Independent Hong Kong at 25

ByUmair Jalali

Teaches in The Royal Colosseum and is an avid sports fan


July 24, 2022

Independent Hong Kong

Umair Jalali describes a changed city

When the British flag was lowered on Independent Hong Kong for the last time, the cry in many circles rose of betrayal, anguish over democracy and a nostalgic sense of loss of the prosperous part of the British Empire. Yet years down the line barely a sign in Britain of the regret as official view is that the notion of “one country, two systems,” under which Hong Kong has special status within China, is working. However, the view outside government is that, while the picture may not be quite as rosy as it could be, it could have been a whole lot worse though it is still unsettled. Since the British departed Hong Kong on 30 June, 1997, the city as remained defiant all through. Hong Kong marked the 25th anniversary of the handover and the halfway point of One Country, Two Systems — the governance model agreed by Britain and China under which the city would keep some autonomy and freedoms.

That model was set to last 50 years but even in its first hours, battle lines that would define Hong Kong’s politics for the next two decades were drawn. Furious at outgoing British governor Chris Patten’s last-gasp attempts at democratisation, China had announced that any legislator who had openly supported the measures would be thrown out. Twenty-five years later, there are no opposition lawmakers left in Hong Kong’s legislature at all. Many have been arrested under a national security law Beijing imposed in 2020 or disqualified from standing for office under new “patriots only” electoral rules. Others have fled who now live in Britain.

One Country, Two Systems promised a high degree of autonomy, independent judicial power, and that the city’s leader would be appointed by Beijing on the basis of local elections or consultations. Deng Xiaoping, China’s then leader, said a lot about things like Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong which was rather compelling but China’s deadly 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which saw Beijing send in tanks to crush a democracy movement, shattered his faith in the ruling Communist Party (CCP). In the years after the handover, mistrust between Beijing and Hong Kongers only escalated. The pro-democracy camp saw Beijing as ruthless authoritarians set on denying Hong Kongers their promised rights and the CCP increasingly saw their demands as a challenge to China’s sovereignty. There were successful mass protests in 2003 and 2012 that led to government climb-downs but campaigns to let Hong Kong pick its own leaders, including the 2014 Umbrella Movement, came to nothing.

British establishment shows worry about the prevailing conditions in Hong Kong as it is the leading foreign investor in the territory, with total investment estimated at $26 billion. Last year, British exports to Hong Kong totaled 2.7 billion pounds, and a third of its exports to mainland China passed through it. In return, some 80 per cent of Hong Kong investment in Europe is in Britain, which imported 6 billion pounds worth of goods from there last year. Moreover, there are some 3.6 million British passport-holders in Hong Kong, although the vast majority has a form of nationality which permits visa-free visits to Britain but no right of abode.

On the other hand Chinese leadership emphasises that Hong Kong has overcome its challenges and Chinese President Xi Jinping saying that the city has risen from the ashes. Xi paid his first visit to the city since 2017, which is also his first known trip outside the mainland in more than two years, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. He stated that Hong Kong has withstood severe tests again and again, overcoming challenges one by one and that he expects that the city would develop more. Some analysts see Xi’s visit as a victory tour after Beijing tightened its control of Hong Kong with a sweeping national security law, following mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Hong Kong streets were festooned with red China flags and posters declaring a new era of stability. On his last visit to Hong Kong, Xi warned against any acts endangering China’s sovereignty, saying the city needed to beef up its national security arrangements. While tens of thousands of demonstrators marched during Xi’s visit five years ago, no protests are expected this time because of the city’s heightened security and with the most outspoken opposition politicians and democracy activists either in jail or self-exile. Critics point out that the Chinese have seriously curtailed the freedom of the citizens of Hong Kong compelling them to come on to the streets. Beijing and Hong Kong’s government reject that saying they have restored order from chaos so that the city can prosper. Hong Kong police has warned the people that any acts of violence or public disorder would be strictly dealt with. The police force of more than 30,000 is deployed to ensure maintenance of law and order. TW

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