By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer
Protests in Hong Kong have raged since June, and now two Baylor faculty members are dissecting the situation and its potential consequences.
Hong Kong’s history is that of a territory juggled by two powers. Britain took over Hong Kong in 1842 and leased surrounding land from China in 1898. When the lease expired in 1997, Britain transferred control of Hong Kong to China with an agreement of 50 years of near-autonomy for the territory. Now the territory’s values and governmental systems stand in stark contrast to those of China, which is eager to expand its control of the region before the autonomy agreement ends in 2047.
A Baylor professor from Hong Kong spoke about the protests on the condition of anonymity. The professor said the demonstrations show how desperate the protesters are to preserve their own way of life instead of conforming to the Chinese system.
“There are a lot of Hong Kong people who are fearful of the Chinese government, not necessarily the Chinese people but the Chinese government,” the professor said. “It’s still a communist government, it’s still an autocratic government… Hong Kong still maintains kind of a capitalist environment with quite a bit more freedom than mainland China.”
Protests in Hong Kong are nothing new, but the demonstrations swirling in the streets since June are different. The ongoing protests were triggered by the introduction of an extradition bill, which the professor said would have drastic ramifications for the territory’s justice system if passed.
“Being tried under the Chinese judiciary system is completely different from being tried in the Hong Kong system, so there was kind of a firewall that was built,” the professor said. “Earlier this year the Hong Kong leader decided in all her wisdom [to change] the law to allow China to extradite [people accused of crimes] from Hong Kong… People became very afraid— even a lot of people who traditionally supported the government, especially the business sector, are very afraid of that.”
Hong Kong was never a democracy. Hong Kong’s chief executive is chosen by a group of roughly 1200. This group, the professor said, is how China is able to exert control on the territory, as many are “handpicked” by China. While a recent election yielded wins for pro-democracy district councilors, these officials have little power. The professor said Hong Kong’s judicial system is one of the only independent government entities.
“Because of the complex system, the deck is always stacked against people who are against the communist government,” the professor said. “The judicial system is still relatively independent, so even though Hong Kong [is not] a democracy, it still has separation of powers.”
extradition bill was eventually withdrawn in September, but protests persisted and clashes with police turned violent. Three protestors have been shot by police, a pro-Beijing supporter was set aflame and a pro-Beijing lawmaker was stabbed. The latest flashpoint involved more than a thousand protestors occupying The Hong Kong Polytechnic University for nearly two weeks while police sealed off the campus and, the professor said, offered an ultimatum.
“They said you either surrender and come out and get arrested or you stay here,” the professor said. “What makes things worse is the president of that university basically sided with police.”
Dr. Richard Jordan, a political science professor at Baylor, said he believed the protestors fear risking total failure if they relent.
“I think at this point people are very much afraid that if they stop protesting, the Chinese government will take the opportunity to further infringe on their personal liberties,” Jordan said. “I assume what they have to be most afraid of is that they’ll be treated like the rest of China.”
Jordan also said that while he understood the protesters’ motivations, he “[did not] see how an outcome to this would be both stable in the long-term and favorable to Hong Kong.”
The protests have seeped into every aspect of life in Hong Kong. The professor said differences in views between the younger and older generations have strained relationships within families.
“One story [not talked about] in the US media is the tearing of the fabric of the family,” the professor said. “These protests are led a lot by young people: college students, high school students… basically the younger generation. The reason they do that is that they think that this is their last chance [to resist Chinese rule]… On the other hand there’s a lot of people in the older generation, especially those who are successful in life or at least have a stable family who are very against the protests.”
In late November, president Donald Trump signed a bill supporting pro-democracy protesters designed to impose sanctions on those who commit human rights violations in the region. Jordan said this is likely to be the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict.
“China is a great power… Hong Kong is part of Chinese territory… and an interference with Hong Kong would be a violation of Chinese territory,” Jordan said. “[For perspective,] how would we respond if the Chinese wanted to do something within California? It would be unacceptable.”
Jordan, however, said there was one way to effect change from half way around the world.
“You can also pray for them,” Jordan said. “This is Baylor— I think that’s something that we should all do, but our means of influencing the situation are severely limited.”