Visiting Hong Kong: Is it Now or Never?

The world is currently in the midst of a global pandemic so traveling, especially internationally, isn’t advised. However, plenty of those sheltering in place are dreaming of the days when they can grab their passports and hop a flight for some far-off destination. One of those destinations loved as a travel destination for westerners seeking Chinese culture without the immediate reach of the People’s Republic of China is Hong-Kong.

Hong Kong has been in the news a great deal in the last year and the results of those events will definitely affect travel plans, even after the COVID-19 Pandemic has been overcome. Those events are rooted in nearly two centuries of history.

Two-hundred years ago, Hong Kong Island was a thinly populated harbor and a gathering place for Chinese Pirates. Around 1821, British merchants began using the port as a base from which to smuggle opium into Qing-dynasty China, laying the groundwork for the First Opium War between the UK and China. The Chinese defeat led them to give up Hong Kong island to the British as a permanent base and, after the Second Opium War, the Chinese were forced to cede the Kowloon Peninsula to the north of Hong Kong Island to the British as well. During the Convention of Beijing of 1898, China ceded the New Territories, even further north, to the British in a ninety-nine-year lease. From that moment on, the region began a tumultuous economic and political life, with ups and downs caused by the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, the Sino-Japanese War and WWII, the Chinese Civil War, and the complicated relationship with now-Communist China and the British Empire. Through the ups and downs, Hong Kong eventually bloomed into one of the economic and social centers of East Asia and the world. During the latter-half of the 20th century, as the Hong Kong economic boom continued, the end of the ninety-nine-year lease on the New Territories approached and the Peoples Republic pressed that all of the territory, including Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula must be returned as they were prizes of an unequal treaty. In 1984, the British and Chinese signed the Chinese-British joint declaration, which stipulated that all of the ceded territory would be returned to the PRC on the 1997 end-of-lease date. This document and further negotiations between Hong Kong and the PRC led to what is today called the “one country, two systems” policy, an agreement that Hong Kong would be defined as a Special Administrative Region and enjoy unique, western-style rights and privileges (though they would not be allowed a democratically-elected government) for a period of fifty years after the handover. That legal framework is called the Basic Law. The understanding was that, in 2047, Hong Kong would be fully reabsorbed into the PRC. In the years since the reunification, the citizens of Hong Kong have pushed for greater democratic privileges, to mixed results.

Fast-forward to 2019. A bill was proposed in the Hong Kong Legislative Council to allow for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. The bill was feared as means for the PRC to begin extending its practice of political repression into Hong Kong and further impede their unique rights. The bill sparked months of protests that began peacefully but became violent as police and protestors clashed. Though the bill was eventually retracted, the protests continued as activists demanded investigations into police brutality, amnesty for protestors, and universal suffrage for Hong Kong citizens.

Fast forward to May of 2020. The PRC’s National People’s Congress proposed and, in June, passed a security law that bypassed the Hong Kong Legislative Council and appeared to criminalize acts such as sedition, secession, and subversion. Protests again erupted as citizens feared this law would be interpreted broadly by the PRC to stimy political dissent. The law also appeared to permit mainland government security agencies to operate in Hong Kong. It is feared that these actions spell the early end of the “one country, two systems” policy.

These issues are unlikely to subside by the end of the pandemic and the resumption of worldwide travel. There will likely be further clashes as the world approaches 2047 and the end of the Special Administrative Region status for Hong Kong. For the traveler wishing to enjoy Hong Kong as it was only three years ago, beware. The US Embassy in China says of the region:

“Since the imposition of national security legislation on July 1, the PRC unilaterally and arbitrarily exercises police and security power in Hong Kong. The PRC has demonstrated an intention to use this authority to target a broad range of activities it defines as acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and ‘collusion’ with foreign countries. The new legislation also covers offenses committed by non-Hong Kong residents or organizations outside of Hong Kong, which could subject U.S. citizens who have been publicly critical of the PRC to a heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution. PRC security forces, including the new Office for Safeguarding National Security, now operate in Hong Kong.”

One can actually use the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory website to compare the current difference in security and political rights between the PRC and Hong Kong. Currently, the state department says this of the mainland:

“The Chinese legal system can be opaque and the interpretation and enforcement of local laws arbitrary. The judiciary does not enjoy independence from political influence. U.S. citizens traveling or residing in China should be aware of varying levels of scrutiny to which they will be subject from Chinese local law enforcement and state security.”

Considering the new security legislation in Hong Kong and the subsequent protests, it is unclear what the state of Hong Kong will be in the future. If the PRC government can stamp out the protests, the mainland security mechanism is likely to quickly extend further into Hong Kong and the regions special status may end early. If the protestors can overcome the government and have the law repealed or otherwise repulse government forces, we can likely expect the PRC will make another attempt to absorb Hong Kong before 2047. The long-standing dispute over the Tibet Autonomous Region and the current situation of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Province provide ample evidence that the Chinese Communist party has no interest in region maintaining their autonomy. While it is not impossible that Beijing may choose to allow Hong Kong’s special status in perpetuity, it is unlikely.

While antsy travelers may want to have a taste of the unique Hong Kong experience before the official re-absorption into the PRC in 2047, they should be cautious. The State Department travel advisory for Hong Kong was elevated to a two (Exercise increased caution) before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the advisory up to a three (Reconsider travel). It may return to a two afterwards, meaning that it will be largely safe for a traveler but political instability means that the advisory could increase at any time. The new security law means that even foreigners to Hong Kong can be arrested and detained for any “subversive” acts.

So, if you do travel to Hong Kong, remember these handy travel tips:

  • Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice, as it’s associated with funerals.
  • Don’t practice your Mandarin on citizens as it’s not very similar to the local Cantonese
  • Do exercise caution if you are in the vicinity of large gatherings or protests.

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