Twenty-one years ago this month Hong Kong was handed over to China after 150 years of British colonial rule. The principle on which China assumed sovereignty of the territory is known as “one country, two systems”, guaranteeing the people of Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, the rule of law and basic freedoms. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty negotiated in 1982 and lodged at the United Nations, gives Britain legal as well as moral responsibility to monitor the protection of Hong Kong’s way of life for 50 years after the handover.
For the first 15 years, China observed its side of the bargain reasonably well. I lived and worked as a journalist in Hong Kong from 1997 to 2002, the first five years after the handover. Although I could begin to see some small, subtle erosion of freedoms, by and large “one country, two systems” worked well. After leaving the city in 2002, I lost touch with political developments for the next decade or more, because there appeared to be few problems.
In the past five years, however, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. The promise of genuine universal suffrage was betrayed, prompting the Umbrella Movement, in which, in 2014, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protest for almost three months. Since then the repression of the city’s pro-democracy movement has become ever more intense.
In 2015, Hong Kong-based booksellers publishing works about China’s political leaders were abducted by Chinese agents. One, Gui Minhai, is still in detention in China. Since 2016 pro-democracy legislators have been disqualified from the legislature, on the pretext that they had failed to take their oaths properly, and this year pro-democracy candidates who had previously advocated self-determination were disqualified from contesting by-elections.
Over the past 12 months there have been a series of trials of pro-democracy activists, several of whom have been jailed. The most prominent student leaders of the Umbrella Movement – Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow – spent several months in jail last year, and earlier this year the student activist Edward Leung was sentenced to six years in prison.
Academic freedom and press freedom are under increasing pressure. A new high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and the mainland brings Chinese law into Hong Kong territory (Chinese law will be enforced in West Kowloon railway terminus).
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