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The Hong Kong Experiment: A Post-Mortem Analysis

19 Aug 2022
By Samuel Ng
A journalist runs away from tear gas fired on the streets near Lan Kwai Fong, a popular nightlife district in Hong Kong.
Source: © Katherine Cheng, Flickr,

Twenty-five years after the handover, the journey of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to China’s heavy-handed governance has been riddled with discontent, dissatisfaction, and a thirst for democracy. How has Hong Kong come to be at the forefront of Chinese authoritarianism, and how did this experiment go so wrong?

On Hong Kong’s current political climate, former student leader Kenneth Lam summarises aptly, “speech can be criminalised, critics of the regime can be jailed, and those awaiting trial can be kept behind bars for years.” How has a city, once the freest in Asia, come to be known for its Orwellian crackdowns?

The city’s position is not enviable. From the Qing Dynasty ceding Hong Kong Island to the British, to the Japanese seizing the colony in the Pacific War, to the British returning the city after a century of Western governance, Hong Kong had been thrown around by great powers repeatedly – each “throw” an experiment to see whether the territory would float or sink.

The Aim

Hong Kong was never truly democratic. During British rule, it was London that appointed the colony’s governor. Still, governors and administrators were bound by the law, had oversight, and were swayed by expressions of public will.

However, when the British retreated, they set up Hong Kong for an experiment: to build a western-style governance system in a city of seven million people with little history of local government, while under autocratic Chinese Communist Party supervision.

The Hypothesis

The British trusted China. Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage, freedoms, and democracy, and China was tasked with providing them. Retrospectively, such a decision is laughable. However, during the Thatcher era, China was experiencing modernisation, openness, and reform. The Western world embraced Beijing, believing that with China’s new economic prosperity naturally democracy would follow.

With the Basic Law ‒ the territory’s mini-constitution ‒ in place, Hongkongers placed their trust in article 45, which espouses universal suffrage as the ultimate aim. The catch here, was the difference between Hong Kongers’ interpretation and Beijing’s implementation of the Basic Law.

China’s Methodology

The experiment, now out of British control, was in China’s hands. In 2004, the mainland’s rubber-stamp parliament ruled against introducing free elections until 2012. In 2007, the parliament’ Standing Committee pushed it back again, this time to 2017.

Finally, in 2014, China set its ground rules for 2016 Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) election and the 2017 Chief Executive election. A new standard was imposed, postulating “the Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong.” Keen observers of China know that there is no differentiation between the country and the Party. This move, however, triggered the greater 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Protesters in 2014 demanded “true universal suffrage.” Until 2014, the direction of democratic development in Hong Kong was one of suspension and delay – but ultimately the public expected universal suffrage to be implemented.

With the movement crushed, the momentum and fervour quickly dissipated. Wang Zhenmin, a prominent pro-Beijing Chinese scholar noted, “[Hong Kong] cannot afford to dedicate energy to political reform in the next five or ten years, but not to housing, people’s livelihoods and the economy”. The yearning for universal suffrage and democracy did not disappear however, it merely lay dormant until the next trigger in 2019.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Central Government was chipping away at the “two systems” ingredient to the “one country, two systems” formula. Concerns regarding Hong Kong’s rule of law and autonomy reared its head in 2018 when Beijing built a high-speed rail terminus in the heart of the city, asserting their jurisdiction over the station.

The proposed arrangement meant that although the station was geographically located in central Hong Kong, parts of the building would be governed by Chinese law, patrolled by mainland police and Chinese authorities would have power to arrest individuals inside the station, potentially transferring them to the mainland. Although the arrangement stirred much controversy, small protests quickly fizzled out and the station was opened.

The Results

The experiment came to a climax in 2019 when the suppressed anger and frustration was triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill introduced by then Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The Bill would have allowed individuals to be sent to the mainland to face trial, clearly removing the legal bulwarks separating the Hong Kong and Chinese systems and exposing Hongkongers to the murky Chinese criminal process.

Within a few weeks,  protests erupted across the city, with millions marching over many weekends to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities, and oftentimes defiance. The leaderless movement also provided a space for Hongkongers to voice their frustration with the government, especially as Carrie Lam and her administration continually pandered to Beijing.

The protests continued for months on end, with near nightly clashes between frontline protesters and the police. The movement shifted away from the peaceful family-friendly atmosphere where millions marched and moved towards a more violent and fiery confrontation. At one point, commentators speculated whether a Tiananmen-style massacre was on the cards to end the protests.

In the end, COVID-19 provided a convenient excuse to crush the protests, and for good measure, China passed the National Security Law, cementing the end of the Hong Kong experiment. 2019 will forever be remembered in the minds of Hongkongers as the pivotal year that upended any semblance of benign governance from Beijing. Within a span of a year, civil liberties, personal freedoms and the rule of law were squeezed out of the territory and the tentacles of autocracy spread. The law not only criminalised basic political expressions, but also those of thought and motive.

The cornerstones of Hong Kong’s legal system were smashed. Doctrines including the right to bail, presumption of innocence, equality before the law and judicial independence were no longer debated, not because the NSL does not permit debate, but also because they no longer existed in the city.

The Post-Mortem Evaluation

With the abrupt end of the Hong Kong experiment, one must ask “what went wrong?” and “whose fault is it?” The answer is not as simple as the questions. Some blamed the radicalism of pro-democracy youths, others blamed the inaction of older generations in political opposition. While it is true that a pretence of order and stability had been restored to the city after the 2019-20 unrest, it has come at a price: the loss of Hong Kong’s promised “high degree of autonomy” until 2047. This promise, from China to Britain, guaranteed that the city’s “way of life” would remain unchanged for 50 years, its legal and capitalistic systems would remain, and its citizens would retain their pre-1997 rights.

The local government, in proving its loyalty to the North, became overtly fused to Beijing’s policy priorities and detached itself from local sentiment. The city’s fifth COVID-19 wave displayed how little the administration cared about Hong Kong voices, with Carrie Lam reciting near daily encomiums to the Central Government.

What’s Next?

A telling clue for Hong Kong’s short-term trajectory is the selection of John Lee to succeed Carrie Lam as her term expired. In the one-horse “race” for the seat, John Lee was “elected” by a minute percentage of pro-Beijing Hong Kong elite vetted by Chinese authorities and himself, winning 99 percent of all votes.

The appointment of Lee, a former security tsar and deputy police commissioner, hints strongly that China will continue to approach Hong Kong through a prism of security, one that trumps all other considerations, including Hong Kong’s role as an international finance centre. This will come at the cost of the city’s once envied reputation, its lure as a gateway into mainland China, and its position straddling East and West.

As Hong Kong enters a new darker chapter of its journey, there is a need to look retrospectively and reflect on how this experiment came to an end. In the words of Kenneth Lam again, “how much of a price must we pay before we are willing to face the fact that Hong Kong, once an international city that respects free speech and personal freedom, has become unrecognisable?”

Samuel Ng is a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan. He is currently in his fifth year of Law and International Business at the Queensland University of Technology. He was also selected as a delegate to the Young Australian in International Affairs 2022 Future Leaders Series and the 2021 Australian Crisis Simulation Summit.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.