In a City-State of Mind: On the Rise of Localism in Hong Kong and the Montevideo Convetion

You’d be forgiven for missing it. In a time in which our friends in the fourth estate are preoccupied with ISIS, the upcoming US election and Donald Trump’s backing of Brexit (despite his not knowing what Brexit is), the politics of Hong Kong seem to attract little attention, at least here in Australia. And why would they? A parcel of territory, disparagingly called “a barren rock” not two centuries ago, can hardly be expected to capture much interest in a world that invented cat videos, dank memes and Buzzfeed listicles.

Yet an interesting phenomenon has been occurring in Hong Kong recently. Spurred on by the 2014 Umbrella Movement, localist sentiment in Hong Kong has been rising. While a broad movement, localism in Hong Kong essentially entails a rejection of Beijing’s direct rule of Hong Kong, and focuses on the preservation of Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy and local culture. For many localists, Hong Kong is conceived of as being socially, politically and economically separate from China, and thus afforded ‘special’ status. Although no one has yet claimed that Hong Kong is independent from China, there seems to be an implicit assumption that Hong Kong is a distinct political entity afforded the rights and privileges of statehood.

Indeed, this is a somewhat understandable position. A consequence of Hong Kong’s colonial history and reversion to China under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong’s status is something of a vexed issue. When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, it was established as a Special Administrative Region and promised a high degree of autonomy from China. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s own mini-constitution, Hong Kong is given certain elements of international legal personality. Under Article 151 of the Basic Law, it is, for example, given the right to enter into agreements with other States on its own if they fall under the following fields:

  1. Economic
  2. Trade
  3. Financial
  4. Monetary
  5. Shipping
  6. Communications
  7. Tourism
  8. Cultural
  9. Sports

In such cases, Hong Kong itself is considered party to the treaty. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong also maintains its own customs union, judicial system, immigration territory and is given the ability to conduct its own economic, trade and social relations with other States.

Yet under international law, Hong Kong is considered not-quite a state. Under the 1933 Montevideo Convention, a polity is considered a state if it possesses the following characteristics:

  1. A permanent population
  2. A defined territory
  3. A government
  4. The capacity to enter into relations with other states

Hong Kong fulfills the first three criteria, but fails to meet the fourth. While it is able to enter into agreements with other States as outlined above, it does not possess the required independence and autonomy to fully meet the fourth criteria. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Beijing is still given the power to enter into agreements for Hong Kong, and has control over Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and defence. Moreover, it is also given a veto power in Hong Kong’s foreign relations, in that Beijing must approve all consular, official, or semi-official missions that Hong Kong conducts.

Similarly, while Hong Kong is able to participate in international organizations and conferences, it is only able to freely do so in instances where these are not limited to states. In cases where they are limited to states only, Hong Kong must attend as part of the People’s Republic of China delegation, although it is permitted to express its views as ‘Hong Kong, China’.

As such, Hong Kong comes close to meeting the criteria for statehood as set out under the Montevideo Convention, yet just falls short of the mark. And this is where it gets interesting. Apart from Macao, which has never had a similar localist or separatist movement, there are arguably no other comparable examples to the Hong Kong case. Hong Kong is not a state. Yet neither does it exhibit the characteristics that we would tend to associate with non-state polities.

Is this something that matters for the localists? To an extent, yes. While the rise of the localist movement is probably more accurately viewed as a manifestation of the increasing tensions in the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship, what continues to underpin the movement is the idea that Hong Kong itself is a unique and ‘special’ territory.

They’re not exactly wrong.

Claire Johnson is a fourth-year Political Science and International Relations student at UWA who dreams that she will wake up one day to find someone else has written her thesis for her.    

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