Hong Kong has only recently entered into international focus. Several weeks ago, NSA analyst Edward Snowden began to divulge information about American surveillance programs against foreign and domestic targets. He did so from a hotel in Hong Kong, and the next month was a media circus over who Snowden was and whether he would be extradited to the United States.
Ultimately, the struggle over Snowden is not the major struggle involving Hong Kong. On July 1st, 1997, sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, which made the territory a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The agreement between the two countries made explicit that Hong Kong was to enjoy fundamental freedoms that the rest of Chinese citizens do not have. This dichotomy, part of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” policy, is reflected in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which in part reads:
Article 5 The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.
Despite these legal provisions, Hong Kong is a frontline in the battle for democratic rule and civil rights. Though this fifty year guarantee is written into law, the history of post-handover Hong Kong is not one of democratic rule. The executive head of a the area was picked by the Beijing political elite and though “Beijing has promised that Hong Kong citizens will be able to pick their own chief executive …no later than 2017 and pick an entire legislature by 2020” it would be ill-advised to expect an authoritarian state to give full democracy to a part of its people.
However, Hong Kong still enjoys more press and protest rights than the rest of China, which has led to the largest vigils in remembrance of the 1989 pro-reform and pro-democracy movement that was brutally crushed in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as well as hundreds of other Chinese cities.
July 1st has also been key anniversary, and brings together of groups that oppose the current government of Hong Kong, the Chinese government, or lament that handover from Britain. Despite monsoon rains, at least 100,000 people marched.
The battle for justice and civil rights does not just go through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Burma. It goes through Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore- where highly-developed free market capitalism is stubbornly married to intrusive, strong-armed governments. Though political scientists have correlated certain types of wealth to more pluralistic and free societies, there are always exceptions.
Hong Kong is held between two worlds. The PRC every day looks more economically similar, the charade of democracy is still there. The wealthy capitalist countries of Europe have the same gleaming skyscrapers and business cultures, but they also have universal suffrage and imperfect, but working democracies.
Every great march in Hong Kong could be its last. With these calls for reform, democracy, and civil rights we see 1989 again. The failure, the blood, and promise that never again will such change be turned away with armored cars and rifle butts. This July 1st, those in the past and those yet to come, are a reminder.
The dream is not dead yet.