Thousands of Hong Kong protesters are marching against a new extradition bill, BBC News reported. The bill would allow criminal extradition to China. This controversy is the latest chapter in the complex story of Hong Kong.
For the past week, protesters have marched on central Hong Kong to protest a bill that would allow China to extradite Hong Kong lawbreakers. The bill essentially imposes China’s harsh criminal justice system onto Hong Kong. Although protesters have clashed violently with police and hundreds of thousands are calling for the Hong Kong leader’s resignation, this event is hardly unprecedented—the territory has a long and rich history involving its struggles for freedom.
Hong Kong’s Long Road to Independence
Hong Kong is an anomaly in the global system of nations and states and it has few analogous peers. Currently, Hong Kong is a mostly autonomous land region involved in a strained agreement with China, which is a kind of “parent country” to Hong Kong. However, China and Hong Kong aren’t the only two territories involved.
In one of his courses on the history of China, the late Dr. Richard Baum, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “For more than 150 years, Hong Kong was a symbol of imperialist aggression against China. Seized by Great Britain at gunpoint after the Opium Wars, Hong Kong remained a British colonial enclave until 1997.” During the 1980s, it became apparent that China had no interest in the British extending their rule over Hong Kong past the agreed-upon end date of 1997, so international talks began in the process of returning Hong Kong to the Chinese. “Prime Minister Thatcher decided to negotiate a ‘package deal’ for the return of Hong Kong to China,” Dr. Baum said. “Under the terms of the British proposal, all three territorial parcels would revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, but in exchange, China would allow Hong Kong to exercise a ‘high degree of local autonomy’ and not to interfere with Hong Kong’s existing economic, administrative, and legal institutions for a period of 50 years.”
These agreements were the basis of the 1984 “Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.”
An Independent Hong Kong
Next, according to Dr. Baum, the agreement between the British and the Chinese laid the groundwork for a sort of constitution for Hong Kong. Dubbed the Basic Law, the document puts Hong Kong in charge of its own domestic affairs and commercial relations, though it would defer to China in matters of the military and diplomatic affairs. “Politically, the Basic Law defined a Hong Kong government that featured a strong, non-elected Chief Executive and a weak, partially elected legislature,” Dr. Baum said.
Since that time, he said, things have gone surprisingly smoothly. “Since the 1997 handover, Beijing has scrupulously adhered to its principal obligations under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. China’s leaders have made no attempt unilaterally to change Hong Kong’s political, legal, or administrative institutions, and the basic legal rights, political and civil liberties of Hong Kong’s citizens have been retained more or less intact.”
The relatively successful independence of Hong Kong is likely one of the reasons for such a strong reaction to the new bill allowing extradition to China. It’s reasonable to guess that many residents fear backsliding into life under foreign rule.
This article contains material that had been taught by Dr. Richard Baum. Dr. Baum was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specialized in the study of modern Chinese politics and foreign relations. He earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. He passed away in December 2012.