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SPF China Observer

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SPF China Observer


No.23 2020/02/14

China’s Hong Kong Dilemma

Ichiro Inoue (Professor, Graduate School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University)


 The anti-government protests in Hong Kong that were triggered by the 2019 Extradition Bill, which would have given the Chinese government the right to extradite fugitive criminals to mainland China, did not let up even on New Year’s Day 2020. Unlike the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” the current protests have seen violent behavior on the part of some young protestors and continuous clashes with the police, making it the most aggressive mass demonstration since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. This paper examines the structural changes that have taken place in the relationship between China and Hong Kong, which form the background for the current protest movement, and the future implications of these changes for China.

1. Characteristics of and developments in the protest movement

 At first, the Hong Kong protest movement was peaceful. A statement released in June 2019 by the organizers of the protest placed the number of participants at over 1 million, making it a demonstration of an enormous scale. However, as summer turned to fall, some of the protestors became violent and began using slogans that targeted the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong, such as “Revolution of our times” and “Free Hong Kong,” which had previously been considered taboo. At first, many of the people participating in the peaceful demonstrations were men and women of all ages, but the violent acts that began over the summer were mainly committed by young people. Although public demonstrations have been a frequent occurrence in Hong Kong, where the idea of democracy is deeply embedded in civil society, the general public has generally been psychologically resistant to violence[1]. Even during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” as criticism about radical acts increased, the movement gradually lost the support of the general public. However, the young people engaging in acts of violence this time are fully determined about and convinced of their cause, and as a result they continue to enjoy a certain measure of public sympathy despite the escalation of violence. This sympathy, in turn, is encouraging the rise in violence.

 Even as some demonstrators increasingly engaged in violence through the summer, images of military training exercises in Shenzhen, which is just across from Hong Kong on the mainland, were made public, following which the Western media expressed concerns that the situation might become a replay of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the People’s Liberation Army and militarized police invaded and forcibly suppressed the demonstrations. However, leaders in China had no intention of deploying troops to Hong Kong to suppress the demonstration as long as nothing more serious occurred[2]. Nevertheless, the presence of the military and police forces did put psychological pressure on the demonstrators.

 The Chinese authorities indirectly forced the Hong Kong government and its police force to play an unpopular and difficult role in controlling the demonstrations. At the 4th Plenum Session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which was held in Beijing at the end of October 2019, there was debate over the Hong Kong issue, which led the central authorities to clarify their position. This in turn led to increased severity in the handling of the demonstrations by the Hong Kong government and police force. Xi Jinping, who had refrained from confronting the issue directly up to this point, met with Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam in Shanghai in November and again in Beijing in December. At these meetings, Xi expressed his confidence in Lam, who had been under increasing pressure to resign, and demonstrated his support for the Hong Kong government. Xi also solidified his personal stance and increased pressure on Hong Kong by directly involving himself through, for example, releasing a message on the Hong Kong issue from Brazil, where he was on an official visit[3].Around the same time, the People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in Hong Kong left their base and engaged in a “performance” in which they cleaned the streets of the city. The Hong Kong police finally moved to clear out the students who remained ensconced in universities, which led to a violent confrontation. Even though China did not directly involve itself in the suppression of the demonstrations, the fact that it operated in the background to put pressure on the Hong Kong government and thereby influence the situation led to a loss of faith in the “one country, two systems” arrangement. This in turn led to increasing opposition by the population of Hong Kong. Then, in the 2019 Hong Kong local elections held in late November, pro-democracy candidates were handed down an overwhelming victory as they were elected to over 80% of the open seats[4].

2. The Chinese government's response

 Looking at how these events unfolded, it becomes clear that neither the Hong Kong government nor the Chinese authorities had expected the anti-government demonstrations to become so widespread and that this initial miscalculation put them in the position of having to react to the protestors’ actions. In September 2019, the Hong Kong government announced that the Extradition Bill would be withdrawn, but had this decision been made a little earlier, the demonstrations might not have reached the enormous proportions that they did. Throughout this process, the perception the Chinese authorities would have of Hong Kong in light of these events exerted a subtle amount of influence on the decisions made by the Hong Kong government. In the past, the Chinese authorities have showed careful consideration of the Hong Kong issue. In 1995, prior to the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China, Li Ruihuan, who was at the time a member of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, reassured the people of Hong Kong by emphasizing that it was an important and special region, which and that it would be handled carefully[5]. In a meeting held with Hong Kong representatives in November 2002, then Premier Zhu Rongji stated, “If we crush Hong Kong after its return, we would become the criminals of our race[6].” Unlike these leaders, Xi Jinping does not seem to understand the feelings of the people of Hong Kong. He neither pays them careful consideration nor demonstrates his willingness to bring mainland China and Hong Kong closer together. This stance likely led—at least indirectly—to the alienation of the people of Hong Kong.

 Despite China’s intention to strengthen its public diplomacy, it has failed in those efforts in recent years[7]. David Shambaugh, an American scholar focused on Chinese politics, said that of China that based on their stance up to now, they seems to behave been unable to view themselves itself objectively and critically as others see themdo, as. As a result of which, he criticizes them of havingChina has been unable to gain the trust of other countries[8]. Since those who make policy decisions in China have never themselves experienced democracy, they lack an understanding of its nature and are unaccustomed to dealing with civic society. As a result, when the current demonstrations occurred, they were unable to send a careful and effective message to the people of Hong Kong, or to accurately read the situation, and thus ended up inviting entanglement with the Taiwan issue.

Weixing Hu, a researcher on Chinese diplomacy at the University of Hong Kong, has pointed out that when thinking about the future security of China, one needs to consider the so-called “soft threats,” such as culture, ideology, and systems[9]. It does not seem that the Hong Kong demonstrations will be exported to the Chinese mainland where they might represent a threat to the Chinese system, and Chinese authorities have been strictly managing the situation to prevent such a thing from occurring. On the other hand, although Hong Kong is under Chinese rule, it is a relatively free system where freedom of expression is guaranteed. For this reason, when anti-government movements occur in the future, negative information about China may be released and disseminated by the free media there. As a result, the impression that the rest of the world would havehas of China would continue to erode over a long period of timefor years to come.

 In recent years, although Xi Jinping has been actively developed promoting the “Belt and Road Initiative” as a way to advance China’s major power diplomacy, but, he has at the same time, he has also been seen as lessening his sensitivity toward relations with those outside China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a result of Xi’s emphasis on increasing his own authority and his “top-down” style of policy decision-making, it has become increasingly difficult for those in the government to offer divergent views or to bring up inconvenient information. This has led to the development of bias in the Chinese government’s analysis of circumstances. Put simply, the faults in the Chinese decision-making process that have long been criticized are becoming increasingly manifest. It seems that the Chinese government was even unable to foresee the massive defeat that the pro-Beijing candidates would suffer such a massive defeat in the local elections held in Hong Kong in November[10].

3. Differences in perceptions: China and Hong Kong

 If we examine the size of the GDP alone, we see that both Shanghai and Shenzhen have overtaken Hong Kong[11]. At the time of its handover to the mainland, Hong Kong’s GDP was one-fifth that of China’s. As of 2018, however, its share had fallen to 1/37th. Nevertheless, no matter how much effort the Chinese government puts into building financial hubs in Shanghai and Beijing, these cities would be unable to wrestle control of the international financial market away from Hong Kong. This is because the concept of the rule of law based on British Common Law is deeply rooted in Hong Kong, and its high degree of transparency allows business dealings to be highly predictable. This is a definitive difference between Hong Kong and mainland China in terms of “soft elements.” In spite of thisthat, many Chinese tend to view Hong Kong only in terms of “hard elements” or quantitatively, and there is a strong tendency to see the dissatisfaction among the youth of Hong Kong as rooted in economic disparity and the housing problem. The claustrophobia experienced by the people of Hong Kong as their free space gradually disappears is difficult indeed for those on the mainland to understand.

 According to Dalena Wright, who is studying the UK’s Hong Kong policy regarding on the return of the former colony, Margaret Thatcher, at the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, asked Deng Xiaoping why the “one country, two systems” policy was set to continue for 50 years following the return of the colony to China. Deng replied, “By that time we [China] will be no different than you[12].” A comparison of the major cities of China today—with their skyscrapers and economic abundance—to Hong Kong may give the impression that the Chinese people on the mainland are no different from their counterparts in Hong Kong. However, the young people who are participating in the demonstrations in Hong Kong know from first-hand experience that once they enter Shenzhen or other places on the mainland, their access to social networking services such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter would be cut off, indicating that mainland China is a completely different sort of world in which information is not at all free[13].

 Today, the divisions in Hong Kong society are severe. One scholar of international politics from Hong Kong told the author of this paper that Hong Kong has become akin to Sarajevo. The Balkan Peninsula was historically composed of multiple ethnic groups. After World War II, there was a certain degree of amalgamation of the ethnic groups under the rule of President Tito, with the people gradually identifying primarily as “Yugoslavs.” However, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, there was a resurgence of conflict based on ethnic and religious “differences,” and eventually war erupted in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the capital of which is Sarajevo. As a result, scholars of international politics often use this event as a representative case of conflict based on identity. Similarly, in Hong Kong there had been emotional conflict between native “Hongkongers” and mainland-born “Chinese,” but the recent anti-government demonstrations have led to even deeper rifts between the two groups. The majority of people in Hong Kong originally came from the neighboring Guangdong Province, and thus have roots in mainland China. However, the younger generations who were born in Hong Kong perceive themselves not as “Chinese” but as native “Hongkongers.” This too has led to a widening identity gap.

4. The looming “Year 2047 Problem”

 The so-called “Year 2047 Problem” refers to the fact that 2047 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, which stipulated that the “one country, two systems” policy would be maintained for a period of 50 years. The dominant view is one of optimism and states that the “one country, two systems” policy will be maintained beyond the year 2047. From mainland China’s perspective, it is a matter of convenience to have a free and open Hong Kong. The highly transparent financial system in Hong Kong that serves as a link to the global economy will remain an essential element of the Chinese economy. In addition to the fact that some Chinese elites and wealthy individuals maintain bank accounts in Hong Kong where they remit money, some purportedly engage in money laundering via the Hong Kong financial system. On the other hand, both the Chinese leadership and general population on the mainland have begun to feel that the political freedom largely gained through demonstrations and currently enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong has become excessive.

 It is said that the current demonstrations in Hong Kong lack both leadership and a formal organizational structure. This then begs the question: Why have so many young people spontaneously risen up and engaged in demonstrations of protest over such a long period of time? The “human chain” that displayed resolve and participated in the demonstrations was largely made up of middle school and high school students. These young people share the deep concern that things will worsen for Hong Kong in the future. In addition, the “Year 2047 Problem” looms large for these people. The young people participating in the current demonstrations will be living in Hong Kong beyond the major watershed, i.e. the year 2047. Whether or not they are actively conscious of this approaching deadline, it is undeniable that the “Year 2047 Problem” casts a pall over their perceptions of the future.

 Measures are currently being considered for dealing with the “Year 2047 Problem.” Administratively, Hong Kong is divided into three regions: Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories. Under British rule, the New Territories were leased for a period of 99 years from Qing Dynasty China under the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, unlike the territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon, which were ceded to the UK by Qing Dynasty China to the UKand, which, therefore, the UK was not obligated to return them to China under international law. This period of 99 years seemed virtually permanent to the people at the time. However, when the 1997 Hong Kong Restitution Issue arose, this previously unimaginably long period of time drew to a close. In fact, awareness of the problems involved with the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control grew due to practical business concerns over what would happen to long-term real estate leases held by private firms after the expiry of the 1997 limit imposed by the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. This was the starting point for debate over the issue of the return of Hong Kong, and the discussions quickly developed into negotiations between China and the UK. From our current perspective, the year 2047 seems to be a relatively long way off. However, before long people will become increasingly aware of the issue of whether or not the “one country, two systems” policy will be maintained as a matter of practical business concern, as the stability provided by this system needs to be relied upon for making long-term plans for economic activities. The post-handover Hong Kong that we know today is the product of both the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1990 Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which is known as Hong Kong’s “mini-Constitution.” Therefore, from the perspective of long-term business predictability and social stability, there needs to be a solution to the “Year 2047 Problem” as soon as possible. However, the current demonstrations ostensibly make it difficult to deal with this issue for the time-being.


 Since its handover, Hong Kong has been at least nominally under Chinese control. However, the “one country, two systems” policy has allowed people’s daily lives, in terms of both economic and cultural activities, to remain as they were under British rule. Today, as Chinese power increases and an increasing number of mainland-born people move to Hong Kong, the Chinese presence there is on the upswing. As a result, Hong Kong has become a battleground between burgeoning Chinese power and the local people of Hong Kong, who reject the “Sinicization” of Hong Kong, and the Western powers that support this rejection.

 The excessive actions of the student demonstrators are likely to calm down at least temporarily. However, the Hong Kong people have a deep-rooted aversion to restrictions on their freedom and interference by the Chinese Communist Party, as demonstrated by the large number of people participating in peaceful demonstrations. Dissatisfaction is building up across the Hong Kong society, with the discontent over political reforms being the undercurrent linking the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” and the current demonstration. Thus, as long as the path toward realizing major political reforms remains unclear, it will be impossible to resolve the dissatisfaction of the people. Of the “Five Demands” of the protestors, the demand for the implementation of universal suffrage is the one that represents the greatest threat to China’s control over Hong Kong, and as such its implementation is highly unlikely. A great deal of damage has been done to the trust between the Chinese authorities and the people of Hong Kong. Under these circumstances, if the Chinese involve themselves in Hong Kong, it will only invite further animosity of the people of Hong Kong. On the other hand, if Hong Kong is granted even more freedom than it currently enjoys, concerns will increase in China. Thus, the dilemma posed by China’s Hong Kong policy will continue for the foreseeable future.

(Dated Jan 29, 2020)

1 During the “Defend the Diaoyu Islands [Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan] Movement” in Hong Kong in 1996, anti-Japanese demonstrations occurred as well. However, after some demonstrators mobbed the Japanese Consulate General in Hong Kong, which is an overseas government agency that is protected under international law, the people of Hong Kong turned against the protestors as they viewed this act as excessive. As a result, the protest demonstrations came to an end.

2 According to Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of Chinese politics at Columbia University in the US, although parts of Xi Jinping’s speech at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China in September were not broadcast, he is known to have stated his opposition to the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army. “How China Sees the Hong Kong Crisis – The Real Reasons Behind Beijing’s Restraint,” Foreign Affairs, September 30, 2019 (, accessed on Jan.27, 2020).

3 “国務院港澳弁発言人発表談話表示 習近平主席巴西講話発出中央政府対香港止暴制乱工作的最強音 将堅決貫徹落実” 新華網 November 11, 2019.(, last accessed on Jan. 28, 2020)

4 Although the results of Hong Kong’s local elections clearly determine winners and losers due to the single-seat constituency system in use there, the actual percentages of votes obtained were 57% for the pro-democracy candidates and 41% for the pro-Beijing candidates.

5 “李瑞環論香港-従実際出発做好香港工作” 中央人民政府駐香港特別行政区聯絡弁公室 March 13, 1995, (, last accessed on Jan. 27, 2020)

6 A video of this speech was distributed on the Internet immediately, after Zu Rongji failed to attend the National Day Parade of the People’s Republic of China Military as demonstrations in Hong Kong became increasingly violent. (, last accessed on Jan. 27, 2020).

7 Unlike normal diplomacy with foreign governments, “Public Diplomacy” (in Chinese: “公共外交”) is a method of diplomacy in which long-term diplomatic benefit is developed through efforts to understand public sentiment in the counterpart country or third-party countries.

8 David Shambaugh, “U.S.-China Rivalry in Southeast Asia – Power Shift or Competitive Coexistence,” International Security, Vol.42, Issue 04, Spring 2018, p.125.

9 Weixing Hu, “Xi Jinping’s Big Power Diplomacy and China’s Central National Security Commission (CNSC),” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 25, Issue 98, p.168.

10 The Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region analyzes circumstances in Hong Kong and passes the results on to the central Chinese government. However, Wang Zhimin, Director of this Office, was dismissed in January.

11 “Hong Kong economy surpassed by neighbor Shenzhen for first time in 2018 as China’s hi-tech hub soars,” South China Morning Post, February 27, 2019 (, accessed on Jan.28, 2020).

12 Statement made by Wright during a panel discussion on the Hong Kong issue that was held at the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. “The Reality and Future of Hong Kong Crisis,” The Stimson Center, September 25, 2019 (, accessed on Jan.27, 2020).

13 Statement made by Harry Harding, a specialist in Chinese politics who participated in the abovementioned panel discussion (see endnote 12).

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