Hong Kong: Tension on the Rise

Over the last weekend, an estimated 1.3 million Hong Kong residents – nearly 1 and 7 of the region’s 7.3 million population – took to the streets in order to protest a new bill amending the city’s Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (FOO). Under the proposed law, Hong Kong’s chief executive (heavily influenced by Beijing) would have the authority to order the extradition of criminal suspects to countries not covered by its current extradition treaties—including mainland China. Several leading economists and political commentators argue this is another example of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) eroding Hong Kong’s international autonomy and will lead to a further decline in international trust in Hong Kong’s global autonomy.

Hong Kong has enjoyed it’s status as the center of international business throughout the eastern hemisphere for centuries. Since the United Kingdom’s handover of sovereignty in 1997, the PRC agreed to a “one country, two systems” relationship. This status has allowed Hong Kong to maintain it’s position as global financial hub with a degree of political freedom unknown elsewhere in China, including an elected legislature and a free and boisterous media. However, over the last 20 years, Hong Kong has witnessed a slow decline in international investment and social freedom as Mainland China continues to seek it’s position as an economic and political hegemony throughout Asia.

In 2003, for example, Hong Kong boasted the world’s busiest container port, as goods went from there to mainland China and the rest of the international community. It has since fallen to 5th, behind the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Ningbo-Zhoushan. Additionally, in 2017, Shanghai’s stock exchange total market capitalization overtook Hong Kong’s by more than 9 trillion yuan ($1.3 trillion). Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, isn’t far behind.

Mainland China’s political and economic influence has continued to grow to new heights, and so has the pressure on Hong Kong. The region’s special status is due to end in 2047 – by prior arrangement – but leaders in Beijing don’t seem to want to wait that long, creating points of contention in recent years. Notably in 2012, Hong Kong residents protested a new school curriculum that included a “patriotic education” requirement. In 2014, the “Umbrella Revolution” shut down the city’s financial center in response to a new law that allowed a Beijing-approved committee to pre-screen political candidates for the city’s chief executive office.

With recent global tensions exacerbated by trade negotiations with the United States, Hong Kong’s independent status is becoming even more scrutinized by Beijing as tit-for-tat arrests for espionage dominate news columns. In early 2019, two Canadian businessmen were arrested in Hong Kong for purportedly spying on the PRC. This comes in the wake of a chief financial officer from the Chinese tech giant Huawei being arrested in Canada under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department. It is no surprise Xi Jinping and the PRC’s top leadership see Hong Kong as an extension of the West with it’s brutal history of imperialistic influence on the mainland.

Hong Kong’s citizens are likely to continue to push back with support from the international community, and more protests can be expected – possibly violent. According to a recent survey from the University of Hong Kong, only 3.1% of those aged between 18 to 29 in Hong Kong identify themselves as broadly Chinese. This compares with 31% in 1997. Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland will surely become more volatile in the coming years.


By Koley Scott