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OP-ED: What Hong Kong’s slipping autonomy means for the rest of us

  • Published at 06:36 pm May 29th, 2020
WEB_Hong Kong

Imposing autocracy on a thriving capitalist system is not the answer

Hong Kong ranked as the 12th largest trading partner of Bangladesh in 2015. This autonomous city-state operates under the “one country, two systems” policy that guarantees a distinct political and legal system, a currency, and greater civil liberties than Mainland China. 

With a strong capitalist economy and rule of law, Hong Kong has built itself into one of the world’s leading financial and logistical hubs. Economic relations with Bangladesh are long-standing. 

Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years. A historic handover in 1997 marked its return to Chinese sovereignty and the end of the British Empire in Asia. 

The transition took place in line with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong. China declared that it will provide Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs” for a period of 50 years between 1997 and 2047. The declaration was deposited with the secretary-general of the United Nations. 

However, the transition did not fully meet aspirations for democracy in Hong Kong. While the Hong Kong Basic Law espoused civil liberties and an independent judiciary, it did not allow for the election of the city’s chief executive based on universal suffrage. Nor did it allow a fully elected legislature.

The Basic Law established an independent Court of Final Appeal. Article 39 of the Basic Law enshrined the values of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to be applied in the Special Administrative Region. The media in Hong Kong continues to be vibrant and outspoken as opposed to media in Mainland China.    

In recent years, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has grown in strength. In 2019, months of protests forced the government of Hong Kong to withdraw its controversial extradition bill. The bill sparked fears that safeguards of the Hong Kong legal system would be eroded. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, concern has grown over China’s plans to enact a new security law that would bypass the Hong Kong Legislative Council. China seeks to impose a national security law aimed to prevent what it sees as sedition, subversion, secession, foreign interference, and terrorism. 

The Chinese Communist Party will debate the proposed law at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. If passed, it would be a national law extended to Hong Kong under Annex III of the Basic Law. The move has sparked fears for the future of autonomy in Hong Kong. 

China has also indicated in the recent past that it is not bound by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In 2017, the foreign ministry spokesman stated that it was a historical document with no practical significance now that Hong Kong is part of China. 

This gives rise to the question of China’s commitment to an autonomous Hong Kong until 2047. It will also raise questions about China’s general commitment to international agreements. 

Countries such as the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have been vocal critics of the recently proposed Chinese security law for Hong Kong. In the US, the Trump administration has threatened to stop treating Hong Kong as a separate customs territory if China erodes the city’s autonomy. The US Congress has seen bipartisan rallying calls for opposition to the proposed Chinese security law. 

Changes to Hong Kong’s status as a highly autonomous capitalist economy will have an impact on international trade. Hong Kong’s role as a transit port for goods plays a crucial role in Asia.  

Hong Kong has been a vital experiment for good governance in China. There had been hope that economic liberalization in China would be followed by political liberalization. The reality is that China appears to be entrenching itself in its autocratic system, bolstered by new restrictive technology.

One example of the gulf between Hong Kong and China is that in the former you can access global digital platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, whereas in the latter you cannot. 

Procrastinating on reforms and promoting more autocracy is not the answer. For now, people fear “one country, two systems” being overtaken by one country, one system under the Communist Party. 

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.

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