Hong Kong’s Autonomy

By | Updated March 27, 2017 1:37 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. In 2014, the prospect of the first direct election of a chief executive increased the tension between Hong Kong’s yearning for autonomy and China’s demand for its loyalty, manifesting in 79 days of street protests. That tension is ever-present in Hong Kong politics, but the kind of democracy protesters demanded remains as elusive as ever. 

The Situation

The 2014 protests were sparked by China's insistence that it would vet candidates for the chief executive post, a move seen by demonstrators as evidence it was backtracking from a pledge to implement full universal suffrage for the 2017 election. Tens of thousands of students and outraged citizens flooded the streets of central Hong Kong, 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” for the means of protection students used during 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.” Instead, the March 26 election was decided by a 1,163-member committee dominated by China loyalists, who chose Leung's deputy Carrie Lam to succeed him. Last year's elections to the city legislature generated a surge in support for pro-democracy candidates and were followed by the government doubling down against critics; two pro-independence activists were purged from the chamber and there's a bid to oust four other pro-democracy lawmakers. Concern about China's encroachment on the city's autonomy was also fanned by the disappearance of five booksellers from a Hong Kong bookstore that sold books critical of the Communist Party elite.

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 a 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.
  • 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