When the British lowered the Union Jack in Victoria Harbour and China hoisted its flag at midnight on 1 July 1997, the crown colony was passed to the People’s Republic of China after more than 150 years. The reason for this restitution was the expiry of a lease agreement for large parts of the territory of Hong Kong. Following difficult negotiations between UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping, China and the UK had signed a Joint Declaration determining the future status of the city in 1984.
Can opposing systems coexist?
Hong Kong became part of the People’s Republic in 1997 on the basis of this Declaration. However, in line with the formula “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong, as a special administrative region, retained its free market economy, its own currency, its own legal system, its own laws, a political system with democratic elements and guaranteed civil liberties such as the freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.
There is a visible and monitored border with mainland China, which is primarily responsible for foreign and defence policy. The city is to retain this semi-autonomous special status for 50 years, i.e. until 2047.
A young protest movement is forming
In the first decade since the handover, this arrangement functioned smoothly for the most part on both sides. After that, discontent particularly among young citizens of Hong Kong, began to grow. School pupils and students demanded greater participation, economic prospects and democratisation, an objective that was set out by the Hong Kong Basic Law. For instance, they called for the democratic election of the Head of Government. To date, this official has been appointed by an electoral body influenced by the Beijing central government.
The first major protests took place in 2010. Weeks of mass protests and street occupations in 2014, which saw tens of thousands of people take part, attracted worldwide attention. They were a precursor to the current wave of protests, which were sparked by plans for a controversial extradition law. The demonstrators accuse the leadership in Beijing under President Xi Jinping of increasing interference in Hong Kong’s affairs and the dismantlement of civil liberties – in other words disregard for the “one country, two systems” formula.
In the view of the German Government, restraint and steps towards de-escalation are now required on both sides. In this context, the fundamental rights of the people of Hong Kong enshrined in the Basic Law must be preserved, particularly the right to the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly.
Foreign Minister Maas:
We are greatly concerned by developments in Hong Kong. The situation is continuing to escalate, and we can only call on all sides to exercise restraint. However, it continues to be important to us that the right to freedom of expression is not impaired.