As anyone who has lived or worked in the city knows, Hong Kong is China and it is not China at the same time.
The complex legal system that was implemented when the city returned to the Chinese domain in 1997 makes it a unique case, which means that the boundaries between the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong (SAR) and the rare mainland China They are clear once.
The differences between the two cause a variety of reasons why they are often in conflict; that is more than evident now that tens of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets to protest what for them is an undue meddling of the Chinese government in civil affairs and the political structure of Hong Kong.
Certainly, Hong Kong has distinguished itself by its unique history. Although ex-colony returned to Chinese rule, the British colonial legacy has endured and with it a series of institutions and historical, cultural, economic, legal and lifestyle differences
Here we examine some of them:
Compared to much of China’s modern history, Hong Kong has been a bastion of peace, prosperity and (in the 1960s and 1970s) a refuge from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The city has received refugees from all over China, mainly Shanghai, since the civil war and the rise of the Communist Party in 1949.
In fact, the Chinese who migrated to the port provided the skilled and unskilled labor that made Hong Kong a manufacturing center and put it on the path to economic success.
When a group of British people planted their flag in Possession Point, on the island of Hong Kong, 170 years ago, they set in motion one of the most complex political relations that remain to this day.
Although the island of Hong Kong was ceded in perpetuity after the first Opium War, most of the mainland of Hong Kong, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories were borrowed from China. When the New Territories loan term was about to expire in 1997, it was decided that they would return the colony to China in its entirety.
Since then, the city endured a brain drain in the 1980s and early 1990s, after Britain and China agreed to the transfer of sovereignty and because the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown was fresh in the minds of the people. Hongkongers who found a way out.
There are those who fear that the repression of civil rights could soon cause another exodus. “I’m worried that people will migrate again,” said Michael Davis of the University of Hong Kong. “That would be a disaster.”
The Basic Law: “one country, two systems”
Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, provides that Hong Kong will coexist with China as “one country, two systems” for 50 years after the surrender of power in 1997.
The law, which expires in 2047, establishes that the city “must ensure the rights and freedoms of residents.”
One of the principles contained in the Basic Law reaffirmed that Lu Ping, the then main Chinese official in Hong Kong, was the right to develop his own democratic system. “The way in which Hong Kong will develop its democracy in the future is totally within the sphere of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” Lu said in March 1993, according to the state newspaper El Diario del Pueblo. “The central government will not interfere.”
However, the Chinese government has reinterpreted the document repeatedly and in June of this year, it published a government report in which it reaffirmed its “absolute jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.
Although the capital city of Hong Kong enjoys more legal freedoms than China (including, crucially, the right of assembly), this can be a critical tool for supporters of the Chinese government.
“The stability of Hong Kong is crucial,” Victor Gao, director of the China National Association of International Studies, told CNN. “There are more suitable channels for the people of Hong Kong to express their positions instead of using illegal means to create disturbances and counterproductive means to prevent other people … from continuing with their lives.”
Cultural and lifestyle
It is difficult to cultivate a sense of unity after almost two centuries of separation. Cantonese is the common language here, so Hong Kong and mainland China seem to be a world away linguistically, socially and culturally.
Sometimes it seems that the differences are minimal; a revealing and prominent example was a video that was shared on social networks, which shows an altercation occurred because a continental tourist was eating noodles in the MTR, the impeccable underground transport system of Hong Kong. But even what seems like a superficial difference can explode and this kind of videos often go viral here, highlighting the differences that they deprive between locals and their continental cousins.
Much of the frustration comes from the impact that continental visitors have in Hong Kong: they fill all kinds of premises, from maternity wards to luxury boutiques, and cause the housing market to become more expensive.
At the time of the MTR incident, an advertisement was published in a newspaper that warned the public about the “invasion” of continental “lobsters” that devour everything in their path.
The people of mainland China have a perception of Hong Kong that ranges from admiration to contempt: after the media storm that followed the noodle incident in the MTR, Kong Qingdong, a prominent Chinese academic at Beijing University, said the Hongkongers were “bastards” and “lackeys” of the imperialists.
The Hong Kong identity
Every six months, since the return of 1997, the University of Hong conducts a survey among some inhabitants of Hong Kong to measure the feelings that define identity in the city. The most recent survey was conducted in June. More than 40% of respondents said they identify themselves as Hongkongers rather than Chinese (among other options) and that percentage has increased over the past 17 years.
“The protesters are unhappy because Hong Kong is looking more and more like China,” Liujing, a 24-year-old Chinese tourist from Hainan, told CNN during the protests that took place in the Mong Kok region of Kowloon. “I support them because while we grew up, we always admire Hong Kong, if Hong Kong became like China, it would be a real shame.”
“First of all, on the continent, we never learned about things like this because of censorship, on the continent they would have dissipated this protest by force in less than two hours,” he said. “Here it’s different, I do not think the police open fire because Hong Kong is a safe place.”
“I’m not sure that the protesters achieve what they want, but I support them.”
Hong Kong rightly takes pride in the almost universal respect for the rule of law. For many people, that is what distinguishes Hong Kong from the continent; his reputation for honesty is one of the reasons why many people from different countries based their headquarters in the city.
The police usually have the confidence of the population, although it remains to be seen if this confidence will be affected by the events of recent days.
This was not always the case: until the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) was created in the 1960s, bribery was as big a problem as it is in China.
Hong Kong retains a legal system that closely resembles the British (another of the remnants of the colonial era), but this system values transparency and due process and the people receive it very willingly.
The Communist Party controls all aspects of the judicial process in China. However, the Basic Law guarantees the independence of the judicial power of the SAR.
Hong Kong retains its own currency (which is on a par with the US dollar) and the capitalist system of the city is also enshrined in the Basic Law.
The economic miracle for which they praise China often stems, in part, from the influence of Hong Kong. The presence of the free market in the city was not only a great influence on the economic reforms of the late 1970s and 1980s, but it was combined with the investments made by the main Hong Kong entrepreneurs.
The rest of China has benefited greatly from Hong Kong’s “investment, energy, and business vision”, said Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, to Andrew Stevens of CNN.
However, as China’s economic power increases, so does Hong Kong’s dependence. The city relies heavily on the re-export of Chinese manufacturers as a logistics center and as a gateway to China, in addition to tourism and the demand for retail items by the Continentals represents a considerable income for Hong Kong.
The promotion of the continental cities as rivals of Hong Kong (Shanghai as a financial and free trade center, for example), could further complicate the relationship between Hong Kong and China.