World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the fall 2016 History’s Ghosts issue is: What lessons from history keep being forgotten? Below, Joshua Wong and Jeffrey Ngo discuss efforts to reclaim Hong Kong’s right to self-determination. Click for additional responses about U.K. refugee policy and U.S. military interventionism.
By Joshua Wong and Jeffrey Ngo
When we were born in Hong Kong during its final years under colonial rule, the fate of our hometown had long been determined: By July 1, 1997, its sovereignty would be transferred to the People’s Republic of China. The post-90s generation we belong to has, unlike previous generations, grown up in a changed city—it is no longer a British colony, but a Chinese Special Administrative Region. This arrangement, however, resulted from a series of negotiations between Britain and the PRC behind closed doors, eventually leading to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Hong Kongers at the time were absent from the entire process, for Beijing prohibited their participation in any form.
The democracy venture in Hong Kong has its origins in the mid-1980s, when intellectuals, lawyers, and educators—followed by the masses, especially in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre—began to demand a fully democratic legislature and, ultimately, a directly elected government. Over the next three decades, Hong Kongers used all peaceful means possible, from rallies and demonstrations of various scales to street-blocking sit-ins, to try and achieve those very objectives. Unfortunately, even with the Umbrella Movement two years ago—the largest-scale resistance movement on Chinese soil since Tiananmen—success has been negligible. The Chinese communist regime has neglected countless promises and remains oppressive. It still refuses to implement democracy as it is written in the Hong Kong Basic Law, the territory’s constitutional document that is supposed to assure universal suffrage, as Article 45 states, “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.” Hence, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong will, like before, be elected next year by a committee of 1,200 overwhelming dominated by Beijing loyalists and the business sector, which is hardly representative of the city’s population of over 7 million.
Many have indeed begun to rethink the ways in which the struggle for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong may proceed in the current post-Umbrella era. It is in this context that we have decided to move our endeavor into a somewhat more peculiar arena—the archives. From leading the fight against the implementation of Moral and National Education in public schools to the battle for genuine universal suffrage, one of us, a prominent student-activist, has been at the forefront of social movements in Hong Kong over the last five years. The other, an aspiring historian, has spent most of his time as an undergraduate and graduate student researching various aspects of Hong Kong’s past. Together we strive to investigate the history of our city further, with the intention of finding out how Hong Kongers, as former colonized peoples, came to lose our right to self-determination.
When the United States decided to establish formal diplomatic relations with the PRC under President Richard Nixon, the formerly unrecognized communist country finally gained admittance into the United Nations in 1971. Almost immediately after, as orthodox accounts of Hong Kong’s history never mention, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. urged the Special Committee on Decolonization to remove the Crown Colony of Hong Kong from the List of Non-Self-Governing Territories. This removal effectively stripped our right to self-determination, which would otherwise have been guaranteed by the U.N. Charter. To our surprise, Hong Kongers did not react against the decision, nor did the international media pay much attention to this episode—a blatant violation of the rights of non-self-governing peoples. Given its enduring implications for Hong Kong, we are concerned by the fact that most people have not had the chance to learn about this process from beginning to end.
Little is known about the specific basis for the U.N.’s conclusion that Hong Kong did not qualify as a non-self-governing territory when it was still, by every definition, a colony under British rule. Likewise, little is known about the circumstances that drove Britain to relinquish the rights of Hong Kongers when it had committed to liberating colonized peoples elsewhere. Even the very notion that Hong Kong is “an inalienable part” of the PRC, as Article 1 of the Basic Law declares, is seldom disputed. But given the frequency of territorial changes throughout history—certainly including Chinese history—why must Hong Kong inherently be always a part of China just because it was at one point? How is it possible, moreover, for a territory initially colonized in 1841 to “return” to a nation-state founded more than a century later, in 1949?
Historical knowledge can empower all of us. History is vital to our consciousness of who we are as a society; it enables us to distinguish just from unjust; it hinders any attempts by authorities to distort facts and manipulate the truth. Yet standard history books fail to accurately recount how we were deprived of our right to self-determination and how our sovereignty was subsequently compromised by Sino-British negotiations. It is time, we believe, for us to think beyond merely achieving universal suffrage under Chinese rule, which has been the paramount goal of democracy leaders for the past three decades. It is also time for us to tackle (as rarely before) issues relating to sovereign rights and the legitimacy of our existing constitution. As a British colony, in accordance with the U.N. Charter, we rightfully deserved a referendum with which we could express our stance. That opportunity was wrongly taken away from us.
For too long, Hong Kong has been depicted as little more than a global financial hub. When TIME famously coined the term Nylonkong in 2008 to describe the interconnection of New York, London, and Hong Kong and its importance to 21st century capitalism, it focused chiefly on our city’s economic merits. For many Hong Kongers, materialistic pursuits have been the most irrefutable aim in life. We are delighted, however, to observe that Hong Kong is currently in the midst of a transition to a post-materialist age; no longer can we be satisfied merely through money-making. Justice, equality, and autonomy are, along with freedom and democracy, increasingly becoming the core values our generation treasures most.
We are therefore prepared to advance our struggle from the local and national levels to a more global level. We ought to regain Hong Kongers’ right to self-determination from the international community so that the people, rather than the authoritarian regime in Beijing, can truly decide our own future.
Joshua Wong is the secretary-general of Demosistō, a political party in Hong Kong that he co-founded earlier this year. He was previously the convener of the student activist group Scholarism. He made international headlines in 2014 as the student leader of the 79-day pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. In addition to his nomination for TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year, he was named one of the 25 Most Influential Teens by TIME, one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune, and one of the 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy.
Jeffrey Ngo is an M.A. student of Global Histories in the Draper Interdisciplinary Program in Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He also completed his undergraduate studies at NYU, with a double major in history and journalism. He is currently writing a thesis on the history of Hong Kong’s sovereignty.
[Photo courtesy of Studio Incendo]