GIF by Tom Abi Samra

Xi Jinping and The Threat to Hong Kong

There is evidence of a slow withering away of Hong Kong’s freedom, with the Chinese government using Hong Kong’s chief executive as a puppet, gradually eroding the autonomy and uniqueness of the city.

A few weeks ago, I climbed to the peak of Lion’s Rock and laid my eyes on one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen: Hong Kong. Scaling a height of 500 meters was a daunting feat, especially with my shaky knees. But it was worth it; it made me fall in love with the sheer beauty of Hong Kong. However, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t shake the question, “how long will this last?” Hong Kong enjoys the status of a Special Administrative Region within China, a status granted when it was handed over by the British to China in 1997. The terms of the handover, which are supposed to last until 2047, stated that Hong Kong — in stark contrast to the Chinese mainland — would have its own legal system, multiple political parties and the right to free speech and assembly.
With the rise of Xi Jinping, however, these freedoms are increasingly under threat. Since his accession in 2013, Xi Jinping has quickly moved to assert total control. He has scrapped presidential term limits, effectively allowing him to lead the country for as long as he pleases. He also demands that officials declare their allegiance to him, valuing loyalty to himself and the state before anything else. Party officials perceived as threats to his power have been purged. A crackdown against Muslims entails holding approximately one million Uyghur Muslims in internment camps in the western region of Xinjiang. The stated objective of this internment is to re-educate Muslims, with detainees forced to swear loyalty to President Xi Jinping and criticize or renounce their faith.
On an international level, Xi Jinping has engaged in disputes in the South China Sea, for which he has been found to be the aggressor by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on most counts. He is also the mastermind behind the One Belt One Road initiative, which is a plan to increase China’s foreign investment in 71 countries. This initiative is by some considered an attempt by China to gain global influence.
But what does all of this have to do with Hong Kong?
A repressive autocrat like Xi Jinping allowing the continued existence of a semi-autonomous Chinese region like Hong Kong with relative freedom of speech and the right to hold elections seems like a direct contradiction. China controls 70 to 80 percent of Hong Kong’s water supply. If he wishes to do so, Xi Jinping can cause the entire region to collapse overnight. Nothing can stop Xi Jinping from taking over Hong Kong entirely and integrating it fully into the Chinese mainland. Yet, he allows it to exist with a degree of autonomy. Why?
Xi Jinping allows Hong Kong to exist because of the economic benefit the region provides. With a population of 7 million people, Hong Kong has a GDP of 1.25 trillion dirhams. To put this in perspective, Pakistan, with a population of 200 million, has a GDP of 1.12 trillion dirhams. However, this only makes up 2.9 percent of China’s GDP. Hong Kong’s major contribution to the Chinese economy comes through foreign investment as it is the world’s second largest recipient of foreign direct investment. Changing the political landscape of Hong Kong could lead to unrest in the region, which could cause investors to withdraw their money. Therefore, Xi allows Hong Kong to exist in order to ensure that foreign investment continues to flow into the Chinese economy.
However, this compromise between economic stability and political autonomy may be under threat. Hong Kong could turn into a symbol of defiance against the Chinese government, which could lead to wide-scale dissent movements spreading across the country. The 2014 Umbrella Movement where protesters demanded greater electoral freedom, is an example of the kind of dissent which has the potential to turn into a wide-scale outcry against the Chinese government. Since 2014, the Chinese government has been able to effectively clamp down on any real opposition in Hong Kong by prosecuting leading members of the Umbrella Movement. The increasingly repressive local government in Hong Kong is treating any talk of future independence from China as a vital threat. Some observers view an expanding suppression as inevitable given the political climate.
Given what we know about Xi Jinping’s personality, it is very likely that Hong Kong’s relative freedom will be slowly stripped away. There is already evidence of a slow withering away of Hong Kong’s freedom, the Chinese government using Hong Kong’s chief executive as a puppet, gradually eroding the autonomy and uniqueness of the city. China has also started to move resources away from Hong Kong and into the mainland and has prioritized the teaching of Mandarin over Cantonese, which is seen as a sign of forced integration. The deal that was supposed to grant Hong Kong a relatively high level of freedom until 2047 is unlikely to last long with Xi Jinping in power. A full-blown takeover is unlikely, at least any time soon, but a more gradual withering away of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom can be expected in the next few years.
Abdul Kareem Kamran is a contributing writer. Email him at
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