Hong Kong’s Autonomy

By | Updated June 17, 2016 1:56 AM UTC

Hong Kong is an island of free speech and civil liberties in an authoritarian sea. It is not, however, a democracy. Hong Kong citizens have never had the power to choose their top leader, neither as part of China since 1997 nor as an outpost of the British Empire for 156 years before that. The prospect of the first direct election of a chief executive in 2017 has increased the tension between Hong Kong’s yearning for autonomy and China’s insistence on its loyalty.

The Situation

Tens of thousands of students and outraged citizens flooded the streets of central Hong Kong in the summer and fall of 2014 for 79 days of pro-democracy protests, demanding an end to what they said was China’s increased political interference. The demonstration blocked key city roads and became known as the “Umbrella Movement” after the students sought shelter in clashes with riot police. The authorities were resolute and public support waned, so the protest fizzled at the end of 2014 without achieving its goal: free popular elections and the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. China had previously pledged to give Hong Kong citizens a leader chosen by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee” starting in 2017. In August 2014, its legislature reiterated that candidates must be screened by a committee, which would give Beijing an effective veto over anyone viewed as unfriendly to the central government. China also asserted the right to interpret Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.  In January, thousands took to the streets again to protest the disappearance of five Hong Kong book sellers who had been critical of China’s Communist Party. One of the five resurfaced in Hong Kong in June, saying he had been detained for five months after crossing the border and quizzed about people who bought books at his store.


The Background

The 1984 Sino-British power transfer agreement specified that China would give Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under a principle the Chinese call “one country, two systems.” The top official, however, was to be chosen by an intricate nominating process that, in the view of democracy advocates, gives few citizens a voice and puts Beijing in control. It hasn’t worked out well: The chief executives have lacked popular support, with the first one, Tung Chee-hwa, departing after protests and his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, amid financial scandal. In 2007, China promised open elections starting in 2017 and debate ensued about how they should be conducted.

The Argument

Student protest leaders have said they’re unsure how to broaden their struggle for free elections. Though the public tired of the 2014 occupation, the students claim that they emboldened citizens to demand democracy and that there is still support for universal suffrage that meets what they call “international standards.” Pro-Beijing groups argue that China never promised more than the limited form of universal suffrage it offered, and that the occupation damaged Hong Kong’s rule of law and standing in the international financial community. China’s wariness of Hong Kong’s democracy movement is consistent with its wider push to assert regional control and to redress the humiliation it says it suffered after ceding the city to Britain upon losing the first Opium War in 1841. The pro-democrats argue that increasing Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs violates China’s pledge to respect its principle of “one country, two systems.”

The Reference Shelf

  • Manifesto announcing a campaign for expanded democracy led by the activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace.
  • China presented its interpretation of Hong Kong democracy in a 2014 policy paper.
  • The website of the pro-democracy group Hong Kong 2020 sets forth objections to the way Hong Kong chooses its chief executive and suggests improvements.
  • The New York Times published a Q&A about Hong Kong-China tensions with Hong Kong University law professor Michael C. Davis.
  • A Bloomberg photo essay on the 79-day demonstrations.

First published July 28, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
David Tweed in Hong Kong at dtweed@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net