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By Allison Hight, 1LMarch 15, 2016
Zhang Xianchu, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who is spending a semester at Michigan Law on sabbatical, invited students during a recent talk to use his thoughts on Hong Kong as a “small window” into the city’s story. His talk ranged from Hong Kong’s legal system to recent attempts at universal suffrage to his concerns about Hong Kong’s current and future direction as he walked his audience through the almost 19 years since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.
The last 19 years can be broken down into three periods, he explained: the “highly cautious” period of 1997 to 2003; 2003 to 2012, when the city started to experience unrest; and 2012 to the present, a period characterized by a “series of fierce clashes and conflict.” Initially, Zhang said, China focused on making Hong Kong’s handover a smooth transition, so it adopted a no-interference policy, treating the city as part of its foreign affairs. “If mainland officials wanted to visit Hong Kong,” he said, “it was like visiting a foreign country. They had to apply for all the visa procedures.”
Gradually, China started to exert more control over Hong Kong, introducing the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, buying its schools and service sectors, and tried to introduce a new national security legislation in the city. Zhang explained that while the mainland was sending the message that “Hong Kong is a part of China,” Hong Kong’s people were growing gradually unhappier with the government. “Four or five years [after the handover], we were starting to learn something about Hong Kong, so we felt confident. We wanted to do something in Hong Kong.”
That something, he explained, took the form of demanding universal suffrage. In 1997, the city’s chief executive was elected by a committee of 400 people who had a “very close relationship with mainland authorities.” While that number gradually increased to 1,200, they continued to demand voting rights because that number still severely underrepresented the city’s 7 million people. The government promised a general election in 2017, but Zhang explained that the promise came with two caveats. First, any potential candidates would be screened by the same 1,200-person committee before they could run, and second, to be able to vote, people would be required to prove that they loved China and loved Hong Kong. “How can you define this?” Zhang asked. “This is not a legal concept.”
As a result, “Hong Kong people started to ask whether they would have real universal suffrage,” so they “went to the streets to express unhappiness,” occupying downtown Hong Kong for almost 80 days. Zhang drew on his memories of these months, recalling that since almost all of his students were on the streets protesting, he would tape his lectures and put them in the library so his students could continue their studies.
“After the handover, the whole environment, the whole social conditions changed a lot,” Zhang said. Before, Hong Kong’s people did not care much about politics, but today, they are highly divided, with some firmly supporting the Beijing’s policy and some young generations with extreme views who “don’t see any hope here,” and even going so far as to call for Hong Kong independence. Zhang said this is highly unlikely because of the city’s dependence on the mainland for food and water, but “the idea is there.” His concerns involve how the city is going to balance its two systems in the coming years. He speculated that Hong Kong could develop further by taking advantage of the rise of China if the current political crisis cannot be well settled. Although the cross-border integration is inevitable, Hong Kong wants to keep its core value and identity. “Thus far China has got the land back,” Zhang told the audience, “but has not got the people’s mind back.”
Zhang’s talk, “One Country, Two Systems,” was sponsored by the Asia Law Society.
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