When Britain ceded its control of Hong Kong in 1997 – after its 100-year lease expired – concerns were raised that a 50-year one country, two systems formula would be insufficient to protect citizens’ rights.

Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was among those who warned about the risks to the territory’s autonomy under Chinese control.

However, it was argued at the time the one country, two systems deal was the best outcome that could be struck under the circumstances.

Twenty-two years later, not quite halfway through a 50-year transition to the notional end of the arrangement, it is clear that the relatively benign outcome envisaged in 1997 is under unusual stress.

Mass pro-democracy demonstrations over the past week have underscored the fact that Hong Kong residents are fearful of creeping mainland control that will obliterate their relatively unfettered rights under the 1997 formula.

Protesters gather outside the entrance to the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on June 12. Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters
Protesters gather outside the entrance to the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on June 12. Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Their immediate concern is an Extradition Bill, currently before Hong Kong’s legislature, that would enable Beijing to extradite alleged criminals. The legislation invites understandable concerns that it could be misused to secure the extradition of China’s critics under the pretext these individuals had engaged in criminal activity.

Hong Kong’s relatively free media is alarmed at threats to press freedom inherent in the bill.

Beijing’s response

Beijing has done little to assuage these concerns. It has accused so-called foreign forces of misleading Hong Kongers as part of an attempt to destabilise China.

In China, authorities have blocked foreign news sites to prevent the dissemination of reports and images from Hong Kong’s streets. This is no doubt out of concern that street demonstrations might carry over to the mainland.

The demonstrations coincided with the 30th anniversary of June 6, 1989, better remembered at the Tiananmen massacre in which hundreds, if not thousands, died in a government crackdown. This has fuelled Beijing’s nervousness about developments in Hong Kong.

What distinguishes the latest mass protests against Chinese attempts to circumvent its 1997 one country, two systems undertaking from protracted disturbances in 2014 is that this time, it reflects increasing alarm about Beijing’s stealthy attempts to extend its control.

In 2014, demonstrations against Beijing’s violation of its commitment to autonomous local elections lasted months. This was the so-called umbrella movement, distinguished by the symbolic carrying of umbrellas by demonstrators.

The 2019 protests see the fairly heavy-handed use of tear gas, water cannons and other methods to break up demonstrations. Authorities have resolved to try to nip in the bud this challenge to a Beijing-dominated Hong Kong rule.

Whether this will work remains to be seen.

Protesters are hit by police water cannon during a demonstration on June 12. Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Protesters are hit by police water cannon during a demonstration on June 12. Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Global response to protests

The disturbances come at a time fraught by global disturbances. Relations between the US and China are on a knife’s edge over trade and other issues. This includes sales of sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, tightening sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, moves to bar the telecommunications supplier Huawei from building 5G networks of US allies, including Australia and a generally more confrontational approach to China in Washington.

Ill will over Hong Kong will not be helpful.

From Australia’s standpoint, the Hong Kong disturbances come at an awkward moment as a newly elected government in Canberra wrestles with China policy.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s initial response to events in Hong Kong was meek. Through a spokesperson, she said, “The Australian government is taking a close interest in the proposed amendments.” Australia’s interests in Hong Kong deserve something more forthright than this.

Hong Kong absorbs Australian $11 billion worth of merchandise exports annually. The services trade at Australian $3 billion is also significant. A total investment of Australian $116 billion puts the former British territory among Australia’s top 10 foreign investors.

Further, about 100,000 Australians are resident in Hong Kong. This is not a small number in a population of 7.5 million.

Hong Kong’s importance to China

While it is true Hong Kong is less important economically than it was in 1997 when its GDP was 16% of China’s – it’s now 2% – it still remains an indispensable financial conduit and testing ground for financial reforms.

Hong Kong provided the financial platform for China’s cautious experimentation in its move towards making the yuan a global currency. Hong Kong’s stock exchange is an important vehicle for capital-raising for Chinese companies.

The events of recent days have placed Beijing’s woman in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, who was selected by Beijing as chief executive two years ago, in an invidious position. If she yields to the protesters and withdraws the extradition law, she will run foul of her controllers in Beijing.

If she pushes ahead in the Legislative Council with the support of 43 pro-Beijing lawmakers out of 70, as she insists she will, she risks further disturbances.

Tony Walker is an adjunct professor at the School of Communications, La Trobe University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.