When the British government returned Hong Kong to China in July 1997—the “handover,” as it was then called—what was transferred was not just a piece of land, but the political administration of the people living there. Land is inert, but people are not. They have memory, identity, aspirations—and, hopefully, the will to act on the basis of these. It is important to keep this in mind in any attempt to understand what is happening in Hong Kong today.
When we speak of Hong Kong today, we refer to an area that includes not just Hong Kong Island, but also Kowloon Peninsula and the so-called New Territories, which are contiguous to the Chinese mainland. Britain acquired these lands in three separate treaties: Hong Kong in 1842, Kowloon in 1860, and the New Territories in 1898.
Britain claims that Hong Kong and Kowloon were ceded in perpetuity. So, technically, only the New Territories which were acquired under a 99-year lease should have been returned in 1997. But, since it had become difficult to disaggregate the development of these areas—not to mention the fact that China had consistently protested the onerous nature of these treaties—it was thought more practical to treat them as one. This issue, of course, was at the center of the complex formal negotiation that would define the political status of Hong Kong after the handover.
The British tried to extend their presence in Hong Kong beyond 1997, but the Chinese refused to compromise. Not even the strong-willed Margaret Thatcher could change the mind of the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping on this issue. Deng maintained that, even as Britain administered Hong Kong, China never relinquished its sovereignty over the territory, stating that the Chinese government could seize Hong Kong anytime if it wanted to.
China equated sovereignty with ownership, giving a totally different meaning to this political concept. The British, of course, did not merely “administer” Hong Kong. They also made and enforced the laws that had become the basis of civic and political order in the colony. That is sovereignty. In the negotiations, Britain offered to relinquish sovereignty in exchange for a form of British administration after the handover. China insisted that sovereignty and administration could not be separated.
Throughout these off-and-on talks, China staunchly refused to recognize the Hong Kong people’s right to be heard, seeing in this no more than a British ploy to bring in a “three-legged stool” into the negotiations. China warned that it would not hesitate to unilaterally act on Hong Kong’s sovereignty if there was any delay in the implementation of the 1997 handover. Britain warned that the uncertainty over Hong Kong’s future could trigger an economic meltdown. The impasse in the negotiation ended when the two powers came together in December 1984 to sign a joint declaration clarifying the future of Hong Kong. The declaration called for the writing of a Basic Law to be drafted by a committee consisting of members to be drawn from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.
The drafting went through a long consultative process, and was almost derailed by the Tiananmen protests that began on June 4, 1989. Some members of the drafting committee were removed after they expressed views sympathetic to the Tiananmen students. The violent suppression of the Tiananmen uprising further heightened uncertainty in Hong Kong, unleashing a wave of outmigration of people and capital that reached its peak in 1992. All in all, about a million people left Hong Kong before the handover.
Of the provisions in the Basic Law, the most contentious were those dealing with the political system of Hong Kong once it became a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) under China. It is these same issues that now appear to be at the center of the protest demonstrations that have rocked Hong Kong in the last four days.
All protest movements are dynamic: The more they grow and become inclusive, the more their demands become diffused. This is what happens when politics shades into ethics. That is what we hear today in Hong Kong in the ringing clamor for a “true democracy.” It is not pure coincidence that the protest is unfolding on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen incident. It echoes the emancipatory themes of Tiananmen as well as, indeed, of the Arab Spring. It is fueled by the same pure energy of the young. It takes risks, is unafraid, and is carried forward by the momentum of its own inventiveness. And here one finds the source both of its strength and vulnerability.
Today’s protest movements are the modern bearers of Marx’s idea of popular self-determination. But, unlike the revolutionary movements of an earlier era, they do not have the advantage of operating under a ready-made identity like the proletariat. Rather, they must construct their political subjectivity from the many identities they integrate in the course of the struggle. This is an achievement, not a given. What is it for Hong Kong’s current movement? Is it the idea of a democratic Hong Kong that is not only autonomous but also free? If that is the case, then they must be prepared to withstand brutal suppression. The world will cheer them on, but in the end they will have to fight alone.
Where they have succeeded in toppling regimes, modern political movements have rarely been able to build the governments of their own choosing. More organized forces took over the fruit of their efforts. Gramsci was correct: “The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organized and long prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favorable.”
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