20 years un­der China fuel doubts

Hong Kong gets ready to mark 1997 re­turn by Bri­tain. But some see no cause to cel­e­brate.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Jes­sica Mey­ers Twit­ter: @jes­si­camey­ers Mey­ers is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Gaochao Zhang con­trib­uted to this re­port.

HONG KONG — Re­minders are ev­ery­where, even un­der­foot. Stairs at Hong Kong parks, glued with Chi­nese flo­ral prints, help mark an an­niver­sary many refuse to cel­e­brate.

Hong Kong will com­mem­o­rate 20 years un­der Chi­nese rule Satur­day, honor­ing the rainy night Bri­tain re­turned the ter­ri­tory and ended a cen­tury and a half of col­o­niza­tion.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials are spend­ing $82 mil­lion on the fes­tiv­i­ties. China’s Xi Jin­ping will make his first trip to Hong Kong as pres­i­dent, a new leader will be­gin her term, and sparkling fire­works over Vic­to­ria Har­bor will il­lu­mi­nate Asia’s fi­nan­cial hub.

But the sheen of celebration be­lies a di­vided so­ci­ety and a dis­en­chanted pop­u­lace. A small group of largely pro-Bei­jing elites chose the ter­ri­tory’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive, de­spite public op­po­si­tion. Many cit­i­zens can’t af­ford to live in its tow­ers. Thou­sands plan to protest Xi’s visit.

Chi­nese lead­ers agreed to give Hong Kong a “high de­gree of au­ton­omy” when they re­took the ter­ri­tory. Now, more than ever, res­i­dents fear China is reneg­ing on the deal.

Peo­ple thought “as long as we’re not break­ing any Hong Kong laws, we’re safe in our own beds,” said An­son Chan, the ter­ri­tory’s former No. 2 of­fi­cial un­der the Bri­tish and Hong Kong govern­ments. “Now, no one thinks they’re safe in their own bed.”

The first signs of con­flict started Wed­nes­day night, when po­lice ar­rested 26 prodemoc­racy pro­test­ers for be­ing a public nui­sance — in­clud­ing leg­is­la­tor Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, a 20year-old ac­tivist who has be­come the ter­ri­tory’s sym­bol of de­fi­ance.

They en­cir­cled the Golden Bauhinia statue, a bloom­ing flower mon­u­ment that China gave to Hong Kong to cheer the trans­fer of sovereignty. Xi will at­tend a fla­grais­ing cer­e­mony there this week.

Be­fore the han­dover, Chi­nese and Bri­tish of­fi­cials ne­go­ti­ated a “one coun­try, two sys­tems” frame­work that lets the semi­au­tonomous ter­ri­tory keep its in­de­pen­dent courts, un­cen­sored me­dia and free speech for 50 more years — rights not en­joyed on the main­land.

Hong Kong is much bet­ter off than some pre­dicted when it moved from West­ern gov­er­nance to com­mu­nist rule. Its eco­nomic out­put last year was nearly 60% higher than two decades ago. The ter­ri­tory tol­er­ates po­lit­i­cal de­bate and reg­u­larly ranks as the world’s freest econ­omy.

But an in­creas­ing num­ber of its 7.3 mil­lion peo­ple sense those free­doms erod­ing.

“I fear for the worst,” said Adrian Chiu, a 25-year-old re­search as­sis­tant, “that ‘one coun­try, two sys­tems’ will soon only ex­ist in name.”

The U.K.’s seizure of the ter­ri­tory in 1841 came as a sur­prise, even to the Bri­tish. Lead­ers sent an ad­mi­ral to seek com­pen­sa­tion for con­fis­cated opium; he an­nexed Hong Kong Is­land. The Bri­tish im­posed their le­gal and eco­nomic sys­tem — and, in many ways, their cul­ture — on the colony.

China fi­nally re­gained its land, although po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences have meant a peren­ni­ally rocky re­la­tion­ship. Con­cerns height­ened in 2012 when Xi and Hong Kong Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Le­ung Chun-ying, backed by Bei­jing sup­port­ers, came to power.

It “formed the per­fect storm,” said Ja­son Y. Ng, a Hong Kong at­tor­ney and au­thor who has chron­i­cled the ter­ri­tory’s re­cent his­tory.

That year, thou­sands protested Bei­jing ef­forts to in­tro­duce na­tion­al­ist cur­ricu­lum in public schools. They won.

Even more shut down streets in 2014 to de­mand the right to elect their own leader. That 79-day protest, known as the Um­brella Move­ment, proved less suc­cess­ful. But it did spark a nascent pro-in­de­pen­dence move­ment and ruf­fle a cen­tral govern­ment in­tent on uni­fi­ca­tion.

In 2015, five book­sell­ers who sold scin­til­lat­ing sto­ries about the coun­try’s top of­fi­cials dis­ap­peared — and then sur­faced across the bor­der. One con­firmed that Chi­nese se­cret po­lice had ab­ducted him.

In Jan­uary, main­land agents grabbed a sleep­ing Chi­nese bil­lion­aire from the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel and carted him out in a wheel­chair.

China has also stepped in to is­sue a rare in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Hong Kong law, in ef­fect bar­ring two pro-in­de­pen­dence leg­is­la­tors from re­tak­ing their oaths. (They re­ferred to China as “Shina,” a de­mean­ing word once used by the Ja­panese.)

Zhang De­jiang, a top Chi­nese of­fi­cial, re­cently called the re­la­tion­ship one of “del­e­ga­tion of power, not pow­er­shar­ing.”

The world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy no longer needs Hong Kong’s busi­ness acu­men or its money. China’s econ­omy was just five times larger than the ter­ri­tory’s be­fore the han­dover. Now it’s more than 35 times big­ger.

“On the ex­press train of a ro­bust eco­nomic growth, the coun­try has re­served a seat for Hong Kong,” said Zhang Xiaom­ing, di­rec­tor of the main­land’s li­ai­son of­fice in Hong Kong, ac­cord­ing to the state-run China Daily.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials are com­plet­ing a high-speed rail line and a 31-mile bridge to con­nect Hong Kong with Guang­dong prov­ince, phys­i­cally bind­ing the two re­gions.

Few know how to re­spond. Only a small num­ber of Hong Kong res­i­dents dream of out­right in­de­pen­dence, but a more rad­i­cal con­tin­gent chafes at pro-democ­racy ad­vo­cates who want to work within the sys­tem. Es­tab­lish­ment groups worry a gen­er­a­tion of young ac­tivists is un­nec­es­sar­ily stok­ing Bei­jing’s ire.

“We can­not un­der­mine what Hong Kong has achieved and was able to main­tain in the past 20 years,” said Priscilla Le­ung, a leg­is­la­tor and vice chairwoman of the pro-Bei­jing Busi­ness and Pro­fes­sion­als Al­liance for Hong Kong. “China still gives us a lot of room to re­main our­selves.”

Anx­i­eties about China’s en­croach­ment are fur­ther fu­eled by ac­cu­sa­tions about the di­lu­tion of Hong Kong’s cul­ture, a so-called main­lan­diza­tion.

Some res­i­dents blame main­land Chi­nese buy­ers for boost­ing property prices. The wealth gap is its high­est in four decades; young peo­ple strug­gle to ad­vance. Only 3% of youths iden­tify as Chi­nese, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Hong Kong Univer­sity sur­vey, a record low.

Mercedeses drive by sweat-soaked de­liv­ery­men haul­ing pun­gent dried fish.

“We Hong Kongers have to fight for ev­ery­thing against each other as well as those main­land mi­grants,” said Chan Mo-shan, 47, who sells sta­tionery sup­plies. “That’s why peo­ple are get­ting more and more frus­trated.”

This sets the stage for a tense party. The city will de­ploy at least 9,000 of­fi­cers dur­ing Xi’s three-day visit, and po­lice have been in­structed to re­move signs that might em­bar­rass lead­ers.

“Pres­i­dent Xi hopes to prove it’s a time for celebration, but Hong Kong will show it’s a time for demon­stra­tion,” Wong said be­fore his ar­rest.

More than 100,000 pro­test­ers could re­trace the Um­brella Move­ment’s path on Satur­day, he told The Times. “It’s nec­es­sary for peo­ple around the world to keep their eyes on Hong Kong.”

Xi will at­tend events in the same con­ven­tion cen­ter where of­fi­cials swapped flags 20 years ago — the mood uncer­tain, as now, about the ter­ri­tory’s fu­ture.

‘Pres­i­dent Xi hopes to prove it’s a time for celebration, but Hong Kong will show it’s a time for demon­stra­tion.’ — Joshua Wong, ac­tivist

Kin Che­ung As­so­ci­ated Press

IN HONG KONG, Chi­nese flags fly along­side the ter­ri­tory’s as it pre­pares to cel­e­brate its July 1, 1997, re­turn to Chi­nese rule with an $82-mil­lion party. The fes­tiv­i­ties be­lie a di­vided so­ci­ety and a dis­en­chanted pop­u­lace.

Ver­non Yuen Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

DEMON­STRA­TORS en­cir­cle the Golden Bauhinia statue, China’s gift to Hong Kong to cel­e­brate the former Bri­tish colony’s trans­fer of sovereignty.

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