Seventeen years ago this week, in a rain-sodden ceremony of pomp and solemnity, the Union Jack was lowered over Hong Kong for the last time and the colony was handed back to Beijing. Chris Patten choked back tears as he made his final address before an assembled gathering of British dignitaries that included Prince Charles and Tony Blair, then prime minister. “I am the 28th governor, the last governor,” Mr Patten said. “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise and that is the unshakeable destiny.”
Today, many in Hong Kong are wondering whether that promise and that destiny are beginning to look shaky. Hong Kong is facing arguably its worst political crisis since the handover, as pro-democracy activists and the Communist party in Beijing come into conflict over how the former colony should be run.
Under the so-called Joint Declaration, which was later crystallised in the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution” – Beijing promised to preserve freedoms that were absent on the mainland: the freedom to demonstrate, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary on which the city’s status as an international financial centre rests.
The proximate cause of tension revolves around what form of universal suffrage Hong Kong will be permitted in the 2017 election of its chief executive, the rough equivalent of a mayor. Beyond that, there is deepening anxiety about the territory’s institutional and cultural identity, which many in Hong Kong fear is being swamped by power, money and the sheer numbers of people pouring in from the mainland.
This week, well over 100,000 people – the organisers claim 510,000 – took part in a pro-democracy rally to mark the anniversary of the handover. Last month, there was a record turnout for the annual vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a show of anti-Communist party sentiment that would immediately be suppressed on the mainland.
A group called “Occupy Central” also organised a mock referendum on universal suffrage that attracted 800,000 voters, an exercise denounced as illegal by Beijing.
The mood of rebellion in the city has intensified since Beijing last month issued a “white paper” clarifying the extent of Hong Kong’s autonomy. “One country, two systems” did not exist because of any integral right or piece of paper signed with a faded colonial power. It existed, it said, because Beijing allowed it. Alex Chow, a student leader who was one of more than 500 arrested after the July 1 march, said the white paper was like a “nuclear bomb that infuriated the people of Hong Kong”.
Martin Lee, a prominent lawyer and founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic party, says Beijing is “trying to frighten the people” of his city. Recalling images of protesters facing down guns in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he says: “Let them bring in the tanks. When I see a tank, I will get myself a bicycle.” Predicting mass opposition to any show of force, Mr Lee says many more protesters would join him. “One tank may not be enough.”
The idea of PLA tanks on the streets of Hong Kong, something that would perhaps fatally undermine its status as a global financial centre, might seem far-fetched.
Last month, however, a former top Chinese official warned that Beijing could declare martial law and deploy PLA troops in Hong Kong if “Occupy Central” carried out a threat to bring the business district to a standstill. Global Times, a tabloid mouthpiece for the Communist party, warned this week that Hong Kong could face unrest similar to Thailand and Ukraine because of the pro-democracy demonstrations.
Beijing’s tussle with Hong Kong is not an isolated event. Throughout the region, a more assertive China has become embroiled in disputes with neighbouring countries over territory in the East and South China seas. In Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing considers a mere province, people are watching events in Hong Kong with apprehension.
Hundreds of students occupied Taiwan’s parliament in March to protest against what they see as their government’s dangerous flirtation with Beijing. This week, Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Taiwan affairs office and the highest-ranking official to visit the island in six decades, cut short his visit when his entourage was pelted with paint.
In Hong Kong, the debate centres on the question of who should be able to stand in elections for chief executive. Beijing insists that, in accordance with the Basic Law, candidates must be screened by a nominating committee. It also says that any candidate must “love China”, a requirement that many interpret as meaning loyalty to the Communist party. Pro-democracy activists want a form of civic nomination that would allow less pro-establishment figures a shot at office.
Beyond the technical arguments about precisely how the chief executive – and eventually the legislative council – are to be elected lie much deeper misgivings about Hong Kong’s way of life.
Many residents feel the economic spoils have been carved up by an establishment that has swiftly transferred its loyalties from colonialists in London to communists in Beijing. Income disparity in Hong Kong is among the widest in Asia. Many poorer people have given up on the idea of ever buying a flat, as prices have been driven to astronomical levels by a wall of mainland money.
Apart from a sense of social and economic injustice, there is resentment against what is perceived to be an “invasion” by mainlanders. Ugly confrontations have broken out, with Hongkongers accusing mainlanders of sundry affronts, including buying up all the baby formula (because of a fear that mainland milk is contaminated) to eating food on the impeccably clean subway. The Hong Kong government is considering imposing a cap on tourists to assuage public resentment.
There is also a nagging concern that institutions are being weakened. When a respected newspaper editor was fired and then attacked by knife-wielding thugs, some people jumped to the unproven conclusion that mainland forces were somehow behind it. In 2012, protesters forced the Hong Kong government to abandon a plan to introduce “national education”, widely seen as an effort to teach a whitewashed version of history that would please the Communist party. “I don’t recognise Hong Kong any more,” says one professional Hong Kong woman who has taken refuge in Taiwan.
In an interview, Mr Patten, who recently retired as chairman of the BBC Trust, said he felt compelled to break his usual silence on Hong Kong affairs.
“The rule of law isn’t a matter – as the Chinese white paper rather surprisingly suggested – of judges being part of a branch of the administration,” he said. “Judges under the rule of law are independent and there shouldn’t be any question of them being instructed or pressed to subordinate their view [to] political considerations.”
Mr Patten, who in the run-up to handover was seen by Beijing as deliberately stirring up trouble over democratic rights never granted by Britain, went further. London, he said, would never have signed the Joint Declaration had the language been the same as Beijing is now using. “We couldn’t possibly have signed a white paper which said that the joint declaration is really a single declaration.”
China’s effort to put pressure on the “special administrative region”, as Hong Kong is now unglamorously known, has backfired, some say. “When Hong Kong reverted to China, there weren’t supposed to be any fundamental changes for 50 years,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian. “But so much seems to have changed after just 17 years.”
Mr Zhang said Beijing was less concerned about the situation in Hong Kong per se, and more worried about spurring demand for universal suffrage on the mainland.
For Hong Kong, the battle is not just about democracy. The territory has enjoyed a business-friendly reputation precisely because it is seen as the one place in China where the rule of law is upheld. Even the four big international accountancy firms, nervous about the impact that unrest could have on business, took out an advertisement declaring they were against the pro-democracy movement.
Thus Hong Kong’s reputation as a business centre could receive a double blow. On the one hand, the institutions that underpin it could be weakened as Beijing asserts more authority. On the other, the backlash against such perceived threats could create an instability that makes international companies think twice about basing operations there.
The stakes over the next few months are thus extremely high. If the government does not put forward a proposal on universal suffrage deemed acceptable, “Occupy Central” protesters have threatened to carry out their plan to bring a vital Hong Kong business district to a halt. They would, in effect, be calling China’s bluff. How Beijing responds will help to shape the next 17 years and beyond.
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu and Wan Li
17年前的7月1日，香港在滂沱大雨中举行了隆重的主权移交仪式，飘扬在香港上空的英国国旗最后一次被降了下来。时任香港总督彭定康(Chris Patten)强忍泪水，在查尔斯王子(Prince Charles)、时任英国首相托尼?布莱尔(Tony Blair)等一干英国政要显贵面前发表了其任内的最后一场演讲。他说：“我是第28任香港总督，也是最后一任总督。现在香港将会由香港人管治，这是承诺，也是一个不容改变的进程。”