On March 11th, 2018, over two million people are expected to vote in the Hong Kong by-elections. Experts have stated that this is expected to be a de-facto referendum that will dictate Hong Kong’s future autonomy and its relationship with Beijing.
Hong Kong is an autonomous territory that holds a separate political and economic system from China. Under the principal – One Country, Two Systems – it exercises its own independent executive, legislative and judiciary powers. However, it comes under China for foreign affairs as well as military defence. Historically Hong Kong was part of Imperial China. In 1841, the last imperial dynasty admitted defeat when the British Empire seized the Hong Kong Island. From 1842 to 1941, Hong Kong was formally ruled by the British. The lease stipulated that Britain would leave the territory in 1997 and the two countries signed Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, negotiating the terms of this release. The “one country, two systems” infrastructure was thus established.
In 2014, there were a series of mass protests that took place in Hong Kong that came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution. Largely organized by students, it protested the reforms that had been proposed for Hong Kong’s electoral system. Those protesting it claimed that the move would curtail the region’s democratic values.
Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong was China’s preferred candidate and won a highly restricted election. She has been criticized by detractors for being pro-Chinese government. Human rights groups and pro-democracy politicians have seen the push for harsher sentences as evidence that the government was trying to satisfy Beijing’s interests.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken an aggressive stance against regions like Taiwan and Hong Kong that assert their independence. However, during the most recent National Party Congress he vowed to maintain the ‘one country two systems’ policy noting, “[We must] maintain the central authority in Hong Kong and guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy at the same time. [We must] ensure that the ‘one country, two systems’ policy will not change or deform.”
In February 2018, the top court in Hong Kong delivered a substantial ruling for pro-democracy activists. A five-judge panel at the court of final appeal has overturned prison sentences handed to Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist and two others.
The 2018 Hong Kong Legislative Council by-election is scheduled to be held on March 11th, 2018. Many have stated that this is the de facto referendum deciding on Beijing’s intervention. The elections are for four seats in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo), the Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West and New Territories East geographical constituencies and the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency. The by-election was triggered by the four seats left vacant by the six Legislative Council members who were disqualified by the court over the 2016 oath-taking controversy.
More than two million people are expected to vote for the elections and pro-democracy activists are struggling to keep the momentum up. “The mood is subdued... Many people feel helpless and think things can’t be changed and the central government will eventually take control over Hong Kong,” said 20-year-old student Peter Lee who attended a pro-democracy rally of a few hundred people. “But that’s why we need to come out now to demand changes, before it’s too late.”
Agnes Chow, a pro democracy activist said, “They want to stop the whole young generation that voices out opinions against the Hong Kong and Beijing government. Hong Kong is the front line in the battle against this authoritarian regime. When the rest of the world is co-operating with China, they shouldn’t only care about economic issues but also human rights.”
“We’ve lost every battle in the last few years, so it’s getting harder to motivate people to resist,” said one pro-democracy legislator, who does not want to be named. “We might not like the Communist party but they are very good at what they do: crushing opponents”.
Our assessment is that given the aggressive stance taken by Beijing, it is unlikely that Hong Kong will be able to push back against extended intervention from the mainland. It should be noted that Jinping’s vision for China, which he laid out in detail during the National Congress, cannot be achieved without complete unification of all territories including Hong Kong. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Beijing will protect Hong Kong’s autonomy. The by-elections will essentially be dictating Hong Kong’s future.