The current tension in Hong Kong is the result of historical and political events that only recently came to an end in 1997. Since 1842, Hong Kong has been a British colony wrested from the Chinese Empire after the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century. Then, in 1898, during an extremely complex period for the Chinese Empire as its territories were gradually being divided up among the major Western powers, the British obtained a 99-year cession of Hong Kong territory from China. In 1997, after the 99 years had elapsed, Britain "returned" the territory to China, which had become the People's Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949.
Given the long period for which the territory had been under British control, by the time it was returned to Chinese control, Hong Kong's population had inevitably taken on typically Western values and lifestyles, its economy had opened up to capitalism, and its education, legal and legislative systems were modelled on the British.
As the 99-year mark approached, the British and Chinese governments decided to sign a Sino-British Joint Declaration in Beijing on 19 December 1984. This Declaration came into force following the deposit of the instruments of ratification on 27 May 1985 and set the date for the commencement of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong at 1 July 1997. However, according to the treaty, the People's Republic of China was to exercise its control over the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in accordance with the "one country, two systems" formula, which on the one hand reaffirmed China's formal unity but on the other hand recognised a certain diversity of the region. The territory of Hong Kong would not be subject to the socialist system of the PRC and would maintain its own legal, political and legislative system as well as a different economic model. Finally, this formula was to remain in force for 50 years, until 2047.
However, the first form of PRC interference in the Hong Kong region was not long in coming.
It manifested itself in the decision to issue the so-called Moral and National Education Programme, a curriculum to be adopted in Hong Kong schools that was no different from that taught in mainland China. This move by the Chinese government triggered a student activist group called 'Scholarism' led by 15-year-old Joshua Wong in August 2012. In August 2012, the group led an occupation of the square where Hong Kong's government building is located to protest against the adoption of the Chinese education programme, which activists saw as restricting freedom of speech, thought and expression by being too much in line with Chinese party ideals.
Just a couple of years later, Joshua was one of the main supporters and initiators of the Occupy Central with love and peace movement - founded by Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man on 27 March 2013 - which occupied the city of Hong Kong for 79 days in order to obtain genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong for free elections. Contrary to what the protesters demanded, the Chinese government stipulated that candidates had to be approved by a special election commission whose members were directly appointed by Beijing, clearly undermining China's promise to establish full democracy in Hong Kong through free elections.
More recently, in May 2020, the Chinese National People's Congress passed a resolution mandating the National People's Congress to draft a national security law for Hong Kong aimed at "preventing, stopping and punishing any act that endangers national security such as separatism, subversion of state power, terrorism ... or activities of foreign forces interfering in the affairs of Hong Kong". Beijing saw this decision as a necessary step to restore order in the city following protests against the Chinese government, which it accused of taking away freedoms and rights from the Hong Kong people.
Many international observers feared that the law could be used to wipe out the pro-democracy movement and its many exponents.
Joshua Wong has been protesting against Beijing's interference since the age of 15, fighting for important ideals such as democracy and freedom. By founding the student movement, he wanted to emphasise the importance of freedom of expression and thought, which Beijing continues to threaten through its legislative programmes. We mainly remember Joshua not because he was the only one to demonstrate, but because he was the one who since 2012 - since the issuance of the Moral and National Education programme - has exposed himself most and then continued in the forefront with the "umbrellas movement" (another name used to refer to the Occupy Central movement).
The fact that Joshua and other protesters were repeatedly arrested and then released did not stop the demonstrations. However, the enactment of the National Security Law by the National People's Congress risks being yet another, and also the most targeted, tactic by the Chinese government to silence those fighting for democracy.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Alice Stillone