In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong–an international treaty registered at the United Nations- established that China would honor its promise that Hong Kong would be ruled with a “high degree of autonomy”. The lack of fulfillment of this promise is behind the ongoing demonstrations in the city, where the citizens of Hong Kong are demanding the right to elect their own leaders. How China’s government responds to the demonstrations will be a test of how far the country’s central government is willing to allow dissent in its territory.
The constitutional document of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is called the Basic Law of the HKSAR, adopted in 1990 by the Seventh National People’s Congress (NPC) of the PRC, and went into effect on 1 July 1997 when this former colony of the British Empire was handed over to the PRC.
The Basic Law was drafted in agreement with the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, and defines the basic policies of the PRC towards the HKSAR. A number of freedoms and rights of the Hong Kong residents are protected under the Basic Law. Among the principles of the Basic Law is that the selection of the Chief Executive of the HKSAR and members of the legislature is to be ultimately decide by means of universal suffrage.
In late August, Beijing said that candidates for the city’s top executive pots must be vetted by a nominating pro-establishment committee filled with Beijing allies, in contravention of the principles established in the Basic Law. Beijing advocates, however, state that Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is a local administrative city of China that is directly under the jurisdiction of the Central People’s Government, and is not a country or an independent political entity.
Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, and a longtime human rights advocate, characterized the protests against Beijing as “..a last stand in defense of Hong Kong’s core values, the values that have long set us apart from China: the rule of law, press freedom, good governance, judicial independence and protection for basic human rights.”
Several observers have suggested that US-government linked organizations are supporting the protests in Hong Kong, given their past history of subversion and provoking discord abroad. However Dave Lindorff, an old China hand, dismisses this suggestion and says, “Particularly where there is an educated, well informed populace as in Hong Kong, and/or where there is a long tradition of popular movements in defense of liberty, as is also the case in Hong Kong, it is a kind of Western arrogance to suggest that a moment like this must be the creation of US imperialism and its agents.”
For China to relinquish control of Hong Kong carries obvious risks. China is country populated by multiple ethnic groups, 56 of which are recognized in mainland China by the PRC government. The Han Chinese is the largest ethnic group, representing 91.59 percent of the population. The other 55 groups number approximately 105 million people distributed in several regions in the country.
Since the Communists gained power in 1949, minority groups such as the Uighurs and the Tibetans have repeatedly clashed with the dominant Han Chinese in confrontations that have left thousands of dead Chinese. There is concern in Beijing that relinquishing control in Hong Kong may reignite confrontation with Tibetan, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities that feel that their traditions and their basic rights are not respected. In addition, if protests are successful in Hong Kong this may empower Taiwan to keep its distance from mainland China.
The Chinese government has also had to confront several protests of common citizens because of land grabs by local government officials, homeowners, teachers and coal miners. According to researchers at Nankai University, only in 2009 there were approximately 90,000 protests throughout out the country. In its repression of ethnic minorities’ protests, as with the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, as well as in the repression of students’ protests in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Government has shown that it is more determined to suppress dissent than is concerned about international condemnation. That is why suppressing the protests now taking place in Hong Kong may be not a matter of rights but a matter of survival.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant for several UN agencies.