The protests in Hong Kong that begin in April reflect the courage of the people of Hong Kong. But they also reflect Hong Kong’s British inheritance. And as we approach the Fourth of July, they remind us how lucky we are to enjoy both that inheritance and our freedom.
Hong Kong was founded as a British colony in 1841. The most important dates in its history are 1898, when Britain and China signed a 99-year lease agreement, and 1984, when Britain agreed to return Hong Kong in 1997 in return for a Chinese promise to implement “One Country, Two Systems.” Thus, on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China.
But the deal that Britain negotiated in 1984 means that Hong Kong still has a separate legal system from China, as well as political freedoms unknown in China under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The latest protests, involving up to 2 million people, centered on the Hong Kong government’s effort to subvert that legal separation by allowing the extradition of alleged offenders to China. Their concern, of course, was that the new law would give China’s political police the power to reach into free Hong Kong.
This was hardly the first time the people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets. There are annual marches on July 1, commemorating the handover from Britain to China. The 2003 march of 500,000 people was particularly large, sparked by concerns about a law against subverting the People’s Republic of China.
Then, in 2014, came a series of sit-in protests in which more than 100,000 protesters opposed changes to the Hong Kong electoral system that were seen to give new powers to the Chinese Communist Party. Unlike in 2003, the government refused to back down, and prominent protesters were imprisoned.
The fundamental cause of all these protests is that the people of Hong Kong have no faith that China intends to honor the promise it made to respect Hong Kong’s separate system. As the president of Taiwan put it, while “One Country, Two Systems” is supposed to last 50 years, it is under grave threat after only 20.
The heroes of these demonstrations are, obviously, the protesting people of Hong Kong themselves. But we should notice British inheritance behind the protests. British Hong Kong was no democracy, but it was well-run, and it had the loyalty of the people. There was absolutely no clamor in Hong Kong in 1997 to return to the bosom of Communist China.
I give the people of Hong Kong all the credit for protesting. But people are inspired by ideas, and were it not for their British inheritance, and the deal that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cut in 1984, these protests would not have recurred so frequently since 2003. It’s too bad Britain couldn’t have cut an even better deal, but it had both the law and growing Chinese power against it.
In short, Hong Kong was lucky in its inheritance, but unlucky in its geography. We in the United States, on the other hand, were lucky in both. We will shortly commemorate, for the 243rd time, our Declaration of Independence from Britain. But yet the Founders, like Hong Kong, were inspired by British ideas. Like Hong Kong, we wanted to take charge of our own affairs to ensure those ideas endured.
But we, unlike Hong Kong, were a continent. In 1776, Thomas Paine commented that “there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” That logic led to our victory over Britain. It will be an even more wondrous thing if the island of Hong Kong is perpetually able to escape the domination of the continent of China.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.