Hong Kong’s freedom fades
Chinese president lays down Beijing’s vision Pro-democracy groups feel sense of foreboding
For president Xi Jinping, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China was a moment to toast the reunification of a nation and hail its unstoppable rise. But for activists such as Eddie Chu, one of the leading lights of a new generation of pro-democracy politicians, it has become an occasion for something quite different.
“Boot-licking, unprecedented boot-licking!” he says, a smile breaking across his face as he reflects on how many members of the local elite chose to mark two decades of Chinese rule by plastering their homes and businesses with patriotic slogans and red flags in the hope, he suspects, of currying economic favour. “That is quite the opposite of what Hong Kong people wanted to see in 1997. We wanted to see democracy. Democracy is not boot-licking.”
Last Saturday, China’s authoritarian ruler, at the culmination of a rare three-day tour of the former British colony, led celebrations of two decades of Chinese control alongside Carrie Lam, who was sworn in as Hong Kong’s chief executive. At the flagraising ceremony, just down the road from where the umbrella “revolution” of dissent happened in the autumn of 2014, the pair remembered the moment this city of 7.3 million residents returned to China after 156 years of colonial rule. But in his address, Xi warned that Hong Kong must not be used as a launchpad to challenge Beijing’s authority, and that questioning of China’s sovereignty “crosses a red line”. Xi said Hong Kong needed to do more to protect China’s security and implement patriotic education programmes. Both issues remain deeply unpopular among city residents.
His remarks were a warning to increasingly vocal political factions calling for greater autonomy from China or even independence. After Xi flew out of Hong Kong last Saturday afternoon, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in a show of dissent.
Twenty years after Britain’s departure thrust this hyperactive lair of capitalism into the hands of a dictatorial regime, campaigners such as Chu fear Beijing is preparing to up the ante in its battle for control. Ten pro-democracy legislators, of which he is one, are at risk of losing their jobs as a result of government-backed legal challenges against them. There are fears that under Hong Kong’s new leader, elected by a tightly controlled selection committee, there will be a renewed push to enact controversial anti-subversion legislation.
Prior to his address, Xi had sought to strike an upbeat tone during his visit, but recent comments by another senior Communist party figure – who vowed to consolidate China’s control of the former colony – put activists on edge. Zhang Dejiang, China’s number three official, warned Hong Kong could only be governed by those who posed “no threat to prosperity and stability”. Feeding the sense of foreboding is a feeling that many western
governments have cut the activists loose for fear of damaging their economic relationships with China.
Xi’s message to Britain was blunt, bordering on disdainful. China would not brook outside “interference” in the ex-colony. In other words, forget about those guarantees of a free, open society negotiated before the 1997
handover. “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and challenge the power of the central government is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.
Martin Lee, a 79-year-old barrister and the elder statesman of Hong Kong’s democracy movement is, like many, convinced China is gradually stripping away the freedoms promised under the “one country, two systems” formula, and that Britain is doing nothing to intervene. “The British government is just awful. I’m afraid I cannot find any kind words to say about that,” he says. Suzanne Pepper,
a veteran chronicler of the city’s quest for democracy, said campaigners could no longer count on London or Washington for support: “As long as there is not blood in the streets, they don’t care.”
Not everybody was lamenting last Saturday’s anniversary. The streets around Xi’s waterfront hotel were dotted with clusters of pro-government supporters, and skyscrapers were decked out in bright red banners and neon displays saying: “Warmly celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China.”
Many more greeted the anniversary with nonchalance. ce. Chu estimated that about a third of the population was split between pro-democracycracy and pro-governmentt supporters. The rest “couldn’tuldn’t care less” and weree most worried about the trafficffic jams caused by the security rity operation to protect thehe
president. Lee said the lack of interest many young people felt underlined how disconnected they were from mainland China. He pointed to a recent poll suggesting only 3% of 18- to 29-year-olds considered themselves Chinese, the lowest rate since 1997.
For all the uncertainty, Hong Kong’s protest movement appears in a buoyant mood. Organisers said around 60,000 people turned out for last Saturday’s pro-democracy march – and last September a record number of activists were elected to the legislative council. Many could be forced from office, however. “If two to three of them lose their seats, the whole political balance will change totally and then Beijing will have absolute control of this legislature,” warned Chu.
Pepper is not optimistic Beijing would offer concessions to activists, even though Carrie Lam has pledged to “heal the divide” and build bridges. “This is a bridge between democracy and dictatorship,” said Pepper. “How she is going to bridge that, I don’t know.”
In the picture … pro-democracy protesters march in Hong Kong last weekend
Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam