Fourteen years ago, on July 1, 1997, the British colony of Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty after an interlude of 156 years. It became the Hong Kong Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China under the formula ‘one country, two systems,’ and was supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.
Since then, July 1 has been a public holiday known as HKSAR Establishment Day. Ironically, though, for the past decade July 1 has become an annual day of protest against both the Hong Kong administration and the Chinese government. Only adding to the irony, July 1 is marked in China as the birthday of the Communist Party, which was founded in Shanghai in 1921.
The tradition of protest marches stems from 2003, when the administration of Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing’s choice as Hong Kong’s first post-1997 chief executive, sought to enact national security legislation to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law. The law was promulgated in 1990 by China’s National People’s Congress as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Under Article 23, Hong Kong is obliged to enact laws to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets and other political offenses. Before the handover, fear of Chinese Communist rule – especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 – spurred a massive exodus from Hong Kong, with about 10 percent of its five million population seeking safe havens abroad, mostly in Canada, the United States, Australia and Britain.
Those who remained feared the loss of their rights and freedoms, and attention focused on Article 23, with its political offences.
The Tung administration tried to steamroller the bill through with passage slated on July 9, 2003. An unhappy populace, galvanized by fear of loss of basic rights and freedoms, poured into the streets in a huge protest on July that year.
In fact, many of the protesters probably had economic hardship on their mind as well. Hong Kong had been hit hard by the Asian financial crisis in 1998, followed by the global economic downturn in 2001 and SARS in 2003. This resulted in loss of jobs, negative equity and a declining economy.
As a consequence, half a million people marched, shouting slogans calling for democracy and opposing the proposed legislation. The ensuing political earthquake caused pro-establishment legislators to drop their support for the national security legislation, and Tung had little choice but to withdraw the bill.
Since then, each July 1 has been marked with a march calling for democracy. And since then, no chief executive has dared put forward Article 23 legislation.