Free Hong Kong: A Case for Independence

Erich Greiner

            I. A History of the Current Protests


            It has now been two years since a Hong Kong teenager brutally murdered Poon Hiu-Wing while travelling in Taiwan, strangling her before stuffing her body in a suitcase and disposing of the corpse near a Taipei subway station before returning to Hong Kong.[1] So doing, Chan Tong-Kai inadvertently launched a massive grassroots movement and generated a monumental debate about the role of the international community in enforcing and ensuring the human rights of others.[2]

The Hong Kong authorities eventually arrested Chan, and he confessed to the grisly murder of his then-pregnant girlfriend while vacationing in Taiwan.[3] The Taiwanese government requested that Chan be extradited to face trial and punishment.[4] But, Hong Kong could not do so because it was not party to an extradition treaty with Taiwan, despite being party to such agreements with twenty other countries including the United Kingdom and the United States.[5] Hong Kong authorities, led by their chief executive Carrie Lam and her Chinese superiors capitalized on the moment. They proposed a bill to amend Hong Kong’s extradition law, which would abandon the current language preventing extradition to “the Central People’s Government or the government of any other part of the People’s Republic of China,” in favor of allowing extradition to mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau.[6]

The proposed bill would allow individuals accused of crimes to be deported from Hong Kong to face trial in those territories, and it would exempt many commercial offenses such as tax evasion from the extradition law.[7] The government claimed that those accused of crimes would be subject to extradition only if their alleged crime carried a maximum sentence of at least seven years; that extradition would only occur on a case-by-case basis; that Hong Kong courts would render the final determination as to extradition; and that those accused of political or religious crimes would not be extradited.[8] Further, despite prior statements as early as last May that authorities would not seek to extradite Chan under the proposed law, Lam and the leadership argued that the bill was required to ensure Chan was brought to justice in Taiwan.[9]

Opposition to the bill was massive. The response of the people of Hong Kong was swift, severe, and from all members of society. They expressed concern over the bill’s ability to facilitate human rights violations at the hands of China’s ruling Communist Party.[10], [11] Critics labelled it a “Trojan Horse” and one opposing lawmaker described the government’s use of Ms. Poon’s death as “political opportunism at its worst.”[12] Debate led to physical scuffles between the supporting and opposing factions, leading to a lawmaker being carried out in a stretcher.[13] University, secondary school, international students, and church groups started opposing petitions in the hundreds.[14] Lawyers and law students marched in the streets, and a million protestors followed suit in some of the largest demonstrations since the British ceded Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997.[15], [16]

The international community also expressed concern.[17] A United States congressional commission expressed that the bill made Hong Kong more susceptible to China’s “political coercion”.[18] Both the United Kingdom and Canada expressed concern with the “potential effect” that the new extradition law would have on their countries’ citizens living in Hong Kong, while the European Union expressed its concerns in a diplomatic note to Lam.[19]

Such fears and concerns over the underlying purpose and effects of the extradition bill seem vindicated when viewed in light of several senior Communist Party officials’ endorsements and Chinese propaganda outlets’ broadcasts declaring protestors co-conspirators with China’s enemies.[20] Though the bill was withdrawn in September, protests continued.[21] Even as the Party celebrated 70 years of rule in October, the specter of its past violations loomed in Hong Kong, only five years after the failure of the Umbrella Movement to achieve free elections and full democracy.[22], [23]

Conjuring images of the infamous Tianmen Square, police officers took increasingly violent measures against unarmed citizens. Police beat protestors with batons; they fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition into crowds, striking an 18-year-old demonstrator in the chest.[24], [25], [26] In the face of escalating violence, including a stabbing of a pro-Bejing lawmaker, the petrol bombing of officers, and the shooting death of another protestor by police as protestors attempted to set up road blocks, the government eventually yielded and held local council elections in November.[27] In a landslide vote, 17 out of 18 councils elected pro-democracy councilors.[28] However, the movement is far from satisfied. The people of Hong Kong have five key demands: First, for the ongoing protests not to be characterized by the government; second, that all arrested protestors receive amnesty; third, that an independent inquiry into police brutality be conducted; fourth, universal suffrage for Hong Kongese; and fifth—already met—the withdrawal of the extradition bill.[29]

It is vital that these demands are met, because the Basic Law—guarantees of the freedom of assembly and speech that were made as part of the “one country, two systems” arrangement established when Britain ceded the territory to China in 1997, expires in 2047, leaving the fate of Hong Kong and its people unclear.[30]


            II. Potential Statehood


Whether these reforms are enough to protect the people of Hong Kong remains questionable at best. Even under the Basic Law, Hong Kongese are at risk of reprisal. For instance, Mr. Lam Wing Kee, a bookseller in Hong Kong, alleges that he was abducted by authorities and charged with “operating a bookstore illegally” by Chinese authorities because he sold books critical of the Chinese leadership.[31] Other violations on the Chinese mainland have been cause for continual concern.

In 2017, China began blocking images of Winnie the Pooh behind its “Great Firewall” because social media sites and bloggers used the character to satirize the physical appearance of President Xi Jingping.[32] Most recently, a Chinese student studying at the University of Minnesota was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment after returning to Wuhan for tweets that contained “unflattering portrayals of a ‘national leader’”.[33] The government has rounded up hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs, forcing them into internment camps for re-education and hard labor so that they may be turned “into a disciplined, Chinese-speaking industrial work force, loyal to the Communist Party and factory bosses.”[34]

The coronavirus outbreak has led to further human rights violations. China has ordered martial law, forcing individuals into quarantine, ended transportation in and out of the city, and made it nearly impossible for necessary food and medical supplies to enter Wuhan province, even as the death toll has reached 636 people with over 31,000 are estimated to be infected (with many experts believing the true statistics to be much higher).[35] This, coming after a Wuhan doctor passed away from coronavirus after being silenced by police despite warning about the virus in December.[36] The outbreak has led to further protests in Hong Kong, where it was announced that hundreds of citizens would be displaced from residences in order to turn those residences in to quarantine centers, and at least fifty-seven cases have been reported in the city.[37]

Article I of the United Nations Charter states in part that the purpose of the United Nations is to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”[38]  Article 73, dealing with “non-self-governing territories”, holds that:


[m]embers of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of  these territories are paramount, and . . . ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses.[39]


These principles are central to international relations, and, if violated, give cause for peoples who are denied access to redress from their government to seek secession and recognition as a state.[40], [41] Moreover, the right of secession has historically applied to states emerging from prior colonial rule, or to putative states seeking refuge from egregious human rights violations.[42] Applying international custom, it is likely that the Hong Kongese may forward a successful case for statehood if they seek to do so on customary grounds.

Moreover, applying the elements of statehood as put forth in the Montevideo Convention, to obtain statehood status, a putative state must have territory, a permanent population, a working government recognized by its people, and capacity to conduct international relations, normally measured by recognition by other states.[43] Hong Kong has long-established territorial bounds; a permanent population of native Hong Kongese as well as British and Canadian citizens; a newly elected operating council with the support of its people; and, as an economic and political hub, has been backed by major United Nations’ members including the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Canada, and Australia.[44], [45] Hong Kong has also entered into treaties including the aforementioned extradition treaties with 20 states including the United States and the United Kingdom, justifying recognition under both the Declaratory Theory of Recognition—in which a putative state that meets the Montevideo test is a state—or the Constitutive Theory that requires formalized evidence of recognition of the putative state by the international community at large.[46], [47]

Therefore, the people of Hong Kong and the international community would be justified according to international law in taking all steps necessary to ensure the rights of the people of Hong Kong by pursuing statehood and seceding from the control of mainland China and its Communist regime.[48] The Security Council cannot and should not stand idly by as abuses of human rights continue. Failure to impose sanctions, diplomatic pressure, or consider deploying peacekeeping forces will only embolden President Xi Jinping, since he has not been held accountable for his threat to end any separatist movement with “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.”[49]

[1] Daniel Victor and Tiffany May, The Murder Case That Lit the Fuse in Hong Kong, N.Y. Times, June 15, 2019,

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Hong Kong-China Extradition Plans Explained, BBC, Dec. 13, 2019,

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9]  Victor and May, Supra note 1.

[10] Supra note 4.

[11] Victor and May, Supra note 1.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Victor and May, Supra note 1.

[17] Supra note 4.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Victor and May, Supra note 1.

[21] The Hong Kong Protests Explained in 100 and 500 Words, BBC, Nov. 28, 2019,

[22] Id.

[23] Victor and May, Supra note 1.

[24] Editors, Tianmen Square Protests, History, May 31, 2019,

[25] Victor and May, Supra note 1.

[26] Supra note 21.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Supra note 4.

[32] Stephen McDonnell, Why China Censors Banned Winnie the Pooh, BBC News, July 17, 2017,

[33] Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, University of Minnesota Student Jailed in China Over Tweets, Axios, Jan. 23, 2020,

[34] Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labor, N.Y. Times, Dec. 16, 2018,

[35] Amy Qin, Steven Lee Myers, and Elaine Yu, China Tightens Wuhan Lockdown in ‘Wartime’ Battle with Coronavirus, N.Y. Times, Feb. 6, 2020,

[36] Id.

[37] Jessie Pang, Hong Kong Protestors Rally Against Planned Virus Quarantine Centers, Reuters, Feb. 16, 2020,

[38] U.N. Charter art. I, para. 2 (emphasis added).

[39] U.N. Charter art. 73, para 1(a) (emphasis added).

[40] In re: Secession of Quebec, 2 S.C.R. 217 (1998).

[41] Theodore Christakis, Secession, Oxford Bibliographies, May 25, 2016,

[42] Id.

[43] Convention on Rights and Duties of States adopted by the Seventh International Conference of American States, Dec. 26, 1933, 49 Stat. 3097,

[44] History,

[45] Supra note 21.

[46] Supra note 4.

[47] Leonhardt van Efferink, William Worster: Sovereignty—Two Competing Theories of State Recognition—William Worster, Exploring Geopolitics, Feb. 2010,

[48] Excerpt of Kofi Annan’s Report on UN Reform, Mar. 21, 2005, (In relevant part, “But if national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, then the responsibility shifts to the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other methods to help protect the human rights and well-being of civilian populations. When such methods appear insufficient, the Security Council may out of necessity decide to take action under the Charter of the United Nations, including enforcement action, if so required.”).

[49] Supra, note 4.

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