of candidates is to be chosen by officials, then even if the right to vote was otherwise unrestricted, voters would be reduced to mere rubber stamps.

— Xinhua Daily, ROC 33 (1944)

There was a fear among pan-democrats that if they accepted what was on offer, that would be it: China would declare “universal suffrage” was achieved, mission accomplished, and nothing more needed to be done.  Thus the proposed changes to the Basic Law (more specifically, one of its Annexes) were vetoed.

The 31 August decision sparked lengthy sit-ins on public roads in several areas of Hong Kong. (But you knew that already, right?) One of the more amusing scenes from the protests was when the Carrie Lam engaged in what was pretty much a glorified high school debate with members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Most Hongkongers felt that HKFS “won” the debate, but in the end, Hong Kong would lose the battle.


As the 1944 editorial showed, China doesn’t deliver on its promises, especially those to its own people. Furthermore, as Baron Baker pointed out in 2004, Chinese Law, including the Basic Law imposed on Hong Kong, means whatever Peking wants it to mean. This includes the definitions of “universal suffrage”, as per the 31 August decision, and of “autonomy” itself, as per the White Paper.

With China showing a knack for “interpreting” basic human rights in all sorts of bizarre ways, any guarantees offered to Hong Kong by the Basic Law must be seen as empty and hollow. Hong Kong is, to put it bluntly, completely subject to the whims of Peking: it is in all respects a colony of China, just as it was a colony of the UK.

The White Paper, when compared to historical texts, makes this imperial attitude very clear. Hong Kong’s “autonomy” is a “gift” from the Celestial Empire and can be taken back at any time. Those who disagree with China are dismissed as “misunderstanding One Country, Two Systems”. All trade between the Celestial Empire and Hong Kong is conducted merely so that Hong Kong may participate in its beneficence. Hong Kong would be finished if not for the gracious benevolence of the Celestial Empire.  If Hong Kong “misbehaved”, all China needed to do was turn off the tap:

Deprived of support from the mainland, Hong Kong will be a dead city. Do they know where the water they are daily drinking comes from?

— Lu Ping, former director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Beijing

The provisions of the Basic Law aside, when a country threatens to lay siege to its “own” people, what is that if not colonialism?

The PRC needed Hong Kong “back” (it was the Qing who ceded it, after all) simply to fuel its unique brand of über-nationalism.  It never really wanted to take in Hong Kong’s populace or westernised political system. Indeed, both are seen as threats to the “eternal rule of the great Chinese Communist Party”. As Lord Skidelsky put it, “China’s vision of ‘one country, two systems’ is confined to economics. In politics, it is ‘one country, one system’—the system which produced Tiananmen Square.”


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