China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Internationalized Autonomy: Re-Discovering the West’s Stake in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s autonomy is a complicated geopolitical issue involving great power competition.

Brian C.H. Fong
Internationalized Autonomy: Re-Discovering the West’s Stake in Hong Kong
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

The Water Revolution, which started in June 2019, is entering its seventh month. While the question of how and when it will end remains highly uncertain, the Water Revolution has already transformed the world’s understanding of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Not only has the Water Revolution demonstrated the mobilization power of Hong Kongers as a stateless nation in pursuit of autonomy, it has also illustrated the political-economic constraints of China’s long arm in Hong Kong. But perhaps what has been most dramatically displayed since June is that Hong Kong’s autonomy is far from a simple central-local issue. Instead, it is a much more complicated geopolitical issue involving great power competition — the across-the-board opposition from Western countries (such as the G-7 members) against the Extradition Bill, the rise of the Hong Kong issue as a factor in U.S.-China trade negotiations, the enactment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by the U.S. Congress, among others, have all pointed to the international dimension of Hong Kong’s autonomy. This draws our attention to the underdiscussed concept of Hong Kong’s “internationalized autonomy.”

Comparative constitutional law literature has long recognized the international foundation of some territorial autonomies, tracing back to those autonomies established by great powers after World War I such as Åland Island, Danzig, and Memel Territory. The Water Revolution has reminded us of the pressing need to re-examine the internationalized nature of Hong Kong’s autonomy, which could be summarized in a threefold manner.

First, the framework for Hong Kong’s autonomy is primarily agreed upon and laid down by international laws. The existing constitutional status of Hong Kong, as an autonomous territory under Chinese sovereignty through the concept of “one country two systems” (OCTS), was settled by Britain and China in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration (SBJD). As an international agreement registered in the United Nations, the SBJD imposes upon China an international obligation to live up the OCTS promise to the Hong Kongers, which covers the period from 1997 until 2047. The SBJD is thus a test of China’s willingness to comply with the international treaties that it signs with the West.

Second, Hong Kong’s autonomy will have implications for the national security of Western countries. Under the OCTS model, Hong Kong has its own unique role in international law and many of its autonomous powers are conditioned on the assumption of its separateness vis-à-vis China. Such powers, to name a few, include the maintenance of Hong Kong’s separate customs territory, shipping system, aviation system, financial system, and Hong Kong currency, as well as the exercise of its external powers in joining international organizations, signing international agreements, and issuing HKSAR passports.

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For example, the Hong Kong government has signed hundreds of bilateral agreements with different countries including air services agreements, investment protection agreements, surrender of fugitive offenders agreements, free trade agreements, and visa-free agreements, the terms of which are usually more favorable than those China have signed with the same countries. Those signatory countries will therefore have strong national security reasons to monitor whether Hong Kong is sufficiently separated from China to exercise its autonomous powers and to fulfill the bilateral agreements. Any failure of Hong Kong to demonstrate its separateness vis-à-vis China, such as its refusal to surrender Edward Snowden to the United States according to their bilateral extradition agreement under the shadow of China’s instruction and the shipping of U.S. high-tech goods through Hong Kong to China, circumventing a U.S. export ban, will pose a direct threat to the national security of the Western countries.

Third, Hong Kong’s autonomy provides the necessary protection for extensive international interests within the territory, from investments and corporations to citizen communities and strategic presences. The geopolitical interests of the United States within Hong Kong are illustrative. Washington needs Hong Kong’s autonomy, particularly its freedom and rule of law, to protect its business operations (as of 2019, a total of 278 U.S. companies maintained regional headquarters in Hong Kong; 457 U.S. companies had regional offices in Hong Kong), substantial direct investments (as of 2018 the U.S. was Hong Kong’s seventh largest investor country, investing about US$37.5 billion in the territory), large U.S. citizen community (an estimated 85,000 U.S. citizens live in Hong Kong, and a further 1.3 million visited or transited in 2018), the strategically important U.S. consulate-general (which reports directly to the State Department in Washington and has been the largest U.S. overseas intelligence apparatus since the Cold War), and an outpost to influence China (Hong Kong is a “transformative portal” that demonstrates the best global practices to China). Such extensive geopolitical interests within Hong Kong drove the United States to enact the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act in 1992 as its oversight tool. Congress further passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in 2019 as an enhanced policy instrument.

After revisiting the internationalized dimensions of Hong Kong’s autonomy, we should not be surprised to see that the West is now taking a more active role in Hong Kong’s autonomy. For these countries, the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy is invariably connected to the legitimate needs of holding China accountable under its international obligations and protecting their own national security and geopolitical interests. But on the other hand, adopting an extreme Chinese nationalist ideology, China always blames “foreign interference” for its failures in Hong Kong and justifies on that basis its tightening grip over the territory. Therefore, ironically, the stronger China’s control over Hong Kong, the stronger the incentive for international oversight on Hong Kong’s autonomy – and vice versa.

Under the emerging “U.S.-China New Cold War,” Hong Kong’s autonomy has already evolved into three-way interaction between Hong Kongers, China, and the West. A new multivector geopolitical framework for understanding Hong Kong’s autonomy is, therefore, imperative.

This article is part of the HongKongBrief, a monthly e-newsletter on the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy. You can subscribe here.

Brian C.H. Fong is a comparative political scientist based in Hong Kong. Apart from academic work, he is leading several civil society organizations in Hong Kong including serving as the secretaries-general of Network DIPLO, Progressive Scholars Group, HKBASE Hong Kong Business Association of Sustainable Economy, and Project Civic Autonomy. His personal website is here.