Today is the 22nd anniversary of the “handover” of six million people by their colonists to a totalitarian regime. Although this sentence might make people uncomfortable, it is what happened on this day, and no amount of politeness can make this fact go away.

The Second Convention of Peking was a lease of a piece of land from the Qing Empire to the United Kingdom for 99 years. When the lease expired in 1997, the U.K. honoured the treaty by returning not only the New Territories, but the whole of the Hong Kong territories and the people within them, to the new leaders of China.

One may see this day as the end of 155 years of humiliating colonisation, a sad day as the sun finally set on the British Empire, or a grave violation of human rights. But beyond dispute, this is the day the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China was created. On this day, the former colony turned into a semi-autonomous city-state within the great expanse of the once-communist PRC.

1997 Handover
The 1997 handover. File Photo: Stand News.

Since 2003, every year on July 1st, The Civil Human Rights Front has organised an all-encompassing protest. The focus had always been wide-ranging and decentralised, but there is no doubt that this year’s protest will focus on withdrawal of the extradition bill that would allow people in Hong Kong to be prosecuted in China’s non-independent judicial system.

The public sentiment was so opposed to the bill that, according to the organisers, two million people attended the last weekend march protesting at the bill being put to the vote in the pro-Beijing Legislative Council. The bill was shelved but not withdrawn.

It will be interesting to see if activists can use the suspicions the protesters have towards LegCo, and their dislike of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and shift today’s protest towards Hong Kong democracy, picking up where the 2014 Umbrella Movement left off, as seen in the smaller and more spontaneous protests that have been popping up around the city in the last few days.

In times past, the ability to protest in Hong Kong was mostly taken for granted. As the years have gone by, and China’s trespassing into Hong Kong increased with actions like extrajudicial kidnapping of book-sellers, and its refusal to allow free and fair elections, the reason behind our ability to march without government intervention is something worth thinking about.

What is behind our ability to protest, or to have freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom to gather is in fact the Basic Law. Our mini-constitution became effective on this day 22 years ago.

basic law
Basic Law. File photo: GovHK.

The 168-page document agreed between China and the U.K. – with very limited input from Hongkongers – safeguards the legal and financial institutions that we had under the British. It lays out the relationship between Hong Kong and China and how our political system works. It literally sets out the rules of the second system in “One country, two systems.”

The whole of the Hong Kong SAR’s existence rests on those pages, which makes the words within those pages incredibly powerful, at the same time rendering our situation incredibly fragile.

Legislation is only meaningful if those in power agree to uphold it. Hong Kong as we know it, and our ability to survive, rely on China’s willingness to keep their side of the agreement. There is no other overriding entity to enforce any of these laws.

If China decides to do away with the Basic Law we can only expect the United Kingdom – the other signatory – to send a strongly worded letter and a stern phone call from the Ambassador to someone who isn’t even President Xi. Anyone expecting more is naive.

For many, those expecting China to continue to let Hong Kong exist under the Basic Law in the long term look naive as well. After all, Article 5 states: “The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”

There is no question that since the drafting of the Basic Law, China has embraced capitalism, and there is little worry that they would implement any socialist policies when they no longer have their own.

xi jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: GovHK.

People worry, though, that there is no additional annex that lays out what “way of life” means, and thus the phrase is completely open to interpretation. After all the only real “way of life” Hongkongers have that’s distinctive from our compatriots in China is our freedom.

We have to ask, what will the Central government do to implement those changes? On the other hand those are only nine words, in half a sentence, in one article, in a document with 160 of them.

Those words do give the impression that there is a deadline written into the Basic Law, when there isn’t. There is no stipulated date when the Basic Law dissolves, and the rest of the document does not end in 2047.

The Basic Law can in fact continue indefinitely. Hong Kong can remain with all the freedoms set out in the document, and in fact even more, if the Central Government agrees to it.

However, Xi has been approved to be “president for life” after the removal of term limits, his grip on power is strong, and his policies are restrictive. So to expect the Chinese government to grant those rights or allow them to continue on their own is extremely unrealistic.

protest china extradition
Sunday, June 16. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Therefore the only way to keep our freedoms, and even expand them is to rely on ourselves. We need to take the Basic Law seriously, and hold China to its promises. In order to do that, we need a sustained, constantly momentum-gathering campaign, that is vigilant and proactive, that defends our freedoms.

We need to make clear to the Central Government and the world, that Hongkongers will not sit quietly if our laws and rights are dismantled. We will use the tools afforded to us, and to many others throughout history, of non-violent resistance.

With the withdrawal of Article 23 sedition laws in 2003, and the recent shelving of the extradition bill, it seems that neither the Hong Kong government, nor the Central government, remain impervious to public sentiment.

After all, peaceful campaigns against the strongest of totalitarian regimes have been known to succeed. We are not here to topple any government, but just to keep what’s been promised and already written. What we want is keep our “way of life” now and beyond 28 years.

The Hong Kong Free Press #PressForFreedom 2019 Funding Drive seeks to raise HK$1.2m to support our non-profit newsroom and dedicated team of multi-media, multi-lingual reporters. HKFP is backed by readers, run by journalists and is immune to political and commercial pressure. This year’s critical fundraiser will provide us with the essential funds to continue our work into next year.

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Yan Sham-Shackleton has written for SCMP, BC Magazine, HK Magazine, PopMatters, and Her previous blog, Glutter, was nominated for a free speech award by Reporters Without Borders for her writings regarding democracy in Hong Kong and China. Some of her art, theatre and written works are archived in NYU Library’s Riot Grrrls Collection and Glasgow Women’s Library. Her fiction has appeared in journals around the world. She is nearly finished with her novel set during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.