Hong Kong and Palestine; what makes a country?

As I write this, Hong Kong protesters are battling for a degree of independence from China — something China seemed to have agreed to when taking over the province in 1997. While there is some sympathy for the protesters, not one country so far supports them. Meanwhile, by a vote of 138 to 9, the United Nations has accepted Palestine as an independent, observer state, the same status as the Vatican and Switzerland. A majority of nations have further stated that it is illegal for Israel to erect a wall between itself and Palestine as the wall implies a de-facto border. Why the differences, and what’s wrong with borders?

Distinctive dress, traditions, or physiology can justify a country's independence, as can a military tradition.

Britain has been shaved of many of its possessions since WWII, The possessions have demanded independent nation status based on their distinctive dress, language, history, traditions, or physiology.

Perhaps a good place to start is with British ownership of Hong Kong and Israel/Palestine. Britain acquired both by war, and both were possessions during World War II. Hong Kong island was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Nanking ending the first Opium War. British control of Israel/ Palestine was achieved by invasion in World War I and confirmed by the League of Nations. Following WWII, British Palestine was split into several nations: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia … Israel declared independence in 1948 — and was accepted to the United Nations in 1949 following its war of independence. Hong Kong did not fight any war, but was handed to China in 1997 in return for guarantees of autonomy. If Hong Kong had not been handed over, it would probably be independent today, like Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, Belize, Micronesia, Malaysia, Bali, Indonesia, etc.

Clearly part of the reason no one accepts Hong Kong as a country, while a majority of the UN accepts Palestine (and Israel?) as countries, is that both Arab Palestine and Israel have fought wars for independence, while Hong Kong has been a peaceful go-along. Another difference is related to how the world perceives China and Arab Palestine. China may be a semi-autocratic, one party oppressor of Inner Mongolia and Tibet, but its economic and military power helps insure that China is considered the respected, socialist owner of semi-democratic HK. Israel is much weaker, and much less-well regarded. It is viewed as a dispensable, European annoyance stuck improbably into the Middle east, and thus its claim on existence is weakened. The UN resolved in 1975 that Zionism is racism, and world leaders routinely called Israel a racist or apartheid occupier, as a state religion is considered anathema to freedom — they don’t have this problem with the state religions of the Vatican or Saudi Arabia. Ex-president Jimmy Carter calls Israel an occupier state, suggesting that Israel has no right to exist, and many western religious and academic groups agree or have voted to treat it as such. In 2013 alone, the UN passed 21 resolutions of protest against Israel, and only 3 against all other nations combined (A historical list is presented here). But disdained or not Israel goes on, in part by military might, in part by meeting the Montevideo requirements of 1933.

Comparison Hong Kong and Gaza

A map used to support Hong Kong Independence showing that Hong Kong is roughly 4 times the size of Gaza; and about twice the population. The government is more stable, and less divided too.

The UN’s grudging acceptance of Israel rests in part, on its meeting the four Montevideo conference (1933) requirements. A country must have: 1. a fixed population (more-or-less met) 2. fixed borders (war gains are an issue here, as is Palestine’s claim to all of Israel). 3. an internal government with internal control (here Israel exceeds Arab Palestine having a stable government. While Palestine manages to keep some law on a local level there are no unified elections, and only minimal education and healthcare. The two halves would likely shoot each other if they could shoot over Israel). The final Montevideo requirement, 4 is that a country must have the ability to make binding foreign treaties. This something Israel has, while neither Hong Kong nor Arab Palestine does. Both Palestine and Hong Kong are prevented from making treaties– with Israel and with China. Some in The United Nations have seen fit to waive this requirement for Palestine, but not Hong Kong.

While neither the Montevideo protocols nor the UN requires that a country must be democratic in any sense (most every country signing was a monarchy or dictatorship, and many still are (Jordan, Syria, Cuba, China….), there is a growing consensus that the age of kings is over, or ending. That a united Palestine would likely be a dictatorship, or kleptocracy thus runs afoul of another, uniquely American approach to state-hood — natural law, and the Rights of Man.

The United States, at its inception, appealed to the self-evident, Rights of Man, as a justification for its independence. That is to Justice, and to “Nature and Nature’s God.” We never claimed to have clear borders, or a fixed population, or any other Montevideo requirement. Instead we claimed nation-status by “the powers of the earth.” It was never clear what the legal limits of these powers were, not what Nature’s God demanded, but the idea is not mere poetry, but shows up throughout the policy speeches of Lincoln, Wilson, and Kennedy and Reagan. I’ve speculated that the poor reviews Lincoln got for his Gettysburg Address were due to the foreign-ness of these claims back in 1863, but 150 years later many thinkers seem to accept, at least as an ideal, that the legitimacy of a county rests on the will of its people, freely exercised. It’s a standard that hardly any country of the 19th century met, but that Israel meets, while Arab Palestine does not.

And that brings us back to the first and oldest basis of statehood: force of arms; self-preservation as a raison d’estat. If the people see death around them and are willing fight hard enough to keep out an enemy, they become a country. Even if they can not keep fixed borders, and even if they disband their army later, the fight for independence makes them so. (Micronesia has no army, but presumably would fight if they had to, and while Costa Rica had army once, the president disbanded it after he took over by military coup — it’s a threat to his life-long leadership). This view is the grim side of Nature’s law, that country is any organized horde who manage, by any means, to keep from being killed or disbanded. So long as the group survives, anywhere, it’s a nation. The Confederate States are not any sort of country, largely because the union has had such a stronger military that their army could operate against us, nor could the paramilitary remnant (the KKK) remain as an operational horde within our borders. China so over-matches Hong Kong that there can be no independent Hong Kong without China’s approval. Israel’s army, similarly, is strong enough to defeat any likely invasion or civil insurrection, though it might lose land, or gain it. It’s the dark version of natural law: the strong and vigorous survive at the expense of the weak and willing.

My observation is that neither Hong Kong nor Palestine is ready for independent statehood, via any of the justifications above, while Israel is a country by all of them. As for when to step in to create a state, my answer is only rarely; see my essay, when to enter a neighbor’s war.

Robert Buxbaum, December 4, 2014.