Imperialism Interrupted — China Gets Snared in its Debt Trap Diplomacy

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The soon-to-be hosts knew they would ultimately serve the revenge cold. Luckily, there was salt on hand to pour in the wound. Salt production was, after all, Honk Kong’s first industrial sector in the third century BC, more than 2,000 years ago. A bit more patience was required, which came easily after more than 150 years of waiting. Appearances first though. On December 19, 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed large red-bound documents with black fountain pens and then shook hands. Set in motion was a timeline for China re-assuming sovereignty over the city on July 1, 1997. The Joint Declaration was to adhere to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong became part of a communist regime but retained its capitalistic economic system and partially democratic political system for 50 years after the 1997 handover.

The first inklings that fate might not hold with this idyllic co-existence arrived with 1989’s Tiananmen Square pro-democracy massacre. Nonetheless, in 1992, with much aplomb, Chris Patten assumed his position as Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong. That October, he announced proposals for the promised democratic reforms including broadening the voting base in elections. China is outraged at the ambitiousness and not being consulted beforehand. Two bitter years of backbiting ensued yielding watered-down legislation that fell far short of universal suffrage. By the time 1997 rolled around, most observers knew true democracy would never be achieved. The key, for the Chinese, was closing the ugly chapter that started January 20, 1841, when control of Honk Kong was ceded to the British to stand as reparations for their loss of the First Opium War.

A decade on, following many protests, retributions and international accusations of bad faith negotiating, a blueprint outlining full democracy was still in the planning stages. Buying (a lot) of time, Beijing accedes to allowing Hong Kong people to directly elect their own leader in 2017 and their legislators by 2020. Many more protests later, in June 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping uses the occasion of swearing in newly elected chief executive Carrie Lam to issue a warning against any attempt to undermine China’s influence over the special administrative region. The strongman tactics fomented the first violent protests that only COVID-19 could temporarily repress.
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