Hong Kong will mark the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty with a show of military might, tight security and the presence of China’s leader Xi Jinping, but also with lowered expectations among activists about the core democratic values of the former British colony.
In addition to the anniversary celebrations, July 1 also marks the swearing-in of the fifth administration to take office here since 1997. While people are hoping for a better performance than that delivered by outgoing leader CY Leung, it is a hope tinged with concern over what the next 20 years might bring.
None of the three previous leaders has been a rousing success and one, Donald Tsang, is out of jail on bail after a conviction on corruption-related offenses.
Future of democracy is not bright
But beneath the pomp and an array of events designed to portray enthusiasm over Hong Kong’s reversion to China after 150 years of British rule, there is sentiment among many activists and pro-democracy supporters that Hong Kong’s glory days are in the past and that its key values, like the rule of law and personal safety, are under pressure.
One of the Umbrella Movement’s key leaders, Alex Chow, said the city’s mood is “pretty low.” Asked to explain, Chow said people — not just the students who staged mass protests in 2014 — feel “helpless” and “powerless.”
In 2014, Chow was the head of the Hong Kong student unions and was arrested for leading demonstrators over a fence and into the streets, sparking the Umbrella protests. He was charged with taking part in an illegal assembly and convicted. He received a three-week suspended jail sentence that expires in August.
Chow’s analysis is at odds with other activists who say they care only about democracy in Hong Kong and not about democratic movements on the mainland or in Taiwan. A few even call for independence. But he says those who want democracy have to look more widely.
Asked why, Chow said “because Hong Kong cannot work on all the issues by itself.
“It has a unique role in China, but it also has a big connection with the external parties, as well as to push for China’s democratization. I think it is the only away that Hong Kong could reform, as well as safeguarding values that are intrinsic to Hong Kong.”
On the surface all seems fine
A visitor might have a very different impression of Hong Kong than Chow. Trendy entertainment areas have customers spilling into the streets, and old factories are turning into incubators for digital entrepreneurs. But scratch beneath the glitz and there is an uneasiness that China’s increasing involvement in just about everything spells trouble for Hong Kong’s rule of law, personal freedoms and core values.
Workers’ wages cannot keep pace with skyrocketing property costs. The increasing influx of mainland immigrants and torrents of cash pouring out of China combine to make the city unaffordable and almost uninhabitable for ordinary people. The era is gone when someone like tycoon Li Ka-shing could open a little plastic flower factory, work hard and grow into Asia’s richest man.
Doubts about economic and human rights future
Before the handover to China, the city had known nearly four decades of unbroken economic growth. Now, optimism for the next 20 years seems short on the ground, especially in key areas like the rule of law, political reform and the future of Hong Kong’s cultural identity.
Chip Tsao, a cultural commentator, writer and radio host, says his hopes in 1997 have been sharply reduced over the intervening years. Tsao says he’s worried about the rule of law under China.
“Their (Beijing’s) interpretation of the Basic Law is fundamentally different from that understood by the West, and by Westerners and by Hong Kong people,” he said. “They want the rule of law to be under the sovereign power of China. And that has been made clear recently by the chairman of the (National) People’s Congress, the top ranking guy in the Chinese Communist Party for Hong Kong affairs.”
Tsao said a free press here is endangered by owners who cozy up to the Chinese leadership, and the remaining hope is for online media, but only if giants like Google and Facebook stand firmly for free expression.
Like many young people here, Chow, the student radical, is headed abroad. He’s seeking a Ph.D. in human geography. That’s the study of how people react to a physical environment, a logical pursuit for someone who occupied and transformed a city center for nearly three months.
China’s president Xi Jinping is making his first visit to Hong Kong. In 1997, then-President Jiang Zemin presided alongside Britain’s Prince Charles at the official handover ceremony. For the 10th anniversary in 2007, President Hu Jintao made a brief visit.
But Xi is a very different leader than any since Mao Zedong and is seen as the unyielding leader of a government ever more deeply involved in the governance of this territory, even ruling on the Cabinet nominees of the incoming chief executive, Carrie Lam, a career civil servant. Pro-democracy forces view Beijing’s ever-more-granular involvement as a violation of the promise of a high degree of autonomy made to Hong Kong before the handover and included in its constitutional document, the Basic Law.
Security for Xi will be unprecedented. Police have been practicing what they call “appropriate counterterrorism security measures.” They are appealing for the public’s understanding and patience.
The steps include a large personal motorcade that will whisk Xi down the same road which, three years ago, more than 200,000 student demonstrators occupied for 79 days during the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests.