Hong Kong 20 Years On


The 1st of July marks the 20th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain back to its motherland, China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government has organised an array of celebrations to run on the theme of “Together, Progress, Opportunity.”  The $640 million HK dollars taxpayer funded extravaganza is to show the world how successful ‘one country, two systems’ has been.  President Xi Jinping will visit Hong Kong to carry out official ceremonies such as the swearing in of Hong Kong’s newly selected Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

For anyone not versed in Hong Kong’s history: Hong Kong was ceded to the British following the first Anglo-Chinese War in 1839–42 by the Qing Dynasty. The Brits had been exporting opium from India to China, illegally.  After the Chinese publicly destroyed their stocks in Canton, the Nanjing Treaty was signed with China, stating that Hong Kong would be ceded to Britain until 1997 and then returned to Chinese sovereignty.

The people of prosperous Hong Kong were never keen to be reunified with its poorer communist cousin, nor did they look forward to being re-colonised by Mandarin masters from the mainland.  Britain in its last act of de-colonisation negotiated the Sino-British Joint Declaration which was hailed at the time as a diplomatic coup.  Beijing agreed that Hong Kong would retain its relative autonomy, preserve the liberty of its inhabitants, and eventually provide for election of its Chief Executive through universal suffrage. In short, the former colony would continue to look more like its former ruler, Great Britain, than its new master, the People’s Republic of China.

Many hoped that China would be inspired to gradually introduce democracy to the mainland, but two decades on, with China’s rise as an economic global powerhouse and Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule, this is but a remote dream.  Hong Kong has become more ‘one country’ rather than ‘two systems.

For years Hong Kongers looked forward to 2017 being a milestone in their political evolution, as Beijing had promised this would be the year in which they would take the critical step toward direct universal suffrage, under the terms of the Joint Declaration’s Basic Law.  By the summer of 2014 Xi Jinping was  consolidating his power as China’s leader, there was no way that he would allow free elections based on a western model of democracy nor could he allow a potential friend of the West get elected to run a part of China.

Beijing’s interpretation of universal suffrage for the Chief Executive elections infuriated the people of Hong Kong.  A select committee made up of legislative chamber members and the business elite with vested interests in China, electing from a panel of candidates approved by Beijing was not their definition of universal suffrage.  This sparked the Umbrella Movement in 2014 which brought Hong Kong to a standstill for months and the firing of tear gas on student protestors which many feared could lead to a repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacres.  Beijing refrained from calling in the People’s Liberation Army as all eyes around the world were upon Hong Kong but it offered no concessions to the protestors.

Discontent is especially high amongst Hong Kong’s youth who have not enjoyed the golden years of Hong Kong and witnessed ‘one country, two systems’ as a sham.  In a rebuke to Beijing, voters elected six candidates who ran on platforms calling for self-determination in the Legislative Council elections of 2016.  Two of the lawmakers, Yau Wai Ching and Sixtus Leung, were most vocal in their taunts against Beijing, choosing to swear allegiance to Hong Kong rather than China which was considered treasonous.

The staunchly pro-Beijing chief executive CY Leung did something unprecedented and, for many locals, very disturbing. Eliminating any discretion Hong Kong’s independent courts might have had in the matter, Leung put the issue before Beijing, inviting a leading committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress to rule on the dispute.  The pair were duly disqualified from taking office.

In January, a team of undercover police from China quietly entered Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel and made their way into a luxurious residential suite.  In the dim of night, they bundled away billionaire Xiao Jianhua, one of China’s richest businessmen who has built his fortune over the past two decades through deals involving the cream of China’s elite, reportedly including close relatives of President Xi Jinping.  Hong Kong fields its own police, border control and immigration services but so far authorities have not dared publicly protest Xiao’s arrest.  Beijing has not offered any explanation but it has demonstrated that Beijing is not going to allow Hong Kong borders to prevent it from imposing it’s will.

This incident was yet another blow to the idea that Hong Kong has control over its own affairs, and indicates how weak the Joint Declaration has become.  Only a year ago five booksellers were secretly whisked away in the night to face interrogation in China.  From unknown places of detention, some of them were forced to make crude confessions on state television.  Some speculate that they were abducted as they sold books which are prohibited in China and one of the books purported to reveal details of Xi Jinping’s secret love life.

The mood remains tense and there is a shared sense of foreboding among the people of Hong Kong. They are fearful that their home – one of Asia’s freest and most cosmopolitan cities – is locked on a collision course with the authoritarian system that governs China.

In the earlier years of the handover, relations between Hong Kong and China were less tense as Beijing needed Hong Kong.  Western-style institutions, such as the city’s impartial courts, transparent financial markets, and free press, made Hong Kong a halfway house for China’s own nascent global companies. It was the ideal place to set up international operations, giving them the extra credibility they needed to win over nervous foreign investors.

To many observers, ‘one country, two systems’ seemed partly designed to appeal to the 23 million people of Taiwan, the Republic of China, a self-governing democratic island near China.  Bringing Taiwan into the fold of a unified China has been a sacred goal for the Communist party ever since 1949, when Mao defeated China’s Nationalist government.  Political commentators speculated that if Hong Kong was seen to be prospering as a liberal society under Chinese sovereignty, then perhaps the people of Taiwan might also be won over to the idea of unification with China.  However, with the Taiwanese identifying ever less with the mainland and electing their own independence-minded government, persuasion by Beijing is unlikely to have much effect. Thus, Beijing feels less obligation to handle Hong Kong with gentleness as it did in the early days of the handover

Two decades on this Sino-British arrangement is at best limping along, on the verge of collapse.  The Brits having planted the seeds of democracy are long gone and pro-Democracy activists are left to fight a lonely battle.  Hong Kong politics has become very divided between pro-Beijing and pro-Democracy camps, with the former group often paying rent-a-mobs to shower pro-Democracy candidates with threats and abuse.

Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong has accused the UK of a dereliction of its duty to Hong Kong and of “selling its honour” to secure trade deals with China.  He said Britain had let down pro-democracy activists who have been fighting to maintain freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong as part of the deal to hand the territory back to China after more than a century of British rule.

Indeed, as China has become the world’s second largest economy, the world kowtows to China, multinationals bend over backward to please Beijing and gain access to the world’s largest consumer market.  China is an indispensable player in world politics and often throws its weight around, as in the South China Sea.  It is also building a new world order: The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt, One Road Plan to network more than 60 countries spanning vast stretches of Asia, the Middle East and Europe are China-led initiatives to counter balance the United States.  A shift is taking place in the global centre of gravity from west to east, as Gideon Rachman explains in his book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century.

Meanwhile, although Hong Kong remains the freest economy on earth, it is losing some of its lustre. Once the gateway to China, it now contends with Shanghai as the mainland’s top financial centre.  Its container port is losing ground to Shenzhen and its economy is more dependent on the mainland.  A couple of decades ago, Hong Kong accounted for a quarter of China’s GDP, the figure is now 3%.

Although the younger “rebels” and pro-Democracy camp caught international attention in recent years, there is little the rest of the world can do in response to rising Chinese interference in the territory’s internal affairs.  No government of a major power will yield its sovereignty to the demands of a foreign nation.

The fate of Hong Kong has always been linked to China – an integral part of its destiny because of history, culture, and geography.  Like the rest of the world, Hong Kongers will have to cope with the reality of a rising and more powerful China.  Brave pro-Democracy activists will have to adopt a less provocative yet prudent method in their battles for political freedom.  The people of Hong Kong are resilient and pragmatic, they will embrace the themes of “togetherness, progress and opportunity” with its now not-so-poor cousin on the mainland in the forthcoming 20th Anniversary reunification celebrations.