Moran: Hong Kong’s current political situation is unstable

I unwittingly chose a very politically charged time to study abroad in Hong Kong. The locals here are in the midst of a debate about their own identity.

What does it mean to be from Hong Kong? What powers should the mainland Chinese government have on the island? Should Hong Kong push for more independence or even full separation from the mainland?

Hong Kong’s political system is one of the most unique situations in the world. Under “One Country, Two Systems,” Hong Kong is a part of communist China, but maintains its own capitalist system. Hong Kong citizens enjoy certain freedoms that mainland Chinese citizens don’t. Hong Kong has its own judiciary, police force and currency, and its people have freedom of speech and assembly. When the territory was handed over from the British to the Chinese in June of 1997, the two powers agreed Hong Kong would be governed under this system for 50 years.

Recently, some young people in Hong Kong have started to question the terms of this agreement. In 2014, the Umbrella Revolution made international news when students took to the streets to call for universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s chief executive. They used umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray, earning the movement its name.

Recently, tensions flared again when booksellers who have published information critiquing the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping went missing under suspicious circumstances. Some activists believed they were kidnapped by the Chinese government, which they said was a violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement. Some of the missing people showed up in mainland police custody months later. They said they had turned themselves in to authorities, but family members raised doubts about their confessions. A few have since returned home and cancelled their missing person cases with the Hong Kong police.

There was a massive protest relating to the booksellers on the day we arrived in Hong Kong. That protest was peaceful, but on Feb. 8, Chinese New Year, it was a different story. Rioters clashed with police who shut down illegal food stalls in a popular market district. These food stalls are set up every year for Chinese New Year.

This event wasn’t connected to the booksellers, but there are a number of theories behind why it happened. Some scholars say that frustration with the mainland’s attempts to suppress Hong Kong culture played a role. Others say protesters were simply fed up with the economic situation in Hong Kong. Authorities are still investigating whether the incident was pre-planned and by whom.

Since I’ve been studying in the city, I’ve been trying to follow all of this closely, but, as I’m sure you can tell, it’s incredibly complex. Although I’ve been following local news sources, I’ve learned so much more from just talking to locals. This idealistic, democratic fervor is fueled almost entirely by Hong Kong’s youth. In general, older people are less involved.

There are people alive today who were old enough to remember the time of the handover between Britain and China, and who will also be alive in 31 years when the “One Country, Two Systems” policy expires. These people probably went through school under British rule. They worked and raised children of their own in a capitalist — but Chinese — Hong Kong. When they are nearing retirement age and their children are entering the work force, it will be a time of political upheaval as Hong Kong’s fate is decided once again. When they’ve lived under so many different rulers and political systems, it’s no wonder people here aren’t sure what it means to be a Hong Kong native.

When I talk to people back home about these issues, some of them ask me where I stand. My answer is that I have no idea. As an outsider, I don’t think I have a right to have an opinion. I don’t get to decide what it means to be a native of Hong Kong. All I can do is appreciate the opportunity this semester offers me in being present for such an important conversation.

Claire Moran is a junior broadcast and digital journalism and international relations dual major. Her column appears weekly in Pulp. She can be reached at clmoran@syr.edu.


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