From: Talk to Al Jazeera: In the Field

What is driving Hong Kong-China tensions?

We look at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and ask if China can be trusted to run the world’s freest economy.

On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese rule. Known as the handover, this process ended 156 years of British colonial rule.

Hong Kong would remain an integral part of China, but for 50 years, until 2047, its economic, political and judicial freedoms would continue.

This was the start of a unique experiment known as the “one country, two systems” framework, which guarantees wide-ranging autonomy to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Today, it is one of the world’s most important financial centres, the Hong Kong dollar is the world’s 13th-most-traded currency, and it is home to 64 billionaires.

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Hong Kong remains the world’s freest economy and China’s freest city, but it’s facing socioeconomic and political challenges and there are deepening concerns that the leadership in Beijing is tightening its grip on some of those cherished freedoms.

Beijing’s refusal to grant universal suffrage to Hong Kong triggered nearly three months of street protests in 2014 and growing calls for independence.

These demonstrations were the largest in a Chinese city since 1989, and like the Tiananmen Square protests, they were also led by students demanding more democracy. The so-called Umbrella Movement exposed some deep divisions in society, but failed in their quest for free elections.

On July 1, 2017, Carrie Lam was sworn in as Hong Kong’s chief executive by Chinese President Xi Jinping amid scattered protests.

Beijing-backed civil servant Lam was chosen by a 1,200-person “election committee”. Voters had no say, and critics have raised concerns that her hardline and pro-Beijing stance risk sowing further social divisions in the former colony.

During the ceremony, President Xi warned that any attempt in Hong Kong “to challenge the power” of Beijing is “absolutely impermissible.”

Joshua Wong was not even a year old when the handover happened, but he has become a symbol of the Umbrella Movement. He says the “one country, two systems” formula is almost dead, blaming Chinese officials.

So 20 years after the handover, what’s at stake? And what does the future hold for the former British colony? Can communist China be trusted to run the world’s freest economy?

Below are some of the most-asked questions on the Hong Kong-China relationship:

1) Is Hong Kong a country?

Hong Kong is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It has its own currency and constitution, the Basic Law, and is responsible for its own domestic affairs, while its foreign relations and defence are the responsibility of the Central People’s Government in Beijing.

2) What happened in 1997 in Hong Kong? 

At midnight on July 1, 1997, the British flag was lowered over Hong Kong’s Government House for the last time, ending 156 years of colonial rule. The handover ceremony marked the start of the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. However, Hong Kong maintained many institutions established during colonial rule under a framework known as “one country, two systems”.

3) Why does China want to keep control over Hong Kong? 

China ceded Hong Kong island to Britain after the First Opium War in 1942. The period between the 1840s and 1940s is described as the “century of humiliation,” a time of intervention and imperialism by Western powers and Japan in China.

Therefore, the return of Hong Kong became a point of national pride. In 1982, China and Britain began negotiations on the future of Hong Kong. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping warned former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that he would take Hong Kong by force if a deal could not be reached. 

Much of the foreign investment in China comes through Hong Kong, so it was indispensable for China’s businesses. It remains an important financial hub and the world’s freest economy.

4) What is the Umbrella Movement? 

It is a pro-democracy movement that started in 2014, when tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents peacefully occupied major thoroughfares across the city. They claim that Beijing reneged on an agreement to grant them free elections by 2017.

Three years after the umbrella became a symbol of revolution – protesters used them as protection against the pepper spray and tear gas fired by police – Hong Kong’s youth have been at the forefront of political activism in the city.

5) What do pro-democracy activists want?

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have been protesting against what they say is China’s growing encroachment on the city’s freedoms in a breach of the “one country, two systems” arrangement.

“I’m not the one to advocate for Hong Kong’ independence, but I’m the one who fights for autonomy and against the indifference of China towards Hong Kong. And we were promised to have a high degree of autonomy in the international treaty, which means the joined declaration,” Joshua Wong, student and pro-democracy activist, told Al Jazeera.

“The ‘one country, two systems’ in the 20th anniversary seems to be a lie for the Hong Kong people,” he added.

“I hope to see full democracy in Hong Kong in my life time, but whether Hong Kong can implement, or achieve, democracy, it doesn’t depend on me, but it depends on its people and the international community.” 

6) Does everyone want more democracy?

No. In Hong Kong, there are also pro-Beijing groups such as Silent Majority for Hong Kong that have criticised pro-democracy activists.

In 2014, they also went out to the streets against plans by pro-democracy activists to paralyse the city centre with a mass sit-in unless China granted electoral reforms.

They believe that protests could damage the city’s economy as well as its relationship with China.

7) What are the main challenges facing Hong Kong? 

Hong Kong faces a series of political and socioeconomic issues, such as “the growth in income inequality, rising prices of housing and other basic commodities, and the effect of increased immigration, especially from the rest of China,” wrote professor Tim Summers.

Hong Kong is often referred to as one of the world’s most expensive property markets. Private housing is extremely unaffordable and there’s also a desperate public housing shortage. And while the financial hub is home to 64 billionaires, an estimated 1.4 million people are living below the poverty line.

There is also no clarity on what will happen to Hong Kong beyond 2047 when “one country, two systems” expires. So after Hong Kong’s second decade under Chinese control, investors, politicians and citizens have started to fret about an uncertain future. China is eager to have a closer integration, but suggesting the abolition of Hong Kong’s autonomy doesn’t seem to be a easy option.