The handover agreement between China and Great Britain gave Hong Kong special freedoms of press, speech, and assembly for at least 50 years starting 1997. This stands in alleged contradiction to China’s censorship and Beijing’s strong grip on power over the years.
Hong Kong is a part of China, but has its own currency, language, legal system, identity, and culture. Protesters are concerned that China’s encroachment is a violation of the “one country, two systems” setup. They want to achieve full democracy before 2047, when Hong Kong could become integrated with the rest of China once the period of 50 years stipulated in the handover agreement expires. Many are eager to attain complete independence.
The current independence movement emerged after the 2014–15 electoral reforms (which ruled that only candidates approved by Beijing will be allowed to contest elections in Hong Kong), which sparked the 79-day massive occupation protests. The failure of the campaign for a free and genuine democratic process strengthened the pro- independence discourse. After the protests, many new political groups advocating for independence or self-determination were established as they deemed the “One Country, Two Systems” principle to have failed. They had seen actions by the Hong Kong government as prioritising the interests of the Chinese Communist Government. According to a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in July 2016, nearly 40% of residents aged 15 to 24 supported the territory becoming an independent entity, whereas 17.4% of the overall respondents supported independence, despite only 3.6% stating that they think it is “possible”.
In early 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition bill which legalised the extradition of criminals or prisoners from Hong Kong to mainland China. The citizens of Hong Kong felt that this bill could endanger Hong Kong’s judicial independence and expose them to unfair trials and arbitrary treatment by the government of China. They also feared the loss of Hong Kong’s sovereignty and felt that the Chinese government could use this law to threaten activists or muzzle the press. In June 2019, widespread protests broke out against the extradition bill in Hong Kong. As the protests intensified, confrontations between the protesters and the police force became more common. Although the extradition bill was withdrawn, protesters considered the action “too little, too late”.
The Chinese government termed the protests in 2019 as “riots” and there were reports of potential military action by the People’s Liberation Army (there are around 6,000 soldiers housed in army garrisons in Hong Kong) being deliberated by the Chinese government.
In June 2020, China enacted the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which gives Beijing the power to punish a variety of political crimes committed in Hong Kong. China has been accused of trying to suppress all opposition to the Communist Party through this law. The imposition of the law has been widely criticised, especially by countries of the West, for allegedly endangering the rights of the people of Hong Kong.
The protests and struggle for autonomy in Hong Kong have drawn worldwide attention. They are not merely important for the future of Hong Kong, but also hold symbolic importance — they represent a struggle between two contrasting government models, i.e. the authoritarian and socialist model followed by the People’s Republic of China, and the liberal and democratic model of the West.