Free Hong Kong is a reasonable demand
What you need to know about the Hong Kong crisis
How is Hong Kong different from mainland China?
Almost everything. Above all the characters: In Hong Kong traditional characters are used instead of simplified Chinese. That's why dw.com is also available in both versions. Hong Kong's official languages are English and Chinese - actually Cantonese, a dialect that is only spoken and understood in southern China.
In addition to English as the official language, a lot in Hong Kong is still "very British". Left-hand traffic applies on the roads. And even the power plugs are different. While you need the so-called Commonwealth plug in Hong Kong, mainland China has a mixed system of Europe, Australia and the USA.
The banks in Hong Kong print their own banknotes, the Hong Kong dollar (1 euro = approx. 8.70 HK dollars).
Left-hand traffic in Hong Kong
And above all, the social system is different - politically and economically. There are elections - even if a substantial number of the candidates are currently being selected by the leadership in Beijing. There is freedom of the press, expression and assembly. Besides, Hong Kong is capitalist. And in contrast to the mainland, private property and real estate are protected.
The Hong Kongers are Chinese citizens, but have the passport of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, with which one can, for example, enter the Schengen countries in Europe, including Germany, without a visa. Holders of Chinese passports need a visa for this. Passport and customs controls take place at the border between Hong Kong and mainland China.
What does "one country, two systems" mean?
Great Britain leased Hong Kong from China for 150 years, first the Hong Kong Island, later the districts of Kowloon and New Territory. The agreement expired on June 30, 1997. The British surrendered their crown colony to China.
The Chinese reform politician Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) invented the term "one country, two systems" as early as the 1980s to make the return of Hong Kong legally possible. "Two systems in one country are feasible and permissible," Deng said in 1982. "You shouldn't destroy the system on the mainland, neither should we destroy the other."
Border between Hong Kong and mainland China
This attitude shaped the Sino-British negotiations on the return of the city-state, which resulted in a joint declaration on Hong Kong in 1984 and later in the constitution for the city on China's south coast, the so-called "Basic Law".
What is regulated in the "Basic Law"?
After the return to China in 1997, the "Basic Law" is the central legal document of Hong Kong alongside the Chinese constitution. The National People's Congress in Beijing established a 59-member Parliamentary Council in 1985, which wrote the "Basic Law". 23 members of the council were Hong Kongers, such as the real estate tycoon Li Ka-shing, Democratic Party co-founder Martin Lee Chu-ming and the writer Louis Cha Leung-yung.
After two public hearings were held in Hong Kong in 1988 and 1989, the Basic Law was ratified by the People's Congress in Beijing in 1990 and came into force on July 1, 1997. The "Basic Law" guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Freedom of religion and assembly also have constitutional status in Hong Kong. In addition, free elections are at least provided (see below).
What does the 50-year period mean?
Article 5 of the Hong Kong Basic Law provides that socialism does not apply in Hong Kong. It says: "The capitalist system and lifestyle will remain unchanged for 50 years." But what is meant by lifestyle, or "way of life", as it literally says in Article 5?
There are different interpretations of what the specific deadline, which expires on June 30, 2047, applies to. The Chinese central government asserts that "the principle of 'one country, two systems' will not be changed," as President Xi Jinping said when speaking in Hong Kong in 2017 at the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, ex-parliamentary speaker of Hong Kong, believes that the deadline relates exclusively to Article 5. The "Basic Law" will remain in effect after 2047. However, the opposition fears that with the possible end of the capitalist system, the principle of "one country, two systems" will no longer apply and that civil liberties and full democracy, which has yet to be fought for, will come to an end.
What are the protesters asking for?
The trigger for the protests, which have been going on for over four months, was the controversial extradition law that Hong Kong's Beijing-friendly Prime Minister Carrie Lam wanted to whip through the city council. The regulation stipulates that suspects from Hong Kong who are accused of crimes in China can also be tried on the mainland. Lam meanwhile put the law on hold. But the demonstrators want it to be taken off the table completely.
Mass rally on August 18, 2019
Over time, the demonstrations got bigger and bigger, at the same time the police's actions became more brutal: tear gas and rubber bullets were used. The protest movement is now demanding the full investigation of these police operations, during which demonstrators - from the point of view of many - were deliberately injured. Lam, who is described as incapable of governing, should resign, so another demand. The ultimate goal of the protest movement is that general and free elections take place.
Although there are also aspirations for independence in Hong Kong, the major political parties, including the opposition, have clearly distanced themselves from such positions. No separation from China has been called for at previous rallies by the protest movement. The demonstrators only spoke of "liberation" in the sense of granting freedoms.
Why are there no general elections?
In previous practice, Hong Kong's top management was elected by a China-friendly committee and appointed by the central government - including the current head of administration, Lam.
In the city parliament, the "Legislative Council" (Legco), half of the seats have been directly elected in the past four legislative periods since 2004. The other half were appointed by so-called "socially relevant groups" ("Functional Constituency"). The Pro-China parliamentary group currently has a slim majority of 43 seats on this 70-member body.
Hong Kong City Parliament Legco
The "Basic Law" provides for free general elections for the head of administration and all seats in parliament, but does not contain a timetable (Articles 45 and 68). The efforts of the opposition in Hong Kong to enforce universal suffrage have so far remained unsuccessful.
In 2014, the People's Congress in Beijing approved the general elections on the condition that the selection commission set up by China selects the candidates in advance. However, this regulation did not find the necessary two-thirds majority in the Hong Kong Legco in 2015.
What rights does China have in Hong Kong?
The central government in Beijing is only officially responsible for defense and foreign policy. Hong Kong is allowed to exercise all other sovereign tasks, such as legislation and jurisdiction, itself. This is regulated by Articles 13 and 14 of the "Basic Law".
Can China use soldiers in Hong Kong?
From a legal point of view, yes - but an application is considered unlikely.
Article 14 of the Basic Law states: "The People's Liberation Army does not interfere in local affairs in Hong Kong." The army must not become active "ex officio".
But: "The Hong Kong government is empowered to ask the central government for support operations by the People's Liberation Army in Hong Kong, if necessary, in order to maintain social order, as well as in the event of natural disasters."
Despite the tense situation, it does not look like head of administration Lam Beijing will ask for military operations at the moment. The situation is too reminiscent of the months of student protests lasting 30 years on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which were brutally suppressed by the People's Liberation Army on June 4, 1989 at gunpoint.
China's President Xi Jinping with Hong Kong’s head of administration Carrie Lam in Hong Kong in July 2017
On October 1st, China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of its state. The use of force in Hong Kong would cast a dark shadow over the celebrations.
But the Chinese military is already present in Hong Kong - and quite regularly: 6,000 soldiers are stationed in 14 barracks for national defense.
Who has the final say
In the end, the Beijing tour decides. China's President Xi Jinping is also the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, including the soldiers stationed in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam's disciplinary manager is Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Regardless of whether the conflict is resolved by political or violent means - both can only be achieved with the consent of the central government.
Why is China accusing the US and UK of meddling?
China's state-run media released a photo showing a diplomat from the US Consulate General in Hong Kong with opposition leaders. Other photos show protesters with a US flag in their hands. Apparently it is proof enough for Beijing to portray the USA as the mastermind behind the protests, even though the same diplomat has also met with politicians who are friendly to China.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing also accuses Great Britain of "meddling in internal affairs". After Hong Kong's return to China, the British government reports regularly to Parliament in London: every six months, the British Foreign Office sends an assessment of the situation in the ex-crown colony.
On the other hand, in mid-August, the social media giants Twitter and Facebook blocked thousands of accounts that may have been controlled by China and on which Hong Kong's protest movement was defamed.
What will happen on June 30, 2047?
Let's look into the glass ball!
The only working way out of the current crisis now seems to be a political solution alone. It has to be a solution that is accepted by both the Chinese leadership and the political parties in Hong Kong.
If it succeeds now, Hong Kong would still be a special administrative region 50 years after its Commonwealth period, enjoying a high level of autonomy and perhaps even electing the head of administration and parliament directly.
If China and the Beijing-loyal forces prevail in the metropolis, the status will be open from 2047. Should socialism be introduced, everything in Hong Kong would have to be nationalized. A process that the world has never seen before.
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