Maysy was eight years old on July 1, 1997 and perfectly remembers the “atmosphere of joy” that day in the streets of Hong Kong and how her parents went out to celebrate with other friends. The colonial era ended and, with a solemn transfer ceremony, the territory returned to Chinese sovereignty. Today, this 33-year-old administrative worker, with short hair and round glasses, an enthusiastic supporter of the protests against Beijing that paralyzed the autonomous enclave in 2019, has lived in the United Kingdom since last September, where she is studying a business master’s degree. She doesn’t know if she’ll come back: “It’s hard to be optimistic about the future. I love Hong Kong, but the Hong Kong that exists now does not love me. He prefers what the leaders call national security.”
This Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the return of the territory to Beijing. The halfway point of the 50 years during which, according to the Sino-British joint declaration, China committed to Hong Kong enjoying “a high degree of autonomy” and rights and freedoms not found in the rest of the country, under the principle which leader Deng Xiaoping had defined as “one country, two systems”.
The central government and the Hong Kong autonomous government are preparing to throw the house out the window with the commemorations. President Xi Jinping himself will swear in the new autonomous chief executive, former police chief John Lee. It is Xi’s first outing outside mainland China since the pandemic began, in a calculated move to make clear who has real control over the city that rebelled against Beijing’s heavy hand three years ago.
All of Hong Kong is adorned with bright red banners – that of the Chinese and Hong Kong flags – saluting the anniversary. The area around the Convention Center, where the ceremony will take place, has been fenced off since Monday. The massive demonstrations that had taken place every July 1 until 2020 to claim the autonomy of the territory will not be repeated.
In the eyes of those who called for more autonomy and democracy in the 2019 protests, their sympathizers and defenders of human rights and Western governments, the picture is bleak. The National Security Law that Beijing imposed on the autonomous territory in 2020 quelled those demonstrations. And he has imposed so many limits on rights and freedoms that, according to his critics, he has effectively ended the “one country, two systems” principle 25 years before the planned date of 2047. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, this Thursday, the Chinese leader has made his own summary of the situation: “In the last period, Hong Kong has experienced more than one serious test, and has overcome more than one risk and challenge. After the storms, Hong Kong was reborn from the fire and emerged with vigorous vitality.” “Facts have shown that the ‘one country, two systems’ principle is full of vitality,” Xi said.
“The concept was brilliant,” says the last British governor, Chris Patten, in conversation with a group of journalists from his residence in London. “Originally, Deng Xiaoping had thought of it for Taiwan, overriding the political and moral difficulties that existed for Hong Kong, but also for China and the UK. But Xi Jinping has ripped it apart. We could say that the Communist Party in Beijing never really understood what the Hong Kong system was all about. They thought it was simply allowing the rich to get richer. But in reality it was an extraordinary mix of economic and social freedoms, marinated in Chinese attitudes toward work and community and social responsibility. A mixture that worked very well.
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Twenty-five years ago the hope was that “Hong Kong would inspire China in a positive way” and bring the Beijing regime closer to Western democratic values. “But the opposite has happened,” says Patten.
The electoral reforms that should have guaranteed universal suffrage were never carried out. In 2014, a Beijing proposal was deemed insufficient among democracy advocates. The rejection ended up triggering the so-called Umbrella Movement, almost three months of protests in the streets of central Hong Kong to demand true universal suffrage, a precursor to the 2019 demonstrations. The Xi government took note: in his 2017 visit To mark the 20th anniversary, Xi warned the city that any attempt to “challenge power” would be deemed “absolutely inadmissible.”
But even then, former student activist Joshua Wong welcomed Xi’s visit for the commemorations by chaining himself to a statue gift from the central government in Beijing in protest. Today, that kind of act is unthinkable. Wong is in jail serving a sentence of almost two years for participating in illegal gatherings. There may be more: he is part of a group of 47 pro-democracy opposition activists and former legislators detained and awaiting trial for their role in the protests and in trying to organize a united opposition candidacy for the latest legislative elections. Many other supporters of the Democratic movement have also been arrested and are awaiting trial, such as the nonagenarian Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, or are serving sentences.
In the Legislative Council, the autonomous Parliament, there is no longer any opposition. The electoral reform also imposed by Beijing in 2021 prevents “non-patriotic” candidates from running. Critical media outlets have been silenced following the newspaper’s closure appledaily, the most combative of them, almost exactly a year ago. The vigil that commemorated the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 has been prohibited since 2020. The argument, in this case, is the fight against the pandemic. But the museum commemorating the tragedy, the only one on Chinese soil, has also been closed, and the University of Hong Kong, the main one in the enclave, has demolished the Pillar of Shame statue in honor of the victims.
The world of culture carefully measures its activities. The Foreign Correspondents Club has renounced giving out its annual Human Rights Awards, for fear of breaking the National Security Law. Thousands of people, out of a population of 7.5 million who in the last free elections – those of district boards in December 2019 – gave a resounding victory to the pro-Democrats, have left the autonomous territory. Some have done it temporarily and waiting for events, like Maysy. Others permanently. In the last year alone, more than 100,000 Hong Kongers have applied to move to the UK under a new visa programme.
The Hong Kong Institute for Public Opinion Research estimates that never since 1997 has Hongkongers’ trust in their system of government been so low. Consistently, this institute found until 2019 a general tendency among residents to identify more as Hong Kongers (70%, according to their May data) and less as Chinese in a broad sense. Only 28.5% recognize themselves in this last definition, a percentage that drops to 4.4% among those under 30 years of age.
And, at the same time, never has the autonomous government been so completely aligned with Beijing. John Lee, appointed in May by a committee of notable supporters of Beijing, is the new leader who will inaugurate the second half of those theoretical 50 years of freedoms. His critics anticipate harshness, even greater than that of his predecessor, Carrie Lam. The former head of public security has promised to make maintaining stability and security his top priority. And instill the feeling of Chinese patriotism among the youngest, right now the most disaffected to Beijing. New high school history books define pre-1997 Hong Kong as an occupied territory, rather than a British colony.
At the same time, physical ties are intensifying to connect and integrate Hong Kong into the greater Pearl River Delta region (through the Hong Kong-Zhuhai Overseas Highway, for example), something that supporters of the autonomy fear that it will gradually dilute the Hong Kong identity. Zhang Xiaoming, deputy head of the Hong Kong Affairs Office in the Beijing government until this month, has spoken of “a second return to sovereignty” of the city now, an opportunity to restore ties between the former colony and the Central government, and correct what Beijing considers errors in local management in these 25 years.
“Second return to sovereignty? The first one was enough, and we have seen where we have come. No, of course, seeing how things are evolving, I’m not sure that he’s going to come back,” Maysy ditches.
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