The Hong Kong crisis is not an exclusively Chinese domestic issue: it is a legacy of colonialism
There is no problem in recognising the fact that Hong Kong is indeed an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. After all, territorial integrity is still the most basic principle that holds together the contemporary international order. While some might argue that an erga omnes right to self-determination grants a defined population universal power to choose both own form of self-government and their own form of sovereignty, such an interpretation is neither well-recorded in positive international law nor well-received by the scholarly community.
Apart from the precautionary marriage of territorial integrity and the principle of self-determination during the decolonisation process, international actors are extremely hostile toward the notion that self-determination could be used to support secession or to enable territorial integrity. In the Aaland Islands case, for example, both the Jurists and Rapporteurs rejected the notion of granting any fraction of a population the right to devolve from the original community at the expense of internal stability or international order, and refused to recognise the right of national groups to separate simply by the expression of a wish. There is also the assertion of the Declaration on Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514) that it only embraces those peoples and territories that ‘have not yet attained independence’ and that any attempt to disrupt national unity and territorial integrity would be contrary to the ultimate objective of the UN Charter. And there are also authoritative international documents concerning the cases of Western Sahara, Katanga or Biafra (Nigeria). These documents emphasise very clearly that, whatever the circumstances, self-determination shall not be capable of altering the ‘existing frontiers at the time of independence’ (uti possidetis juris).
In the words of Justice James Crawford (page 389), self-determination applies only after the unit of self-determination has been identified, and such a unit is the recognised and established territory, and not the population. Moreover, as rightly explained by Professor Antonio Cassese (page 16), it is not within the rights of minorities to determine their external status.
All things considered, this post has to agree with Mr Geng Shuang, the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson of the People’s Republic of China, when he stressed at a regular press conference on November 11, 2019 that “[The PRC] firmly oppose any attempts to provide platforms for ‘Hong Kong independence’ forces”.
However, it would show a detachment from reality to claim that the Hong Kong crisis is a merely internal affair. If we examine the demands of the Hong Kong protesters, we see that these include: (1) the full withdrawal of the extradition bill, (2) a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, (3) retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”, (4) amnesty for arrested protesters and (5) dual universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. Evidently, the ultimate objective of the series of protests is clearly not just to seek amnesty or to oppose the classification of protesters, but to continue the fight they fought back in 2003, 2012, 2014 and 2016 for Hong Kong’s identity, and Hong Kongers’ rights to internal self-determination and their own control over the island, which are believed among local residents to be well founded within the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
This post does not intend to argue that the Joint Declaration is the benign instrument of international law that can effectively solve the Hong Kong crisis. On the contrary, the Declaration is a colonial remark giving birth to an unnecessarily complicated “One country, Two systems” formula, whereby colonial powers continued to claim the legitimate authority to dictate the future behaviour of those whose territorial integrity they had violated. The document, drafted in compromise and arbitrariness, indeed prolonged for a short period the status quo and social order of British Hong Kong. Yet it also places every party involved, and most importantly the Hong Kong people, in a limbo of fear and uncertainty.
Why does the guarantee of autonomy extend for only 50 years? Why is there no further clarification on the method of governance? Why did the drafters imply that the political rights and freedom of Hong Kongers are expendable after a time limit?
With the crippling presence of Mainland culture and the Mainland style of politics, the rise of Hong Kong’s localism, its own form of nationalism, was inevitable.
It is in the best interests of China to realize that they themselves are victims, stuck in the dilemma of unresolved identities, rights and cultural conflicts that poorly managed British imperialism – colonialism so often left behind, as in the cases of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the entire continent of Africa. The story of Hong Kong is one of the last stories of unsuccessful decolonisation, and therefore, requires the effort and support of the international community in order to be peacefully and entirely addressed.
Why Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is the best solution?
Hong Kong is on the brink of destruction. For many Hong Kongers, this is the final fight for the Hong Kong identity they know and to which they have a sense of belonging. For the Chinese Communist Party and for public opinion in the Mainland, this is a matter of national identity, of an uncompleted struggle against the concept of foreignness and the remnants of colonialism. Leaving the crisis entirely in the hands of either of these forces can only mean further escalation.
On the other hand, the Chinese overlords seem to be mentally ready for deadlier responses. Carrie Lam has now described the protesters as “enemies of the public”, while Chinese state media have criticized the demonstrators for wreaking “chaos”. These words were once used to denigrate the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, which were violently crushed with thousands of lives lost. Hong Kong police have been heard referring to protesters as “cockroaches”. The use of such language should cause alarm within the international community and call to mind the nightmare of the Rwanda genocide, when a murderous regime called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic group.
Of course, the current stage of the Hong Kong protests, with around 3,000 arrests and only 10 deaths allegedly tied to suicide, approaches nothing like the severity of the Rwandan conflict. There are vital differences between an ethnic conflict in a 90s protracted civil war and a 2020 democratisation movement within a technocrat regime. This is not to mention that the term “cockroach” also has a very distinctive cultural implication to Hong Kong people, as explained by Luisa Tam on South China Morning Post. Considering, however, the rising tension between the pro-Beijing and the pro-democracy population, and the fact that the Hong Kong police forces are ready to use live ammunition, there is a continuing possibility of hundreds or even thousands of Hong Kongers on both sides dying if no appropriate plan of action is devised and promptly initiated.
Hence, instead of statements and ideas that will cause only horror and antagonism on the Mainland and lead to atrocities in Hong Kong, Beijing has another option – Responsibilities to Protect (R2P). Will the application of R2P in Hong Kong be something China should be worried about? Does it imply an intervention in Chinese internal affairs? Does it accuse the regime of committing crimes against humanity?
R2P and its three pillars, which are overwhelmingly supported by most states, is not just another variation on the theme of humanitarian intervention, nor does it imply allegations of international crime. Instead, R2P rightly evokes and amplifies the notion of sovereignty via the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility” pioneered by Francis Deng and Roberta Cohen, while envisaging the role of the international community as, first and foremost, supportive and discursive. China itself should understand that it is the major bearer of “responsibility to protect” Hong Kongers, and that the R2P has never been exclusively about forcible intervention.
By requesting R2P assistance and by consulting with the international community, Beijing could introduce outside actors into the stand-off between Hong Kong police forces and the protesters, in which the former has lost both public support and its ability to protect the people of Hong Kong. The international community could propose a variety of non-violent and proactive measures capable of preventing atrocities. Furthermore, it would nullify the protesters’ claims that Beijing had unjustly intervened in Hong Kong politics.
The vision for R2P that dominates current thinking is incredibly diffuse and open-ended. From allowing cooperation between the UN, regional groupings and civil society organizations (CSOs), to taking initiatives that address local hate speech, and nurture inclusion, or even calling for Security Council’s authoritative resolution, China, therefore, should make use of its mechanisms, not only to defuse the Hong Kong bomb, but also to obtain a reaffirmation from the international community concerning Hong Kong’s legal status as an inseparable part of the Mainland.