Af­ter 20 years of Chi­nese rule, Hong Kong cyn­i­cal

Pageantry planned, but few in mood to cel­e­brate

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY LUKE HUNT

Twenty years ago, mil­lions of Chi­nese cheered as Bri­tain ended its run as a global em­pire with the han­dover of Hong Kong — its last colony that mat­tered — to the com­mu­nist govern­ment in Bei­jing.

The pageantry-filled cer­e­mony on July 1, 1997, was a mem­o­rable af­fair and, de­spite a few hold­outs, most said the omens were good. The Bri­tish news­pa­per The Guardian trum­peted across its front page: “A last hur­rah and an em­pire closes down.”

The stock mar­ket soared to a record high, fire­works lit up the sky­line and the crowds even wel­comed a fierce trop­i­cal rainstorm — seen as a sign of good luck among Chi­nese. The Prince of Wales bade farewell to the tune of “God Save the Queen” and all royal pomp and cer­e­mony that Lon­don could muster.

But to­day, the mood on the streets of this bustling city is far more tem­pered as res­i­dents take stock of the changes wrought by 20 years of Chi­nese rule and worry about great un­cer­tain­ties cloud­ing their fu­ture.

Bri­tain spent on mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture projects in its fi­nal years and left be­hind a quasi-cen­tral bank stuffed with cash and a highly ef­fec­tive Ba­sic Law. China agreed to in­sti­tute full democ­racy for Hong Kong by 2017 un­der the mantra “One coun­try, two sys­tems.”

Many long­time res­i­dents say they have a right to feel short­changed by a han­dover deal cob­bled to­gether by a Bri­tish govern­ment ea­ger to please a po­ten­tial trad­ing gi­ant.

In­stead of full democ­racy, Hong Kong is still ruled by Bei­jing-vet­ted can­di­dates who are elected from

small groups of lo­cal elites. Po­lit­i­cal life is dom­i­nated by busi­ness in­ter­ests of­ten ac­cused of try­ing too hard to please the regime on the main­land as op­posed to serv­ing the in­ter­ests of their fel­low Hong Kong res­i­dents. Cyn­ics say there is now “One coun­try, one-and-a-half sys­tems” — with Hong Kong’s dis­tinc­tive­ness dis­ap­pear­ing by the day.

The Ba­sic Law, a proud pillar of Hong Kong so­ci­ety, is un­der threat, high­lighted by the de­ten­tion of trou­ble­some book pub­lish­ers whom se­cu­rity of­fi­cials de­tained — some say ab­ducted — off the streets of Hong Kong and else­where.

Man­darin, the di­alect spo­ken in Bei­jing and in much of north­ern and south­west­ern China, has swamped the tra­di­tional Can­tonese-speak­ing cities of Shen­zhen and Guangzhou and is now threat­en­ing Hong Kong’s iden­tity. Closely linked to that is a ris­ing tide of what the lo­cals call “red cap­i­tal” — huge in­vest­ment sums pour­ing in from the main­land, chal­leng­ing lo­cal ty­coons and driv­ing hous­ing and of­fice space prices to some of the high­est lev­els in the world.

Pop­u­la­tion num­bers sup­port the fears of the pes­simists. Hong Kong has grown by al­most 1 mil­lion peo­ple since 1997, to 7.42 mil­lion, largely be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion from the main­land.

That shift is ac­cen­tu­ated by the many who have left, par­tic­u­larly the young. The world’s fourth most densely pop­u­lated city-state is sad­dled with a rapidly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion. The me­dian age is 43.4, com­pared with 34 in 1996.

Hong Kongers joke that the Han­dover is now “The Hang­over,” amid lo­cal com­plaints that main­lan­ders are rude and un­couth. Many or­di­nary Chi­nese see the wealth­ier Hong Kong res­i­dents as un­grate­ful and in need of a few lessons in loy­alty and hu­mil­ity.

The Chi­nese govern­ment clearly feels the strain, push­ing a re­lent­lessly pos­i­tive im­age of the past 20 years and plan­ning three days of celebration start­ing Thurs­day to mark the an­niver­sary.

China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion, the staterun broad­caster, has been run­ning news fea­tures daily hail­ing what it says are bonds that have been forged be­tween China and Hong Kong in fields such as sports, the mil­i­tary and the arts.

Gavin Green­wood, a risk con­sul­tant with Hong Kong-based Al­lan & As­so­ciates, said the huge amount of in­ter­na­tional money that still pours into the ter­ri­tory and its con­tin­u­ing abil­ity to serve as a sta­ble and ex­pe­ri­enced fi­nan­cial in­ter­me­di­ary of­fers a de­gree of pro­tec­tion in the lead-up to 2047, when Hong Kong’s re­main­ing bor­ders with the rest of China will come down.

“The com­ing 30 years will be de­fined to the ex­tent the emo­tional and of­ten ro­man­tic as­pi­ra­tions of the young can be suc­cess­fully man­aged by their more prag­matic and re­al­is­tic el­ders to Bei­jing’s sat­is­fac­tion,” Mr. Green­wood said.

The view from 1997

As the Han­dover neared two decades ago, Hong Kong’s out­look was solid but in­de­pen­dence was far from assured — de­spite prom­ises by Bei­jing that its eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems would re­main un­changed for 50 years. In the many bars and clubs, ro­bust ar­gu­ments over the ter­ri­tory’s prospects were plen­ti­ful.

Dooms­day sce­nar­ios ac­com­pa­nied a stock mar­ket crash when the 1997-1998 Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis struck, but fears of an early demise of Hong Kong’s fa­vored sta­tus proved ground­less.

The worst-case sce­nario was that Hong Kong would be trans­formed into just an­other Chi­nese city, dic­tated by a hi­er­ar­chy that de­fined it­self by wealth and po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions on the main­land to the detri­ment of the lo­cal Can­tonese.

“Hong Kong is unique in that it knows to the last sec­ond when its sta­tus will change on a given date. What it does not know is whether this will be a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Mr. Green­wood.

As the dead­line for univer­sal suf­frage loomed, doubts emerged over Bei­jing’s will­ing­ness to keep its word. An anx­ious stu­dent body took to the streets in late 2014 stag­ing sit-ins and shut­ting down the cen­tral busi­ness district.

The Um­brella Move­ment was born, a ma­jor em­bar­rass­ment for the cen­tral govern­ment. Au­thor­i­ties ap­peared gen­uinely stunned by the emer­gence of a Hong Kong in­de­pen­dence move­ment af­ter it be­came clear that full demo­cratic rule for the 427-square-mile en­clave was not in Bei­jing’s plans.

“Twenty years af­ter the Bri­tish re­lin­quished con­trol, the ter­ri­tory re­mains deeply di­vided by gen­er­a­tional, class, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal ex­pec­ta­tions, in­ter­ests and sen­ti­ments,” Mr. Green­wood said.

Ties be­tween or­di­nary cit­i­zens, par­tic­u­larly youths, and the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic have con­tin­ued to de­te­ri­o­rate. In Tai­wan, the Main­land Af­fairs Coun­cil doc­u­mented 169 breaches of in­ter­ven­tion in the ter­ri­tory’s le­gal sys­tem, free­dom of speech and the right to self-rule.

Hong Kong Univer­sity poll­sters found that the share of young peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing as Chi­nese fell to 3.1 per­cent this month, the low­est ever, ac­cord­ing to a phone sur­vey of 1,000 peo­ple. The mar­gin of er­ror was 4 per­cent­age points.

Deep­en­ing di­vi­sions pose a risk of fur­ther in­sta­bil­ity, David Zweig, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Hong Kong Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Bei­jing “can’t fig­ure out why 20 years af­ter the tran­si­tion, peo­ple in Hong Kong don’t love the main­land more,” Mr. Zweig told the news agency, adding that Hong Kongers don’t have a prob­lem iden­ti­fy­ing as Chi­nese un­til their free­doms are re­stricted. Or, as many res­i­dents put it, they don’t want their home to be­come just an­other Chi­nese city.

“Peo­ple like liv­ing in a free so­ci­ety,” he said, “and they want their kids to live in a free so­ci­ety.”

The ten­sions could come to a head with the ar­rival of Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping for the Satur­day celebration, co­in­cid­ing with the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Bei­jing-backed Car­rie Lam as the ter­ri­tory’s next leader and the re­lease of China’s most fa­mous dis­si­dent, No­bel lau­re­ate Liu Xiaobo, af­ter a di­ag­no­sis of can­cer. Sit-in protests have al­ready been staged, and a pro-in­de­pen­dence group plans its an­nual pro-democ­racy march on Satur­day, an event that has drawn big crowds in the past.

The Hong Kong con­sult­ing firm Steve Vick­ers & As­so­ciates is warn­ing that au­thor­i­ties will take no chances amid a max­i­mum state of alert through­out Mr. Xi’s visit.

“There is lit­tle doubt that demon­stra­tions will be smoth­ered by an over­whelm­ing po­lice pres­ence. Con­se­quently, smaller ‘hit-and-run’ demon­stra­tions, or­ches­trated through so­cial me­dia are likely,” the firm said in a note. “These may in turn re­sult in an over­re­ac­tion by govern­ment if not care­fully han­dled.”

A city-state once fa­mous for its vi­brancy and em­brace of the new has be­come a place where many young Hong Kongers feel un­wel­come. The young and ed­u­cated with a dis­like for Bei­jing’s au­thor­i­tar­ian val­ues are mi­grat­ing and find­ing homes in the United States, Aus­tralia, Canada and Europe.

“Peo­ple are not cel­e­brat­ing but wor­ry­ing about Hong Kong’s fu­ture and its cur­rent sit­u­a­tion,” Nathan Law, a leader of the Um­brella Move­ment demon­stra­tions in 2014 and, at 23, the city’s youngest-ever law­maker.

● This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

STATE­MENT: Pro-democ­racy law­maker Le­ung Kwok-hung was ar­rested Wed­nes­day af­ter climb­ing a gi­ant flower statue be­queathed by Bei­jing in 1997. Hong Kong is plan­ning a big party as it marks 20 years un­der Chi­nese rule.

SYMBOLIC: Na­tional flags are dis­played to mark the 20th an­niver­sary of Bri­tain’s trans­fer of Hong Kong to China. The mood among the peo­ple, how­ever, is tepid.

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