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The Future of Hong Kong: 20 Years after Handover

Published 09 Oct 2017

On Thursday, October 5th 2017, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (NSW) and the Australian Branch of the International Law Association co-hosted the eminent legal practitioner Professor Johannes Chan SC of the University of Hong Kong, and Professor John Wong of the University of Sydney, to discuss the current legal and political situation in Hong Kong.

Professor Chan outlined three recent ominous developments that threaten Hong Kong’s ability to maintain any kind of democratic system within the PRC: the disappearances of booksellers, the disqualification of Legislative Council members for refusing to swear oaths of loyalty to Beijing, and the jailing of pro-democracy protesters from the ‘Umbrella movement’. Professor Chan also noted grave concerns over charges laid against three Occupy movement founders in March this year, almost three years after the movement had been created. Professor Wong elaborated on Professor Chan’s analysis by describing his field work in interviewing the Occupy movement students prior to their sentences.

Both speakers described the changing attitude of Beijing towards Hong Kong. Initially it had been one of self-restraint in the first decade of semi-independence to one of impatience and increasing intervention in the second. Compared to what was happening in Hong Kong, Professor Chan noted the resurgence of the pro-independent movements around the world, most recently the Catalonian movement in Spain. Perhaps Beijing felt threatened by such movements. Or perhaps it was moving ineluctably towards more authoritarian control over its outlying territory for other reasons.

Further developments compromised Hong Kong’s ability to maintain a separate democratic form of government. The construction of a high-speed train line between Hong Kong and the mainland was accompanied by Beijing insisting on co-locating immigration checkpoints staffed by its own officials within the terminus at West Kowloon – a major compromise of Hong Kong’s capacity to administer its own Customs.

Professor Chan discussed Hong Kong’s judiciary. The prevalence of many eminent judges from overseas jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand and Britain presiding over Court of Final Appeal cases in Hong Kong on a non-permanent basis provides some hope that Hong Kong’s judicial independence may be maintained. But the capacity of Beijing to end the hiring of foreign judges whenever it felt like it could not be ignored.


Report by Mitchell Travers

AIIA NSW intern