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The uprising in Hong Kong is a reckoning with its colonial past

The revolt has revealed the deep historical roots to the crisis and how the laws once used by the British are now serving its new authoritarian rulers.

Riot police descend on the streets, indiscriminately firing tear gas and other projectiles as they charge forward. Protesters rush towards the front lines and return fire with Molotov cocktails and rip out railings from the pavement to use as barricades. First aiders frantically pour saline solution into the eyes of children and other civilians who are caught in the crossfire, while traffic screeches to a halt. The chanting from the crowd grows louder: “Disband the police force!” “Hong Kongers, resist!” “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time!”

Violent scenes such as this have become a daily reality for the city neighbourhoods of Hong Kong. Over the last 25 weeks, the confrontations between protestors and police have escalated in thick clouds of tear gas and raging fires. The police have attacked passengers on metro trains and stormed universities (most recently, Hong Kong Polytechnic University), turning once peaceful sites of academic enquiry into war zones. At least one protestor has died in the clashes so far and two others were left in a critical condition after police shot them at close range with live ammunition.

Away from the streets, in the government buildings at Admiralty, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam brands the protestors “the enemy of the people” and declares that “they will never win”, stoking the anger of the leaderless revolt. According to a senior Hong Kong police officer, the city “has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown”.

In retrospect, the start of the uprising feels like another time. In June 2019, peaceful demonstrations were organised against a proposed bill that would have allowed Beijing to extradite Hong Kongers suspected of crimes to China. In the face of such unanimous dissent – at one protest in June well over a million people took to the streets – Lam’s government withdrew the bill. But the protestors had already become far more ambitious in their demands, calling for an independent inquiry into police brutality as well as for genuine democracy.

For a population that has never decided its own political future, the demand for self-determination presents radical possibilities. A British colony between 1841 and 1997, the territory is now a semi-autonomous enclave of communist China, whose creeping authoritarianism over the territory is regarded by local residents as a process of aggressive integration that threatens its identity.

Hong Kongers are not only revolting against social inequalities, declining standards of living and the threat of becoming part of China’s authoritarian state. They are also rebelling against an entrenched political order left over by the British.

Hong Kong has never been truly democratic. Before the British handed the territory over to China in 1997 the city’s ruling governor was appointed by London and elections for the Legislative Council – Hong Kong’s law-making body – did not take place until 1985. The negotiations between Britain and the People’s Republic of China over the sovereign and administrative arrangements of Hong Kong after 1997 – codified in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 – also took place without Hong Kong’s involvement.

Restrictions on democratic accountability were deliberately hard-wired into the city’s legislative structure. Since the handover in 1997, half of the seats in the legislature are reserved for “functional constituents”, which represent various industry interests and are filled with pro-Beijing figures. The chief executive (the head of the Hong Kong government) is selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists rather than through universal suffrage – the method enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, for appointing a new leader. China’s Communist Party has said that it would screen future candidates before their names could appear on any ballot sheet.

The most draconian laws used against the protestors, and the pro-democracy movement, are the same decrees that the British established and enforced when they ruled Hong Kong. The most severe is the Public Order Ordinance of 1967, which prohibits unlawful assemblies. Prominent members of the pro-democracy movement, especially the organisers of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution – a 79-day occupation of the territory’s financial district – as well as those who are part of the city-wide protests today, have been charged for unlawful assembly and rioting respectively under this old British law. The late Paddy Ashdown, once a vocal advocate for human rights in Hong Kong, called the Public Order Ordinance “one of Britain’s worst legacies in Hong Kong” and highlighted that the United Nations has denounced it for “excessively curtailing freedom of expression”.

Debate in Hong Kong rages over what should or will happen to the territory after 2047, when the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement guaranteeing the city’s limited freedoms comes to an end. Since China’s president Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms – the freedom of speech, of association, the right to vote and the rule of law – have been squeezed. Pro-independence parties have been banned, at least a dozen pro-democracy candidates and lawmakers, including Hong Kong’s most prominent dissident Joshua Wong, have been disqualified from elections or removed from political office.

In October 2019, the government introduced a face mask ban, citing the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. Enacted by the colonial government in 1922 to suppress strikes, the law gives the chief executive sweeping powers to “make any regulations whatsoever” in the event of an “emergency” without having to consult the legislature. For the protestors, this is just the latest sign that Hong Kong is becoming more like an authoritarian state.

The uprising has revealed the deep historical roots to the crisis and how the laws and institutions once used by the British are now serving its new authoritarian rulers.

Hong Kong’s political future looks to be bound ever-closer to China. But a generation of young people have been radicalised by these protests. Whether they instigate “the revolution of our times” remains to be seen, but if the unprecedented success of pro-democracy candidates in the latest district elections are any indication, it’s safe to say the city will never be the same. 

Read the rest of our world in revolt series here

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question