1842, the British won control of the island of Hong Kong as part of the treaty
ending the First Opium War. In 1898, Britain signed a 99-year lease for Hong
Kong, at the end of which it would relinquish control to China. At that time,
no one could foresee what that would mean or what China — or Britain, for that
matter — would become.
Over the 99-year period of the British lease, Hong Kong became a financial hub, the home of banks and uber-wealthy residents. It grew in size and in prominence. Hong Kong residents also became accustomed to liberal freedoms, as Britain itself became more and more focused on its own democracy. The people of Hong Kong were cosmopolitan, international citizens — not Chinese but not British. At the same time, China’s government transitioned from an empire to almost 40 years of political turmoil and, ultimately, to a communist regime beginning in 1949.
In preparation for the momentous 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping instituted the concept of “one country, two systems.” Deng recognized that the people and businesses of Hong Kong were accustomed to liberties not permitted in China, and he realized that the system in Hong Kong had created great prosperity. Ironically, Deng and the Chinese communists were desperate to perpetuate the capitalist wealth of Hong Kong, so they agreed that the island should become part of China but operate under its own, more liberal and democratic, system. The plan was to likely end the one country, two systems policy in 50 years, in 2047. Today, 2047 does not seem so far away.
The ongoing protests have come amid the looming transition to Chinese communist rule in 28 years’ time. Young Hong Kong residents can expect to experience that in their lifetimes. When the Hong Kong government proposed a new extradition law, the people feared it would make them susceptible to Chinese oppression. The current Hong Kong government, and particularly the chief executive, who is appointed by China, has been accused of being too close to mainland China’s communist rulers. The people feared that extradition power for China would mean they would essentially lose their freedoms of speech and consciousness. China would be able to persecute them for political violations, just as the communist government does to Chinese who dare to challenge the system.
Protests against oppressive governance are nothing new. What sets these protests apart is that they are the work of relatively free people living in a relatively open society and governed by a relatively liberal government. They are protesting what they see as encroaching oppression. This is the act of a people who know and understand freedom and fear the impending oppression of a communist authoritarian rule.
It is rare that a region ruled by a relatively liberal government comes to be oppressed by authoritarianism, and it is rarer still that the people can foresee the change years ahead.
The best example of a liberal democracy devolving to despotic and tyrannical rule is that of Germany in the early 20th century. The Weimar Republic was the state formed in Germany after the First World War. It had a parliamentary system and guaranteed freedom of expression to its people. Ultimately, it was overwhelmed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who used the peculiar powers granted by the Weimar constitution to the executive in times of emergency to exert complete control over the country. The democratic republic in Germany began in 1919, and it was effectively ended in 1933. It all happened so quickly that Hitler gained enough control to quash opposition before it could even start.
What we see in Hong Kong is something altogether new in the world. It is a people accustomed to liberty now faced with the imminent loss of that liberty. It must be no coincidence that last month was the 30th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government ordered the military to open fire on thousands of unarmed young protesters in Beijing. China’s economy has boomed in the past 20 years, but it is still as oppressive today as it was 30 years ago. For example, more than a million Uighur Muslims are being held in camps —or worse — in the province of Xinjiang. Political and religious dissidents are regularly imprisoned. The truth is we don’t know the extent of the oppression in China, but the people of Hong Kong fear oppression, no matter how rich they are.
Summing up the desperation of Hong Kong protesters and a resulting spate of suicides, a 21-year-old woman named Lo Hiu-yan reportedly killed herself in June. Referencing her fellow protesters, she wrote before her death: “I hope to exchange my life for the fulfillment of 2 million people’s wishes.”