Sunday, September 9, 2012

Epilogue: Politics in the Gateway to China

Long read, and when the LegCo results come back, I'll try to do some commentary on the parties and what exactly happened!

Hong Kong's Legislative Council election was today, September 9th, 2012.

By the time you guys read this, it will already be over.

Hong Kong's political climate is intimately and inexorably tied to the political climate of China proper (mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan), and the story begins with the first trade relations that China had with the rest of the world...
This is the Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral (大三巴牌坊), built by the Portuguese in the late 16th century in Macau (澳門, lit. Bay Gate), a small peninsula opposite the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong.  The Portuguese were one of the first European powers to create formal, direct trade relations with China, landing in what is now Tuen Mun in 1521.  They were met violently, and formal trade relations didn't start until some twenty-odd years later, when the Portuguese established Macau as one of their trading bases.

This was a recurring theme in Chinese foreign relations throughout the imperial era, as the prevailing concept of foreign relations was based around the "Middle Kingdom" ideology, where China was, quite literally, the centre of the universe, and therefore any other people must be subordinate to them.

This idea worked very well locally, with Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Tibet and others all treated as tributary states, paying annual or seasonal tributes (the Tibetan Empire was, of course, directly ruled over by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), but even then it was mostly autonomous, with Beijing at the time mostly staying out of the local affairs), but when the Europeans gained the technology to travel long distances at sea, trouble began brewing.

Fast forward to the 19th century, where the British Empire is the single most powerful naval entity on the planet.  They had also set up trading posts in China by this point, after much pushback from China, most notably in Canton (present-day Guangzhou), right at the mouth of the Pearl River.
A 19th century painting, oil-on-board, of the Canton waterfront centered on an American hong and its garden.
A Canton scene.

Their actions would be one of the biggest contributors to the last two hundred years of Chinese history.  One of the biggest trade items that the British wanted was tea.  Under the Canton System, there was only one thing the Chinese would accept as payment for the tea - silver.  This caused the British to run huge trade deficits, which naturally they were unhappy about.

Until they discovered that their drugs were just as potent on the other side of the world.  With the introduction of opium, a new bargaining chip was on the table.  At first this worked fine, until the Qing started losing money in the endeavour, not to mention having all of its subjects debilitate themselves on drugs.

And thus a war started.  The traditional Chinese thinking still prevailed that China was more powerful than any of these "tributary states", whereas in reality, China had not had the technological advantage since Zheng He's voyages around the Cape of Good Hope, some two hundred years previous.

Needless to say, they lost.  In the Treaty of Nanking that followed in 1842, the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British in perpetuity.
File:The Signing of the Treaty of Nanking.jpg
The signing of the Treaty.
This embarrassing loss began a long period of civil unrest within China, with Qing subjects becoming increasingly unhappy with the weak, arrogant administration that presided over them.  As the European powers became increasingly influential in China, approaching the political colonization prevalent in the New World, in 1898 two things happened.  One, the Boxer Rebellion (義和團運動), a large uprising of the populace against the foreign powers dominating the Chinese economy, and two, the lease for the New Territories was signed between the Qing government and the British Empire, for a period of 99 years.

Hong Kong, under British rule, became a centre of commerce and education in the Pearl River Delta area.

Eventually, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by increasingly powerful dissent, spearheaded by the Kuomintang led by Sun Yat-Sen.  In 1911, the Republic of China was founded, built primarily on social and political concepts that Sun had learned in Hong Kong and Hawaii, condensed into his "Three Principles of the People" (三民主義,nationalism, democracy, and the people's livelihood).

And then the Civil War happened.  The Kuomintang, by then incredibly corrupt, were ousted onto Taiwan, and the People's Republic of China was declared on October 1st, 1949.  It was around this time that many business people, worried about the impending Communist crackdown on capitalist enterprises, fled to Hong Kong from business centres such as Shanghai and Guangzhou - both cities that became preeminent in their regions due to foreign trade over the previous few centuries.
Mao speaking at the Forbidden City on that day.
The local economy flourished.  Hong Kong grew increasingly important on the world stage, while the mainland, under Mao's rather poor policies, languished behind their possible potential.

After Mao was dead, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, opened China's borders to foreign investment and capitalism in his "Special Economic Zones" (經濟特區), where the standard collectivist system was discarded in favour of a semi-capitalist one.  The first one of these was Shenzhen, directly across the border from Hong Kong.  It was chosen as a proving ground, with its proximity to Hong Kong nearly guaranteeing its success.  The experiment worked, and began the People's Republic on their journey to where they are now, opening more and more Speical Economic Zones.

At the same time that this liberalization of the Chinese economy was taking place, the lease of 99 years was slowly expiring on the New Territories.
So the British gave the whole territory back to China.  While they could have technically kept Hong Kong Island, the vast majority of the city's citizens were living in the "New Towns" that were popping up all over the New Territories.  In their negoitions, China and Britain signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which outlined the city's future.  Registered as an international treaty on June 5, 1985, this Declaration stipulated that for fifty years, the city would maintain a high degree of autonomy, as well as its own mini-Constitution, the Basic Law (基本法).  This meant that a formal border would still be necessary between Hong Kong and the mainland, and is also where the crux of the politics here lies.

Christopher Patten (彭定康), the last Governor of Hong Kong between 1992 and 1997, he was the cause of much of the current political climate in the city.  To begin a charade of being democratic (something that the British colonials never were), Beijing had expected that elections would be held for the city's Legislative Council, but only a certain section of the populace would be allowed to vote.  This was called the "functional constituencies" (功能界別) system.  This would literally be a special interest vote, with only certain professionals of certain professions would get a ballot.  In 1995, the first election, Patten had opened up the regulations (much to the chagrin of Beijing) so that basically everyone would be allowed to vote.

Beijing shut down that LegCo the moment they resumed sovereignty in 1997 and appointed its own Chief Executive to head the government they created.  But the people's thirst for true democracy had been sparked, and could not be sated by Beijing's sweet talk.

In the years afterward, many large scale protests have taken place in the city.  In 2003, some half a million people marched down the streets of Hong Kong Island fighting against the implementation of an anti-subversion bill stipulated in Article 23 of the Basic Law that most likely would have restricted civil rights, most notably the freedom of speech.

Every year, the students at Tian'anmen Square, 1989 are remembered at a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park.

Over the last couple of years, polls have shown increased animosity towards Beijing and the mainland (called the "motherland" in most propaganda works).  The reasons for this are multiple:
1. Originally, the people were promised a direct election of the Chief Executive (rather having him/her being determined by a few thousand people, many of which are some of the world's richest and therefore value their economic ties to China far more than any local problems) by 2012, this election.  The date was later (a few years ago) pushed back to 2017.
2.  Every year, the city hosts nearly four times its own population in tourists from the mainland alone.  They use many of the local amenities as they are considerably better than most places on the mainland.  Healthcare, childbirth, ...even the occasional milk run across the border.  All of these create a strain on the system in Hong Kong, to the point where many local residents and parents-to-be receive sub-par treatment from their doctors and specialists.  Recently (late last month), Beijing announced that they were going to issue more individual visas for Chinese citizens, a move that is understandably not very well liked in the city.
3.  The Hong Kong government had decided to introduce "national education" for this school year.  It would have been a civics class, but with a heavy emphasis on the "history of China" from the official Party line.  What this would have meant was that students, from a very young age, would be bombarded with "facts" about how great the Party is - while glossing over the many varied problems that the Party had created or failed to solve properly in the past: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Tian'anmen Square - a move that many parents and teachers felt was akin to brainwashing.  The Hong Kong Teachers' Union threatened to go on strike in protest, and thousands of people marched the streets over several months to try to stop the measure.  
Yesterday, a day before the election, the government announced that it would not be introducing national education... yet.

In today's election, just over half of the 60-70 members of LegCo were directly elected, with the rest elected by functional consituencies.  Past LegCo's have traditionally been split almost 50-50 between parties that wanted more democracy and parties that wanted better ties with Beijing, so this one should be interesting.

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