Hong Kong: China’s Identity Question


The rise of the People’s Republic of China in the last two decades has enabled a massive economic and social churn with new megapolises, trading zones and geo-strategic projects like One Belt One Road (OBOR). Despite massive economic and strategic forays regionally and globally there are many Faultlines within China that can derail the CCP’s façade of peaceful rise and coexistence. We have previously discussed the Uighur Movement which is an active separatist movement in China’s autonomous Xinjiang. Apart from this, other parts of China have seen similar resistance movements like Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s dispute with mainland China is not recent but more than a century old dating back to the 19th Century Opium Wars, a critical point in China’s history that has shaped its foreign policy, especially towards the western imperial powers.

17th Century China
To understand this, we must first embark upon a voyage in 17th century Confucian China under the Qing Dynasty (Manchu Empire) when trade with the outside world from Guangzhou (Canton) was limited. Resultantly, China’s trade surplus was pronounced with Chinese tea, porcelain and silk getting exported to Britain in return of Indian cotton and British silver. To counter the growing trade deficit, the British started supplying China with opium (grown from India’s eastern provinces) via British and American traders through a network of Chinese middlemen. In less than 30 years from 1810-1838, opium imports to China increased from 4,500 chests to 40,000. China’s trade surplus with Britain started getting reversed and British silver started making its way back home due to increased outflows.

Seeing the far reaching impact of opium addiction; in 1836, the Qing dynasty enforced a ban on opium and pushed for stronger regulations. Lin Zexu, a formidable bureaucrat with an imperial commission from Manchu’s Daoguang Emperor spearheaded the fight against the illegal imports of British opium. Zexu rounded thousands of Chinese traders, confiscated opium from British ships, burnt them and even dumped them in the bay angering the British traders. The 1st Opium War of 1840 broke out when British naval ships in Guangzhou bombarded and seized Chinese ports and cities and ultimately resulted in China seceding Hong Kong to the British Empire. The Treaty of Nanking was signed in mid-1842 between Britain and China ending the 1st Opium War opening 5 more Chinese ports for trade i.e. Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai, Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo, and Fuzhou where British merchants and their families could reside. The treaty also granted extraterritorial rights to Britain while indemnifying the British traders for any losses.

After the Chinese Emperor’s death in 1850, the pragmatist faction of the Chinese officials backed out from the Nanking Treaty terms; the hawkish faction lead by Lin Zexu took control and started cracking down on foreign diplomatic missions upsetting the apple cart. In 1856, Chinese authorities arrested the crew of a British ship smuggling opium into China escalating matters further. This led to the 2nd Opium War where France also joined the British Empire citing the execution of French missionaries. The 2nd Opium War was even more devastating with British and French troops landing as far as Beijing and destroying the Imperial Summer Palace which housed the Qing Dynasty’s emperor forcing him to flee to Manchuria. As a result, the Chinese Emperor’s brother ratified the Treaty of Tientsin (1858) and negotiated Convention of Peking (1860).

The Treaty of Tientsin granted Britain, France, Russia and the United States legations in Peking which was a closed city at the time. It opened 11 more ports for foreign trade including Newchwang, Taiwan, Hankou and Nanjing and granted foreign vessels including warships navigation rights on the Yangtze River. Foreigners were granted rights to travel freely across China including forbidden areas for trade and missionary activities and the Confucian ban on religious liberty to Chinese Christians was lifted. Further, China was forced to pay an indemnity of 6 million taels of silver; 2 for France, 2 for Britain military expenses and 2 for compensating British merchants. Though the US was yet to become a superpower, it was a primary player in this treaty forcing 23 concessions from China in its unequal treaties. The Convention of Peking formally ceded parts of Kowloon that were south of present-day Boundary Street and Stonecutter’s Island to the British on October 24, 1860 in perpetuity. It forced China to return all religious and charitable establishments that were confiscated from persecuted Christians to the original owners through France. Russia was granted parts of Outer Manchuria and all of Ussuri krai.

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After China suffered a defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the British Empire took advantage of a weakened Qing Dynasty and forced it to sign Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory or the Second Convention for Peking in 1898 compelling China to lease the entire Kowloon Peninsula and 200 more islands on a 99 year lease which would expire on 30th June 1997. This granted Britain the right to complete jurisdiction to enable military defence against the growing German naval power. Germany had already forced the Qing Emperor to grant concession rights on Shandong Peninsula’s Kiautschou Bay with a 99 year lease.

The period of Opium Wars and the Chinese defeat in the 19th century is also referred to as the “Century of Humiliation” where China was subjected to brutal conquests and lopsided trade terms against the western imperial powers. The Century of Humiliation and the Opium Wars have resonated deeply within Chinese policy makers from Mao to Deng to President Xi who has sought to avenge the humiliation during that era. In the above light, Hong Kong’s forced secession to Britain makes it critically important to the Chinese Dream 2049.

The Hong Kong Handover
On 4th September 1982, Chinese President Deng Xiaoping met British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and began the negotiations Hong Kong’s handover after 30th June 1997. After several discussions which lasted for 2 years, on 19th December 1984, the Sino-British Declaration was signed wherein Britain finally decided to handover Hong Kong (which included Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and all areas defined during the Second Peking Convention) to China. All these would therein become sovereign Chinese territory bringing the last imperial conquest on the Chinese mainland to closure. The agreement and annexes also mentioned establishing Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone. As embodied in the Basic Law i.e. the mini-constitution of Hong Kong, China agreed to preserve the social and cultural character of Hong Kong.

Britain and China jointly agreed on the principles of “One State Two Systems” meaning that China would exercise sovereignty over Hong Kong while preserving Hong Kong’s political and social system which came from British Rule and preserve the citizens’ basic freedoms and civil liberties. Both countries agreed that PRC’s socialist system would not be practiced in Hong Kong and the capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years until 2047. Hong Kong was formally handed over to China at midnight of 30th June 1997.

Communist China staying true to its disregard of paper promises immediately began the stealthy process of encroaching upon Hong Kong’s political and executive autonomy which it enjoyed under the one state two system doctrine. As part of this strategy, it founded the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in 1992. Simultaneously, China opposed democratic reforms under Chris Patten; Hong Kong’s last Governor under British Rule in 1992 and instead promoted a united front political group to smoothen out the transition of power post the 1997 handover.

CCP created and backed political outfits and absorbed opposing forces and pressure groups in Hong Kong’s polity as advisors, delegates or committee members serving on Hong Kong special executive council or CCP fronts. Since the 1980’s and more so during and after the handover of Hong Kong, the Chinese government has actively absorbed the social and economic elite, industrialists, financial experts, entrepreneurs and overseas Chinese experts as part of Basic Law Drafting Committee. It followed a similar model with Hong Kong with the upper class of society getting recruited as delegates or advisors to various fronts such as National People’s Congress, Preliminary Working Committee, Preparatory Committee, Provisional Legislature, Hong Kong affairs and District Affairs advisors and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Prominent pro-democracy voices such as Dorothy Liu Chiu were left out as China left no stone unturned to stifle dissent. China’s Communist Party thus employed a policy of co-optation with the united front strategy of political collaboration and absorption of non-communist forces for the party and government propaganda while disallowing the popular Democratic Party which enjoyed support on Hong Kong to participate in the negotiations post the handover.

For China, the ultimate goal of its united front co-optation strategy is the unification with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan under the one state two systems principle. Hence, while Beijing maintains the charade of Hong Kong being ruled by the Hong Kong people; in reality, it determines the kind of people that would be allowed to on basis of co-option by the party and the establishment.

The Growing Dissent
Due to China’s increasing encroachment in the daily lives of the Hong Kong people, the dissent against the Communist Party has grown stronger over the years with the Hong Kongers seeking to preserve their unique identity which Beijing has repeatedly tried to dilute and even throttle. In 2004, there were protests against the Chinese government after it ruled against universal suffrage for the post of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive before 2012 and scheduled it for 2017 instead. After repeated postponements, the issue of universal suffrage became a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy movement leading to the famous Occupy Central protests in 2014 lead by Beni Tai, ( an associate professor of Law) Chan Kin-man, (an associate professor of sociology at Chinese University) and Chu Yiu-ming.

This was also known as Umbrella Movement when the students in Hong Kong joined Occupy Central and stood up against the Hong Kong administration’s repression by holding umbrellas as a mark of defiance against the tear gas and water cannons. The Umbrella Movement lasted for months after a June 2014 Chinese white paper stated that Beijing would retain control over the political process in Hong Kong and only allow Chinese patriots to stand for elections. While China won this round it further reinforced Beijing’s fears that any substantive democratic reform would cut at its legitimacy of rule over Hong Kong and even give rise to similar demands in other ethnic conflicts within China.

China blamed the Americans for orchestrating the Occupy Central Umbrella Movement which is unsurprising as most global political reform protagonist’s work at the behest of foreign actors. It has been reported that Beni Tai regularly attends forums and seminars hosted by US State Department, National Endowment for Democracy and its subsidiary National Democratic Institute (NDI). Martin Lee, the founding Chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party travelled to the US to engage with politicians in Washington DC and has also Lee shared the stage of a NED event “Why Democracy matters in Hong Kong”. Joshua Wong, a young student activist who lead the Umbrella Movement and has been subsequently arrested many times by Chinese authorities along Martin Lee and Beni Tai have also been facilitated with the Freedom House award in the US for advocating democratic rights in Hong Kong. Despite the above, the NED has officially denied giving grants to these Hong Kong activists refuting all such claims made by China.

After the American angle emerged, China has resorted to quick and brutal crackdowns for any Hong Kong political and social dissent. Occupy Central and pro-democracy leaders have been prosecuted and disqualified from office. Chinese authorities have also kidnapped and browbeaten booksellers like Lam Wing-kee who is accused of smuggling books and reform literature into Chinese mainland which China’s Communist Party views as an act of treason. Chinese authorities’ years arrested a billionaire from the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong in 2017 under President Xi’s crackdown on corruption even though external law enforcement agencies including those from Mainland China are not authorized to operate in Hong Kong. China has also blocked pro-democracy activists from participating in a conference in Thailand.

The British Parliament sent a delegation to Hong Kong to investigate the abuses and crackdown by Chinese in 2018 in light of its 1984 agreement and the handover treaty. However, to the dismay of Hong Kong, the British MPs delegation reinterred that independence for Hong Kong was not on the table while calling upon China to respect the One State two Systems principle. Ironically, on 30th June 2017, China stated that the Sino-British Declaration marking the handover of Hong Kong no longer has any practical meaning and is just a historical document. Communists have always been two-faced and know how to play the game well. On one side China decries the Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong as irrelevant while citing the Sino-British treaty on Sikkim-Tibet border of 1890 during the Doklam crisis with India on the other. China’s record of honouring any agreement from Panchsheel to Sino British Declaration is “legendary” as Beijing considers these paper agreements as mere tools to bide time and prepare for a long march on the path towards its global ambitions.

The Chinese strategy in Hong Kong also includes Education and Propaganda to amalgamate the population slowly with the Mainland. China has been repeatedly trying to tinker with the curriculum of Hong Kong educational institutions, revising teaching manuals for students, advocating a line in praise of the Communist Party and the China growth story while removing references to 1969 Hong Kong riots, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and other purges carried out by Communist China. When China tried to introduce these changes in 2012 it was fiercely opposed and the officials backed down. This has not deterred China and it’s again trying to prescribe the rules to what must be taught in Hong Kong per CCP’s patriotic standards.

However, the most critical part of Chinese strategy is the co-optation of the Business elite of Hong Kong by China’s Communist Party. One of the main reasons why China has been able to maintain its hold on Hong Kong is its close symbiotic relationship with the business elite of Hong Kong. There is an old joke in Hong Kong that “Power in Hong Kong resides in the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club; Jardine, Matheson & Co, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation and the Governor – in that order”.

China knew that it would the need backing of the affluent business community to retain its hold in Hong Kong and started the co-optation policy with the Business elite just after Sino British Declaration. Nearly half the members of the Basic Law Drafting Committee were from business and professional sectors. Even during the transition period, China continuously engaged with business and professional community per its united front strategy to ensure an orderly transfer of power. Almost all the chief executives of Hong Kong have been closely tied with the business sector such as Tung Chee Hwa, a former shipping magnate and Leung Chunying, a real estate baron.

China’s symbiotic relationship with Hong Kong’s business and financial elite can be easily seen in the recent exposes of money laundering schemes by Chinese banks and HSBC amounting to billions. A lot of the money laundering has been on the behalf of drug lords and brutal dictators showing the dark nexus that exists between Hong Kong’s banking and financial elite with China and the world. HSBC which is headquartered in London is said to have processed $545.3 million through its Hong Kong branch as part of “The Global Laundromat”. Hong Kong’s business elite has been at the forefront of stalling pro-democratic reforms from the time of imperial rule under the British to now under Communist China. It is now estimated that Chinese firms account for 50% leases in Hong Kong’s Central district compared to 20% in 2012. Similarly, Chinese Banks and financial institutions have grown by leaps and bounds in Hong Kong. China is further planning to construct a high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou and a bridge across the Pearl River delta connecting Macau to Mainland China.

The above is an overview of how China has steadily encroached upon Hong Kong’s social, political and economic landscape through co-optation, cracking down on dissent, propaganda and economic leverage with the business elite in Hong Kong. The alterations in Hong Kong have unsettled the Hong Kongers who have enjoyed freedom, prosperity and an economic boom making them detest China’s creeping authoritarian control. This presents an ethnic identity crisis among Hong Kongers who still do not identify themselves with Mainland China which reflects in the usage of Cantonese as the spoken language in Hong Kong instead of Mainland China’s Mandarin. A recent survey by a pro-Beijing party in Hong Kong revealed that the Hong Kong youth still remains sceptical of China and is unlikely to buy into President Xi’s dream of an economic and physical integration with China. While Hong Kong’s polls to the legislature are still far away but given the growing control Beijing has over Hong Kong, the road for democratic reforms in Hong Kong is rather chequered. In trying to inflict a century of humiliation on the world as revenge, China may well end up inflicting humiliation on its own citizens in the process.


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  • How did the Chinese Government settle the question of Hong Kong through negotiations? http://www.fmcoprc.gov.hk/eng/syzx/yglz/t17767.htm
  • Hong Kong’s “Occupy Central” is US-backed Sedition https://journal-neo.org/2014/10/01/hong-kong-s-occupy-central-is-us-backed-sedition/
  • Freedom House marks its 75th anniversary by honoring three generations of Hong Kong democracy leaders https://freedomhouse.org/event/75th-anniversary-special-event-honoring-three-generations-hong-kong-democracy-activists
  • The Case of Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/03/magazine/the-case-of-hong-kongs-missing-booksellers.html
  • British delegation in Hong Kong to study legal reasons behind Agnes Chow’s by-election ban http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2140940/british-delegation-hong-kong-study-legal-reasons-behind
  • China says Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong no longer has meaning https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-anniversary-china/china-says-sino-british-joint-declaration-on-hong-kong-no-longer-has-meaning-idUSKBN19L1J1
  • Worries Grow In Hong Kong As China Pushes Its Official Version Of History In Schools https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/12/11/566909240/worries-grow-in-hong-kong-as-china-pushes-its-official-version-of-history-in-sch
  • The Umbrella Movement And Hong Kong’s Protracted Democratization Process https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03068374.2014.994957
  • Chinese banks, HSBC caught up in huge money laundering scam http://www.atimes.com/article/chinese-banks-hsbc-caught-huge-money-laundering-scam/
  • HK youth shunning ‘Chinese’ as their national identity http://www.atimes.com/article/hk-youth-shunning-chinese-national-identity/
  • Sociopolitical meaning of Mandarin-Cantonese code-switching http://www.atimes.com/sociopolitical-meaning-mandarin-cantonese-code-switching/
  • The Umbrella Movement And Hong Kong’s Protracted Democratization Process https://www6.cityu.edu.hk/ais/doc/20150219_SO_UmbrellaMovement.pdf
  • China’s united front work in Hong Kong since the 1980 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/36256951_China’s_united_front_work_in_Hong_Kong_since_the_1980s
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