China-HK relations after the Umbrella Movement

With its pro-democracy calls, sense of humor, usage of social media, unbending government, police brutality, large masses of protesters, and solidarist spirit, the Hong Kong Protests (also known as the Umbrella Movement) were beautiful, unique, diverse and colorful. They were game-changing as well in terms of Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

China (officially the People’s Republic of China, PRC) and Hong Kong (officially Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, HKSAR) have a unique relationship, which has been shaped by their fundamental differences. Their complicated relationship came to a head during the Hong Kong protests in 2014 where tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets and filled the city squares. The protests were motivated by perceived interference from mainland China. Beijing was accused of encroaching into Hong Kong’s political structure and civil affairs. The already tense relations got more tensed with the protests, which caused significant changes. Before examining these changes that occurred in the relations between China and Hong Kong prior to and after the 2014 Hong Kong protests, it is important to a give a brief history of Hong Kong better to perceive the shift of their relationship.


Brief History of Hong Kong

After the First Opium War (1839-42), Hong Kong became a British colony with the Treaty of Nanjing (or Nanking or formally known as the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Commerce between Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and the Emperor of China) signed between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the Qing dynasty of China. Hong Kong remained under the British control until the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945 during the Second World War. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of the war, British control on the colony resumed beginning from 1945. Years later, the United Kingdom and China started negotiations in the 1980s, and it gave birth to the Sino-British Joint Declaration (formally called the Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong) in 1984. This Declaration paved the way for the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong on June 30, 1997. The territory became a special administrative region of China with a high degree of autonomy on July 1, 1997 under the principle of “one country, two systems”.[1]

“One country, two systems” is a constitutional principle suggested by Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the PRC, in the early 1980s concerning the reunification of China. The principle aims only one China with distinct Chinese regions such as Hong Kong and Macau, which could keep their own capitalist economic and political systems, while the rest of the country retains its socialist system. The principle was offered for Taiwan (officially the Government of the Republic of China) as well with an exception of maintaining its own military force, but Taiwan refused it.[2] In the case of Hong Kong, misapplications of this “one country, two systems” principle have caused numerous protests, including the 2014 Umbrella Revolution as the latest.

The transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in 1997 (Source:

Hong Kong vs. China: main differences between the HKSAR and the PRC

With its independent political and judicial systems from mainland China, Hong Kong enjoys a “high degree of autonomy” in accordance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and “one country, two systems” principle.[3] Its Basic Law provides Hong Kong to have its own police force as well. However, it has to defer to mainland China when it comes to international relations and military defense. In other words, Hong Kong has a limited autonomy in defense and foreign affairs while it enjoys a “high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region” in the other areas.[4]

China and Hong Kong have significant differences that complicate their interactions. Population, language, culture, and society are some major factors that have been giving form to their frosty relations. Mainland China has a population of 1.36 billion while Hong Kong has 7.2 million citizens.[5] The official language of mainland China is Mandarin while Hong Kong use mainly Cantonese and English. While people in mainland China are allowed to have only one passport, which is Chinese passport, Hong Kong residents can hold more than one passports, which are generally Hong Kong and the UK passports.

Throughout history, Hong Kong has always been a peaceful and prosperous region. On the other hand, mainland China has experienced plenty of turmoil during its long history. During the Chinese Civil War (1927-50), Hong Kong was considered as a safe haven. Hong Kong has welcomed many refugees from China ever since the political landscape led to civil war. Later during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), people in mainland China were horrified, and looked for a way out. Therefore, Hong Kong has served as a tranquil location for Chinese citizens escaping the instability in mainland China.

Relations between Hong Kong and China are mainly guided by the Hong Kong Basic Law that was made operable for 50 years after 1997. Before the transfer of its sovereignty, China had to accept some conditions such as Hong Kong’s Basic Law that gives the city a limited autonomy with its own legal and parliamentary system, and more rights and freedom to its people. The Basic Law provides Hong Kong the freedom to act on its own like an independent country rather than a part of China. In the meantime, this legal arrangement sets the precedent for the co-existence between China and Hong Kong as the legal and judicial system in Hong Kong based on the British common law model while land tenure and family matters stand on the Chinese customary law.[6] Compared to the people in mainland China, Hong Kong citizens enjoy more freedom and rights such as freedom of speech, freedom in press, and right of assembly owing to the Basic Law.[7] In spite of all these differences, Hong Kong still does not have a full democracy as mainland China has most of the control over issues such as voting and policy-making.[8] For instance, Hong Kongers still lack the freedom to elect their preferred political leaders. Instead, the region heads are appointed by an electoral college largely comprising of pro-China businessmen. In this manner, mainland China has a stranglehold on many key policy decisions made in Hong Kong.

Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets of Hong Kong in the 2014 Protests (Source: Reuters)

Considered as the world’s greatest experiment in laissez-faire capitalism, Hong Kong use its own currency, the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD), which is the eighth most traded currency in the world.[9] The HKD has been pegged to the US dollar since 1983.[10] As a consequence, the Chinese Yuan (CY) is not accepted in Hong Kong stores while the HKD is not valid in mainland as well.

Inevitably, relations between China and Hong Kong have been soured by constant differences in legal interpretation. For instance, freedom of assembly is not tolerated in mainland China while residents of Hong Kong can hold meetings without seeking prior permission from the ruling authorities. Therefore, Beijing interpreted the 2014 Hong Kong protests as illegal activities. Chinese authorities have used this sole fact as a justification allowing their interference in Hong Kong.[11] Consequently, previously cordial relations have become suspecting and even hostile.

The majority of relations between Hong Kong and China have occurred on an economic front. China owes much of its economic prowess to Hong Kong that is one of the world’s leading international financial centers, and has been ranked the freest economy in the world since 1995.[12] Hong Kong’s highly developed capitalist economy with low taxation and free trade defined by the Basic Law contributed to widespread economic reforms in mainland China.[13] Furthermore, the economic interactions between mainland China and Hong Kong are so intense that investments from Hong Kong in mainland surpass those made from foreign countries.[14] For this reason, the level of investments and expertise contributed to mainland China by Hong Kong is unmatched by any other country.

A bus covered with messages of support (Source: Aljazeera America)

On the other hand, Hong Kong also has heavy dependence on the economic growth experienced in mainland China. China has long served to ensure proper defense and beneficial foreign relations on behalf of Hong Kong. Consequently, Hong Kong has developed an enviable reputation as a center of commerce and banking excellence. In particular, Hong Kong has served as the economic gateway into China. Many multinationals have based their operations in Hong Kong due to its respect for due process and intolerance to corruption. The city acts as a logistics center from which major business players operate. Consequently, Hong Kong relies on several aspects of the Chinese economy. For instance, the port city is a manufacturing hub as mainland China provides high demand for the retail products manufactured in Hong Kong.[15] The city also counts on inward tourism whereby many people from mainland tour the sites of Hong Kong. Besides, the re-export of manufactured products from China contributes to the earnings made by the city. Additionally, the economic success enjoyed by Hong Kong can also be attributed to the cheap labor from China. Various immigrants from mainland China created a pool of skilled and resourceful laborers.[16]

The relations between China and Hong Kong also spurned the education sector. For instance, Hong Kong experienced severe brain drain in the late 1980s and early 90s. Many of Hong Kongers escaped to mainland China to pursue their undergraduate studies.[17] The situation was precipitated by the Tiananmen crackdowns that occurred in 1989. However, relative peace returned to Hong Kong in the early 2000s while the 2014 protests in Hong Kong have created a new dynamic.

2014 Hong Kong Protests

2014 Hong Kong Protests occurred in Hong Kong from September 26 to December 15 in 2014. The movement began after the week-long boycott of classes led by a student group called Scholarism.[18] Tens of thousands of students hit the streets of Hong Kong with call for democracy in late September after the Chinese government ruled that voters of the city would only be able to vote for their chief executive in 2017 from a list of pre-approved candidates by Beijing. The protests widened when the Occupy Central movement decided to support students by starting its plan of a mass occupation of the business districts. The Occupy Central movement was initiated by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, in January 2013 with raising concerns about the city’s political future.

Hong Kongers took to the streets to demand more freedom and democracy (Source: South China Morning Post)

The main demands of the protest were fully democratic elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive instead of a ‘sham’ democracy, a true universal suffrage without the interference of Beijing, and then resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying.[19] Hong Kong citizens enjoy autonomy and have more freedom than the people in mainland China, but Beijing still controls the elective process of the city. In the current system under Chinese law, Hong Kong citizens can only vote for pre-approved candidates while electing their chief executive, the top political post. When the control of the territory changed hands in 1997, Beijing promised that the residents of the city could elect their leader by universal suffrage by 2017, but with the latest developments, the mainland government showed its reluctance, and it broke the agreement. That is why, the protesters were aiming to obtain their promised right and gain a greater say for the nomination of their political candidates.[20]

The resignation of the chief executive Leung was also another key goal of the protesters as they considered him as an “imperious puppet of the Chinese Communist Party”.[21] However, Leung was determined not to step down. Instead, he adopted the same attitude with Beijing, and called the protest was illegal. He addressed the protesters again and again asking to empty the districts they occupied. On the other hand, by his order, his deputy Carrie Lam conducted negotiations with student leaders, but no results were received.

Students’ pro-democracy march with a giant cardboard of Leung’s face (Source: Coconuts Hong Kong)

The pro-democracy rallies were peaceful, but things were changed when the Hong Kong police used force while clearing the areas that were occupied by the protesters. They miscalculated while using tear gas on protesters, which had not been used since 2005, and rumor has it that the police have also used rubber bullets.[22] This violent police intervention galvanized the public outcry and caused thousands more protesters to take to the streets instead of dispersing the movement.

On the other hand, there were also many Hong Kongers who opposed the protests. Lots of them made complaints about them occupying major thoroughfares, shuttering businesses and bringing traffic to a halt.[23] For some, it was just a dream of young, excited people, and for some, it was a huge mistake making Beijing upset.[24] Older generations, who had witnessed various civil disorders before, worried about how the lives of Hong Kong citizens would be affected after these protests. Furthermore, some business owners have reported a dramatic decline in sales.

Protesters clash with the police (Source: CNN)

The result of Hong Kongers’ fight for democracy is still blurred as everything remained the same in appearance. Their call for democracy was fully denied, and their leader, Leung C.Y. remained in charge. Beijing still holds the political power of the city’s elective process. However, there are also some Hong Kongers who look the situation optimistically saying that the protests were not completely useless as it awakened the new generation and made them realize that they need to fight for their political future.[25]

The Aftermath of 2014 Protests: The relations between China and Hong Kong

As noted earlier, in the period after 1997, Beijing respected the autonomy privileged to Hong Kong. In this sense, Hong Kong has become a special region granted the right to pursue democratic elements separate from the Communism arrangement in mainland China. However, the outbreak of 2014 Protests caused a retraction. The Chinese government responded to the protests by declaring its jurisdiction over Hong Kong, and began to seek more control over the city.[26] As a consequence, after the protests, previous differences between Hong Kong and China have lessened compared to the situation before the riots. The assertion of more control from Beijing has caused some elements of the city to mimic the existent state in mainland China.

Beijing is well-known with its severe censorship that quashes anything against the Chinese government. 2014 Hong Kong Protests also got its share. During and after the protests, the occurrence of uprisings was covered with a harsh censorship as if they had never happened. Besides, police in mainland China are famous with responding with force to any illegal activity. In the aftermath of the protests, such occurrences have become commonplace in Hong Kong as well.

Before the Umbrella movement took hold, Hong Kongers were used to enjoy freedoms of expression, movement, and assembly. Liberties in the city were tolerated by Beijing, if not approved. However, the chaos that arose after the protests led the mainland government to alter its approach. Many rights and freedoms in the city were restricted. Although the legal system in Hong Kong with the Basic Law champions transparency and integrity, Beijing’s assertion of control, brutality of Hong Kong police, censorships on the occurrences, and restriction of civil liberties have weakened the trust that city residents have towards the rule of law.[27]

Hong Kong students boycott classes (Source: The New York Times)

The Umbrella movement has also caused fundamental changes in the economic interactions. Hong Kong has always been perceived as honorable due to its respect for due procedure and virtues as honesty. Consequently, many multinational companies have established their regional offices in the city. China has also benefited from the presence of these multinationals in Hong Kong. This has helped the two regions to maintain cordial relations even when differences in interpretation surfaced. However, the protests hurt Hong Kong’s peaceful image deeply, and the appeal of the city as a peaceful economic hub has greatly reduced since then. The state of insecurity and public unrest has dissuaded some major investors from exploiting Hong Kong markets, and for this reason, some multinational organizations shifted their operations from the region.[28] Inevitably, the mutual respect that existed before has been gradually eroded after the protests.

After the protests, China has acted deliberately to undermine the stature and perception of Hong Kong in world business. For instance, China has devalued its currency even further so as to make gains over the dollar. This action invariably weakened the strength of Hong Kong’s currency since it is pegged to the USD. Undermining the value of the city’s currency has also discouraged investors from channeling their China-intended business deals through Hong Kong. China has also conducted global campaigns to exalt Shanghai as a financial hub. The city of Shanghai has undertaken numerous initiatives to foster its image as a free trade zone.[29]

As the previous reputation of Hong Kong as a peaceful region was irreparably tainted, and the protests led to widespread clampdowns on many liberties and freedoms, the regular migration of Chinese citizens to the Hong Kong city also came to a halt. Even the ensuing insecurity and uncertainty resulted in another migration of people from the city into mainland China.[30] Police brutality also led many students in Hong Kong to migrate to institutions in Shanghai and elsewhere. Once Chinese citizens were fleeing from Shanghai to Hong Kong, but lately, Shanghai has risen to become the most densely populated city in the world.[31]

Lastly, the aftermath of the 2014 protests has been characterized by enhanced hostility and suspicion. For instance, Hong Kong imposes lower taxes on imported goods compared to the tax rates in the mainland. Therefore, some buyers have flocked to Hong Kong in pursuit of bargains and cheaper deals. This great influx of buyers boosts the local economy in the city, but still Hong Kongers have taken objection to this kind of prevalence of Chinese residents in the city.[32] Additionally, people from mainland China have also been accused of causing a steep rise in the pricing of houses in the city. Wealthy people from mainland China have purchased real estate properties in Hong Kong due to perceived higher value and security.[33] Furthermore, Hong Kongers have developed their preexisting contemptuous view towards people in mainland China following the protests.[34]

The banner reads “I want a real election” (Source: BBC News)


In conclusion, the relationship between China and Hong Kong has always been complicated. Beside their fundamental differences such as language and culture, the Basic Law of Hong Kong is another important factor telling them apart. The Basic Law, which was accepted by Beijing while getting the territory’s sovereignty back in 1997, provides Hong Kong autonomy in terms of politics, economy, and judiciary. In parallel with this, citizens of Hong Kong could enjoy more freedoms and rights compared to the people in mainland. However, the relative democracy in the city bothers the communist regime in Beijing from time to time, lastly in 2014 Hong Kong Protests when Hong Kongers demanded a full democracy without the interference of the Chinese government in the election process of their executive leader. Although their main demands were fully denied, and their success is still ambiguous, the protests caused a drastic change in relations between the city and mainland China. Previously cordial and respectful relations have frown sour, and have become spiteful and confrontational.[35] Following the protests, the Chinese government has sought to exercise more control over the city.[36] With all the strict censorship, police brutality, and Beijing’s assertion of control, the differences between Hong Kong and mainland China have begun to dissolve. The freedoms and rights Hong Kongers were used to enjoy were restricted despite the Basic Law. The Umbrella movement has also brought significant changes in terms of economic relations with it. Many multinational actors have started to look for another economic hub in the region instead of Hong Kong after the city’s peaceful image and faith in the rule of law have been deeply damaged due to the state of insecurity and public unrest. Consequently, the mutual economic relationship between the city and the mainland has been deteriorated in the aftermath of the protests. In parallel with this, China altered her stance, and took steps to undermine Hong Kong’s prestigious position in global arena such as devaluating its Yuan and bringing Shanghai forward as the new financial hub instead of Hong Kong. The insecurity in the city also led to the cease of the regular migration of Chinese citizens to the Hong Kong city. Moreover, a wave of migration from the city to the mainland, especially to Shanghai has begun. Lastly, the protests have unearthed the long-buried hostility and intolerance between two regions’ citizens toward each other.

Lastly, 2014 Hong Kong Protests were also beautiful, unique, diverse and colorful in its own way. Besides the political and economic changes in terms of its relationship with China, Hong Kong witnessed a historical event that may shape its future. Although they did not accomplish any tangible success in appearance, the protesters might have a bigger impact than we think. They showed everyone and next generations how to peacefully fight for democracy, freedom, popular sovereignty and freedom of press against oppression, brute force and submission. I believe the lessons they gave have taken by people, mostly by younger generations. The bittersweet memories of 2014 have been imprinted on Hong Kong people’s minds, and they will not forget their writings on the walls, slogans on tongues, and their solidarity shoulder to shoulder even with the passing years. Although it seems that Beijing won this round, as long as Hong Kongers keep their memories alive, sunny days will eventually come for them and also for the others who have been waiting for it with patience.

The statue “Umbrella Man” by the Hong Kong artist Milk became the symbol of the protests (Source: The Telegraph)

[1] The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. 1997. Chapter IV, Section 4.

Chu, Cindy Yik-yi. 2010. Chinese communists and Hong Kong capitalists: 1937-1997. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p.15.

[2] “One Country, Two Systems”. Web <;. Retrieved 18 April 2016.

[3] The Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong. 1984. Section 3(2).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lee, Pui-tak. 2005. Colonial Hong Kong and Modern China: Interaction and Reintegration. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. p.20.

[6] Bajpai, Prableen. “Hong Kong vs. China: Understand The Differences”. Investopedia. Web <;. Retrieved 18 April 2016.

[7] The Basic Law of the HKSAR. Chapter III, Article 24-42.

[8] Boland, Rory. “What Country is Hong Kong in”. December 16, 2014. Web <;. Retrieved 22 April 2016.

Gargan, Edward A. “China Resumes Control of Hong Kong, Concluding 156 Years of British Rule”. The New York Times. July 1, 1997. Web <;. Retrieved 22 April 2016.

“1898 and all that—a Brief History of Hong Kong.” The Economist. June 26, 1997. Web <;. Retrieved 20 April 2016.

[9] “Hong Kong’s economy, End of an experiment”. The Economist. July 15, 2010. Web <;. Retrieved 25 April 2016.

“Triennial Central Bank Survey: Report on global foreign exchange market activity in 2010”. Monetary and Economic Department (Bank for International Settlements). December, 2010. Web <;. Retrieved 1 May 2016.

[10] “Hong Kong’s Linked Exchange Rate System”. Hong Kong Monetary Authority. Web <;. Retrieved 1 May 2016. p.33.

[11] Kuah-Pearce, Khun, and Gilles Guiheux. 2009. Social Movements in China and Hong Kong: The Expansion of Protest Space. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press. p.56.

[12] Lam, Jeffie. “Hong Kong ranked world’s freest economy for 22nd year running”. South China Morning Post. February 2, 2016. Web <;. Retrieved 1 May 2016.

“2016 Index of Economic Freedom”. The Heritage Foundation. Web <;. Retrieved 1 May 2016.

[13] Jones, Randall S., Robert. E. King and Michael Klein. 1993. “Economic Integration between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Coastal Provinces of China”. OECD Economic Studies. No.20: 115-144. p.125.

[14] Lawrence, Robert. 2006. “China and the Multilateral Trading System”. Conference on “China and Emerging Asia: Reorganizing the Global Economy?”. Seoul, South Korea. pp.18-19.

[15] Jones, Randall S., Robert. E. King and Michael Klein. “Economic Integration between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Coastal Provinces of China”. pp.122-123.

[16] Huang, Flora, and Horace Yeung. 2014. Chinese Companies and the Hong Kong Stock Market. New York, NY: Routledge. pp.204-6.

[17] Chiang, Min-Hua. 2015. China-Taiwan Rapprochement: The Political Economy of Cross-Straits Relations. Florence, Kentucky: Taylor and Francis, 2015. pp.88.

[18] Fung, Dennis, and Angie Su. 2016. “The influence of liberal studies on students’ participation in socio-political activities: the case of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.” Oxford Review of Education. 42 (1): 89-107. p.96.

[19] “Hong Kong’s Democratic Awakening”. The Wall Street Journal. September 28, 2014. Web <;. Retrieved 22 April 2016.

[20] Holliday, Katie. “Hong Kong protests explained”. CNBC. September 28, 2014. Web <;. Retrieved 28 April 2016.

[21] Chan Wilfred and Anjali Tsui. “Who’s who in the Hong Kong protests?”. CNN. November 18, 2014. Web <;. Retrieved 28 April 2016.

[22] Holliday, Katie. “Hong Kong protests explained”.

[23] Kaiman, Jonathan. “Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution – the Guardian briefing”. The Guardian. September 30, 2014. Web <;. Retrieved 26 April 2016.

[24] Chan Wilfred and Anjali Tsui. “Who’s who in the Hong Kong protests?”.

[25] Stout, Kristie Lu. “Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella’ protest: One year on, what has changed?”. CNN. September 28, 2015. Web <;. Retrieved 29 April 2016.

[26] Kuah-Pearce, Khun, and Gilles Guiheux. Social Movements in China and Hong Kong. p.214.

[27] Lee, Pui-tak. Colonial Hong Kong and Modern China: Interaction and Reintegration. p.88.

[28] Hui, Dylan. 2015. “Hong Kong’s political future after the ‘Umbrella Revolution’.” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. p.11.

[29] Prasad, Eswar. “The path to sustainable growth in China”. Testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. April 22, 2015. Web <;. Retrieved 28 April 2016.

Shambaugh, David. “China at the Crossroads: Ten Major Reform Challenges”. Brookings Institution. October 1, 2014. Web <;. Retrieved 30 May 2016.

“Shanghai continues to draw Singapore investors with increasing opportunities in services sector”. IE Media Release. May 13, 2015. Web <;. Retrieved 30 April 2016.

[30] Wang, Al Ziyuan. 2015. “Framing “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong: A Comparison of News Frames between Mainland China and Hong Kong.” Dispute Resolution Studies Review. 13(3): 187-224. p.190.

[31] Wai, Bennis, and Yuang-kuang Kao. 2014. The Changing Policy-Making Process in Greater China: Case Research from Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. New York, NY: Routledge. p.7.

[32] Huang, Flora, and Horace Yeung. Chinese companies and the Hong Kong stock market. p.212.

[33] Ibid. p.192.

[34] Lam, Oiwan. “Provocative Images Depicting Differences Between Hong Kong and China Highlight Inter-Cultural Conflict”. The Fifth Column. July 7, 2015. Web <;. Retrieved 1 May 2016.

[35] Lam, Oiwan. “Provocative Images Depicting Differences Between Hong Kong and China”.

[36] Chan, Johannes. 2014 “Hong Kong’s umbrella movement.” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. 103(6): 571-580. p.578.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s