For a century, Hong Kong was ruled under British law, and the local population got used to freedom of expression. Economically, HK was one of the freest places in the world, where import and export proceeded without friction. As a trade portal, HK served the interests both of China and of trading partners in the West; and some say that freedom of expression there allowed a pressure-relief valve for Chinese dissidence.
(According to this school of thought, the British played their hand all wrong in 1997, and if they had worked quietly through back channels, they might have had an extension of their 99-year lease, Once the question became a public matter, China would have suffered an unacceptable embarrassment and loss of face if she had acceded willingly to continued colonial occupation, no matter that that might have been best for her cultural and economic agenda.)
Pursuant to open negotiations in the mid-1990s, China took full authority over the administration of HK, but with the proviso that democratic governance, political freedoms, and the free-trade zone would continue for 50 years (through 2047). This came to be known as "One country - two systems"
Obvious tensions resulted from "One country -- two systems". More people want to move from China to HK than the city could possibly hold, driven more by the huge disparity in economic opportunity than by the prospect of free speech. That motive has substantially diminished as the standard of living in China has grown steadily at an unprecedented rate, largely closing the gap. Hong Kong used to be 18 percent of China's GDP. Now it's 2 percent.
How much of the pressure for economic expansion and democratic reform in China finds its root in Hong Kong? We can only speculate. Is Hong Kong the tail that wags the Chinese dog ?
Context of the Protests this Summer
A century ago, German sociologist Max Weber wrote about revolution of rising expectations. As the Chinese population becomes more secure, more comfortable, and more sophisticated, Hong Kong's culture spills freely into the mainstream. The Communist Party of China is jealous of its monopoly on power, and uses media control to suppress dissent -- not unlike some Western superpowers, not to name any names, which also manipulate the media, though more quietly and with deniability.
For thought crimes committed in Hong Kong, Beijing wants to assert the right to bring people to trial in China, according to Chinese law and with weaker protections for defendants. Proposal for an extradition law was introduced into the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in February. The people of Hong Kong are understandably concerned, concerned enough to get out into the streets and brave rubber bullets and tear gas to make their point. They've disrupted traffic at Hong Kong airport for three weeks. (Personally, I wish Americans were jealous enough about their freedom of speech that they would occupy the streets over encroachments like the Patriot Act or the recent wave of shadow-banning by Facebook.)
Hong Kong has a Leglislative Council and a Chief Executive. Some members of the Council are elected by the people, and others are elected by an elite group of wealthy businessmen. The Cheif Executive is elected solely by the businessmen. This is a sore point for democracy advocates.
The last sustained protest movement demanding a direct say in the election of the territory's chief executive ended in failure in 2014. Since then, Beijing has intervened to remove six politicians elected to Hong Kong's legislature, a major setback for the opposition. Several others were disqualified from running in local elections by officials who questioned the sincerity of their belief that Hong Kong is an "inalienable part" of China. -- from the New York Timessome concern that the protests in Hong Kong have been fomented by CIA-funded agents provocateurs . It's not just The Donald who has gone out of his way to raise tension levels with Beijing; Obama was vilifying China long before Trump came into office. My best guess is that US support of the protests is real enough, but that the movement could never have gotten as far as it has without real, indigenous support of locals in Hong Kong.
We can support people everywhere who rise up in defense of their right to free expression, and we can do this without provocations that increase the likelihood of war with a nuclear power that is home to the world's largest standing army.
China and America
People of Hong Kong worry they could be extradited to China and tried for publications that are legal in Hong Kong. Halfway around the world, Australian Julian Assange is in a London prison, awaiting extradition to the US for publications that were not illegal in Britain or Australia. Chelsea Manning, pardoned by President Obama and released from prison in 2017, has been re-incarcerated because she refuses to testify against Assange.
Civil liberties in China have been expanding for decades, while civil liberties in America have been contracting. The Chinese are out in the streets, pushing the process, and the government is afraid of the people. The Americans are sitting tight in their homes, and the people are afraid of their government.