The decision by the Chinese National People’s Congress to adopt a new Security Law for Hong Kong is putting the special status of the former British crown colony into the spotlight. The political principles that have applied to Hong Kong since 1997 are a historic compromise and are unique throughout the world. Compliance with the agreement reached at that time will be a key issue for Hong Kong’s future within China.
Historic legacy of the colonial period
China had to cede Hong Kong to Great Britain after the First Opium War (1839 to 1842). A lease agreement concluded in 1898 for further parts of the Hong Kong territory was in force for 99 years. When the British lowered the Union Jack in Victoria Harbour at midnight on 1 July 1997, the entire crown colony was ultimately passed to the People’s Republic of China after more than 150 years. Following difficult negotiations between UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, China and the UK signed a Joint Declaration determining the future status of the city in 1984.
Formula for the coexistence of different Systems
Hong Kong became part of the People’s Republic of China 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 judiciary, 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.
People of Hong Kong insist on their guaranteed rights
In the first decade after the handover, this arrangement functioned smoothly for the most part on both sides. However, above all Hong Kong’s younger generation 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, who has not been determined directly via elections but by an electoral body to date.
Since 2010, there have therefore been repeated mass protests and street occupations that have attracted worldwide attention. Debates on a controversial extradition law in 2019 and the recent decision reached by the Chinese National People’s Congress on a new Security Law are further exacerbating tensions and fuelling fears of a possible reduction in civil liberties and the guaranteed special status of Hong Kong as a whole.
Federal Government and EU calling for Hong Kong’s autonomy to be respected
In the view of the Federal Government, the principle of “one country, two systems” and the basic rights of the people of Hong Kong enshrined in the Basic Law must be upheld, in particular the right to freedom of expression and assembly. Restraint and steps towards de-escalation are now required on both sides. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued the following statement with regard to recent developments:
The principle of “one country, two systems” and the rule of law are, at the end of the day, the basis for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. The Security Law must not call these principles into question. Freedom of opinion and assembly, as well as democratic debate, must continue to be respected in Hong Kong in the future.
In a declaration by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy regarding the deliberations on a new Security Law, the European Union has likewise emphasised the need to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and has called for rights and freedoms in Hong Kong to be respected as well as for a democratic debate on the legislative process to be held. Click here to read the full declaration.