Invisible Borders: The Growing Tensions Between China And Hong Kong

The border between mainland China and Hong Kong has been highly contentious since the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 1997. Although to this day, there lies a physical border that separates Hong Kong from Mainland China in the form of an immigration control point, there have been concerns surrounding the convergence of the two states.


In particular, these concerns rests on China’s growing influence over Hong Kong’s independence and sovereignty.  For most citizens of Hong Kong, it is the impending dissolution of the ‘one country, two systems’ that has sparked anger over the interference of the Chinese government within Hong Kong’s internal affairs. These concerns were particularly visible during the widespread protests in 2014, coined as the ‘Umbrella Movement’, which protested the interference of the Chinese government over the 2016/2017 nomination of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.


Fears over interferences have stemmed from China’s growing political influence over Hong Kong’s democratic government, and the puppeteering of Hong Kong government officials. However, China’s exertion of influence has already been felt by many Hong Kong citizens. China’s methods of cultural decimation have been proven to be effective by gradually altering the fundamental cultural entities of Hong Kong’s society. This has been demonstrated in measures aimed at increasing media censorship, prioritizing Mandarin as the primary language of Hong Kong (the majority of the population speaks Cantonese), and altering a civic education curriculum by promoting communism and Chinese nationalism.

What started out as a peaceful pro-democratic movement, the Umbrella Movement escalated into mass demonstrations with tens of thousands of people occupying major districts of Hong Kong. Organised by young political activists, the movement resonated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, serving as a reminder that the younger generations have the capability to collectively organize themselves in a fight for pro-democratic political institutions. Furthermore, the non-violent and peaceful nature of the Umbrella Movement and the violent reactions by law enforcement also demonstrated similarities with the 1989 protests.


Although the demonstrations failed to prevent the election of a pro-Beijing candidate as the Chief Executive, the movement was nevertheless a catalyst for a newly-founded self-identity for citizens of Hong Kong. A study conducted by the Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey shows that in 2014, only 8.8% (of 810 respondents) identified as Chinese. This marks a vast disparity wherein 1997, 32.1% of respondents identified as Chinese. The statistics show an even larger gap when age is considered. In the same survey, only 3.1% of the respondents aged between 18 and 29 identified as Chinese, while 65% identified as Hongkongers. This demonstrates the notion of cultural awareness whereby the people of Hong Kong hold the belief that their identity is strictly distinct from Mainland China.


In order to understand why there is such a developing animosity towards China, it is important to understand that the main reason behind such growing protests is the desire to free Hong Kong from any foreign control. As a region that has experienced colonialism, many protestors and citizens view Hong Kong as a distinct entity and perceive China’s control to be parallel to that of British rule. For future implications, this will inherently pose problems to the Chinese government since it provides some sort of legitimacy for anti-Mainland China sentiments of China being a present-day colonial power. The rejection of China’s growing influence also stems from the lack of attachment that citizens of Hong Kong have with China. Since Hong Kong was colonized by Britain for over 100 years, the instilment of patriotism towards China has been largely absent.


Furthermore, there remains an important question; What next for China-Hong Kong relations? A coherent and peaceful solution seems unlikely at this point in time with China’s aggressive strategies to blur their borders with Hong Kong. Although it is difficult to say whether there exists a single resolution that could satisfy both sides of the conflict, the peace process must start with China adhering to their agreement recognizing Hong Kong’s autonomy. This agreement, known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, drafted by both the Chinese government and the British government during the transfer of sovereignty in 1984 is set to expire in 2047. Within this agreement, Hong Kong was to remain autonomous in its governance and internal affairs for fifty years after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.


However, if China continues to enforce its governance and influence over Hong Kong’s affairs before the expiry date, this will procure major problems. Major international actors such as China’s economic trading partners or multinational corporations should impose sanctions if China continues its interference. Although this may be difficult to achieve since China is a significant economic power in the world, it would be a starting point in producing a level of stability in the Hong Kong- China region.


As a past economic powerhouse, Hong Kong was once an asset to China’s economy during the 20th century. Economic investments and developments in Hong Kong were transforming rapidly while China’s economy remained stagnant during this period. This caused China to back down its’ influence since Hong Kong’s economy stabilised the region. Although this has now largely reversed, this economic relationship reveals the large role that Hong Kong’s economy plays in China’s own economy. However, the weakening of Hong Kong’s economy suggests that China now views Hong Kong as a liability more than an asset as it once was for the country. Tying this back to peaceful resolutions, international investments should be strengthened in Hong Kong in order to stabilise its economy and become more of an asset rather than a liability to prevent extensive interference from China.


Continued condemnation on China’s part should also be continued by states and international institutions. Although the United Nations Human Rights Committee and other democratic states have advised China to allow free elections to occur in Hong Kong during the protests, continued rhetoric from these actors have been largely absent in recent times. With some of the pro-democratic activists handed prison sentences for their involvement in the Umbrella Movement in 2017, visibility of the issue should be more prominent in Western media. As a champion of democracy, more should be done by Britain to help its former colony. Facilitating dialogue between the pro-democratic citizens of Hong Kong and China’s central government by Britain acting as a mediator would begin the process of peace. Although Britain has no legal obligation to do so, it should be on their moral consciousness to support their former colony.


There is no doubt that pro-democratic activists will not back down from securing Hong Kong’s political and cultural freedoms even after 2047. However, it is also inevitable that China will prevent Hong Kong from achieving complete independence. For now, the Sino-British Joint Agreement should uphold its aims of ensuring a transfer of sovereignty until other agreements can be reached. It should be acknowledged that a smooth transition of sovereignty requires time. Time requires prolongment, which is why economic sanctions and investments combined with continued peaceful demonstrations would be an effective strategy. It at least provides Hong Kong with a legitimacy of their cause, while signalling to China to reduce its antagonistic behaviour and allow Hong Kong to run autonomously until 2047.

Emily Kan