Home / Asia and Pacific / Land of the Rising Sun and Pearl of the Orient: the paradox of Japan-Hong Kong relations amidst Sino-Japanese rivalry

Land of the Rising Sun and Pearl of the Orient: the paradox of Japan-Hong Kong relations amidst Sino-Japanese rivalry

11 October, 2023

By Luke Austin – Junior Fellow

Japan and Hong Kong share fascinating bilateral relations. On one hand, there still remains a certain degree of ill-feeling towards Japan on account of the latter’s wartime occupation of Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945 following the defeat of British military forces in December 1941. Historians have shed light on the nature of the Japanese occupation period, which saw the inhabitants of Hong Kong experiencing severe food shortages and economic hardships as the Japanese Empire increasingly exploited Hong Kong for its resources as the Pacific War dragged on.

On the other hand, Japan and Hong Kong share deep-rooted commercial and cultural ties. Between 1945 and 1970, at least partially motivated by Japan’s own period of high economic growth, Japan-Hong Kong trade relations developed to the extent that the following achievements had become a reality: 1) Japan had become Hong Kong’s most important source of imports; 2) in 1956 representatives of the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO) were permitted to operate in Hong Kong and 3) by 1960 large numbers of business visas were granted to Japanese citizens. Following the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), closer economic ties have been forged between Japan and Hong Kong. In May 1997, a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) was signed between the two before entering into effect the following month. However, by the late 1990s and early 2000s

Japan-Hong Kong relations were afflicted by a range of problems:  the 1997 Asian financial crisis negatively impacted bilateral trade and led to a decline in Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) flows to Hong Kong while political tensions were refuelled in 2001 by issues such as the then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and the Japanese government’s authorisation of a history textbook which underplayed the scale of the atrocities committed by Japan in the Pacific War. However, by 2005 Japanese FDI to Hong Kong rose sharply, increasing more than threefold compared to 2004 levels.

According to the latest statistics published by JETRO, Japan enjoys a bilateral trade with Hong Kong with a balance firmly in Japan’s favour, with the chief Japanese exports to Hong Kong comprising predominantly electrical equipment and machinery while Hong Kong’s chief exports to Japan mostly consist of natural or cultured pearls, precious and semi-precious stones and precious metals. As of October 2022, there were over 23,000 Japanese nationals residing in Hong Kong. As of 2022, almost 1,400 regional headquarters and offices representing Japanese companies were located in Hong Kong, reflecting the territory’s continuing status as a vital hub for regional and international trading and finance. For up to two decades, Japanese tourists have represented a large proportion of annual visitors to Hong Kong, being ranked as third largest by spending in 2012. Japan has also embarked on a drive to promote immigration from Hong Kong for trained professionals, yet this has achieved mixed results: challenges range from comparatively high income tax to low English language fluency levels in Japan.

However, while Hong Kong has enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the central government in Beijing in its capacity as a special administrative region (SAR) under the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the past decade has seen this autonomy come under threat from an escalation in Beijing’s own shift to authoritarian tendencies, particularly under Xi Jinping’s leadership. The 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution’ saw the involvement of over 200,000 individuals in protests against perceived encroachments on their individual liberties and freedoms by Beijing. The crackdown on these protests was particularly notable in terms of its incorporation of organised criminal elements such as the infamous triads to marshal violence against protestors on behalf of the central government in Beijing as demonstrated in research interviews with former police officers and triad informants. After all, the relationship between the triads and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is well documented, with such ties dating back as far as the early stages of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1920s and embodied in contemporary figures such as leader of the Macau-based 14K organisation Wan Kuok-koi. The passing of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill, suspected of leaving Hong Kong citizens vulnerable to possibly unfair and politically-motivated trials in mainland China, led to the eruption of not only extensive protests but also to acts of police brutality, which in in turn inadvertently led to the protests gaining even more support from a wider cross-section of Hong Kong society ranging from civil servants to medical professionals and even secondary school students. A new security law was passed by Beijing in June 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: this law not only criminalised subversion, terrorism, succession, and collusion with foreign states, but it also drastically increased the penalties for those found guilty of committing these crimes, such as full-length life prison sentences. In March 2021, an electoral reform was initiated by the National People’s Congress (NPC), whereby the numbers of members of the election committee, of seats in the legislative council and overall places for pro-Beijing members would all be drastically increased.  The subsequent suppression of activists from the pro-democracy camp seem to threaten the development and very status of democracy in Hong Kong. The Japanese government is understandably concerned by such trends, particularly after the March 2023 arrest of a Hong Kong student under the 2020 security law for posting pro-independence messages on social media whilst in Japan two years earlier, subsequently laying bare the potential consequences of taking such positions not only within Hong Kong but also outside of it.

Like in many other former Japanese colonial possessions, Hong Kong’s population has still retained some degree of anti-Japanese sentiment. In fact, by the 1990s Hong Kong had become a key hub of activity for the Baodiao (Defence of the Diaoyu Islands movement), which had become strongly associated with efforts made by Beijing to appeal to overseas Chinese communities. This anti-Japanese sentiment has presented itself on numerous occasions in the new century, such as the anti-Japanese protests of mid-September 2012 organised by Tsang Kin-shing. Furthermore, a group of Hong Kong activists that included Tsang sailed to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands before being arrested and deported by the Japanese authorities which administer this territory. This event led to recommendations for the Japanese government to refrain from commencing infrastructure projects on the islands and for Japanese activists to not visit the territories, so as to not provoke further tensions between Japan and the mainland PRC as well as Hong Kong. Somewhat ironically, Tsang is also a key figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The radio station Citizens’ Radio founded by Tsang in 2005, which has hosted other prominent pro-democracy activists such as Albert Ho and the late Szeto Wah, was also shut down this June. The main reason cited for the unlicensed radio station’s closure was bankruptcy, caused by the freezing of the station’s bank account under the 2020 Beijing-imposed National Security Law. As a result, it is possible to observe a complex and even seemingly contradictory pattern of anti-mainland Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiment amongst Hong Kong’s pro-democracy sections of society.

Relations between Japan and Hong Kong are also profoundly affected by events concerning another territory claimed by the PRC despite its insistence on independence and autonomy: Taiwan –  otherwise known as the Republic of China (ROC). Despite the PRC representing Japan’s largest trading partner, Japan has historically supported Taiwan’s position in its dispute with the mainland authorities as have many other US allies. Taiwan has also openly supported the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, with Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu voicing support for the protests against the 2019 extradition law at international forums such as the June 2019 Copenhagen Democracy Summit. Concerns over Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture are shared by Hong Kong and Taiwan, it has been noted, at both the governmental and societal levels. In addition, a convergence of trends in both Hong Kong and Taiwan encompassing a shrinking number of Hong Kong citizens self-identifying as ‘Chinese’ as opposed to ‘Hongkongers’, a rejuvenated independence movement advocating greater autonomy for both Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as the consolidation of ties between the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong and the Taiwan-based Sunflower movement. There are occasional spats between the Hong Kong and Taiwanese authorities, such as the mid-2021 withdrawal of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) staff from Hong Kong and the retaliatory closure of Hong Kong’s Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei over the inclusion of a pledge to a ‘one China’ principle in visa renewal application documents. Nevertheless, the strength of inter-civil society ties should not be underestimated by any means. Japan could well play a greater role in this sense.

However, the mid-to-late 2010s early 2020s have given way to new developments which hint at the erosion of this trajectory defined by the duality of these two patterns of enmity. While protests such as those in 2014 ultimately failed, they were still significant in the sense that they have been credited with leading many Hong Kong citizens to reconsider the prospects for their political future and have even been compared with the ‘Colour Revolutions’ which have taken place across the post-Soviet world. Hong Kong’s younger generation appear to hold a much more favourable view of Japan than their forebears: interviews with young activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan have highlighted the presence of their three major concerns: economic prosperity, the upholding of democracy and the ascendance of China in the region. Nevertheless, there is still the potential for tensions to arise based on certain decisions taken at the governmental level in particular. This was very recently demonstrated by Tokyo’s decision to commence the discharge of radioactive wastewater in late August as part of an effort to decommission the Fukushima nuclear power plant, three reactors of which melted down following the disabling of cooling systems caused by the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. Despite being considered safe by both the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the move has been criticised by both environmental groups and some state governments, including that of China. Chief Executive of Hong Kong John Lee was among the voices of criticism, describing the decision taken by the Japanese government as “irresponsible”. Hong Kong authorities also announced a ban on seafood imports from Tokyo and nine Japanese prefectures: Fukushima, Chiba, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Nagano, Saitama, Niigata, Miyagi, Nagano and Gunma. The ban was in turn denounced by Japan’s Consul General in Hong Kong Kenichi Okada, who urged the Hong Kong authorities to reconsider their position. It is perhaps not surprising that the Hong Kong authorities have taken such measures, as John Lee is widely considered an ardent pro-Beijing figure and something of an ‘enforcer’ for the CCP with a reputation for crushing peaceful opposition.

Japan appears less and less reluctant to jeopardise its relations with the PRC in matters such as the Taiwan Strait crisis. Its own national security concerns over the PRC have been given as the chief explanation for a notable shift in Japan’s Taiwan policy, characterised by trends such as strong Japanese support for Taiwan’s admission into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the consecutive December 2022 visits made by senior Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) officials Hiroshige Seko and Koichi Hagiuda to Taiwan – the first visits to be made by LDP officials to Taiwan in almost 20 years. If such a shift is already visible in Japan’s position on Taiwan’s situation, then it is likely that Japan will also take more active measures in the case of further crackdowns against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Image: Protest in Hong Kong in 2019 over the extradition bill (Source: Studio Incendo via CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.