HONG KONG - News this past week that jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer is casting a shadow over the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China from British rule.
Ahead of the anniversary on July 1 and swearing-in of Hong Kong's new Beijing-approved chief executive, Carrie Lam, activists perched on a statue outside the convention center where the anniversary ceremony will take place.
The protesters engaged in an hourslong standoff with police, calling for direct elections in Hong Kong and Liu's unconditional release. Activists refused to leave until they were escorted or carried away from the statue, a gift from China after the handover in 1997.
In 2011, a Chinese court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" for advocating democracy and political reform in China online.
"In my opinion, he was illegally arrested because what he has been saying for all of these years can never be illegal in an ordinary society," said Lau Chung-shiu, a participant in Thursday night's vigil. "Now he is terminally ill and this has caused a shock wave in Hong Kong. It just makes us worry about freedom of speech."
Lau says now is the time for people in Hong Kong to speak out, to ensure that there is no further erosion of the "one-country, two systems" model that was set up before the city's return to China.
Opportunity to look forward
For Beijing, the 20th anniversary was supposed to be a celebration and an opportunity to look forward to a brighter future for this global financial hub. However, there are those who see a similarity between Liu's plight and concerns about eroding freedoms and China's tightening grip over the port city's affairs.
On Thursday evening, near Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal, dozens of supporters gathered to speak out about Liu, calling for his release and praying for his health and strength.
“In my opinion, he was illegally arrested because what he has been saying for all of these years can never be illegal in an ordinary society,” said Lai Chung-shiu, a participant in Thursday night’s vigil. “Now he is terminally ill and this has caused a shockwave in Hong Kong. It just makes us worry about freedom of speech.”
Lai says now is the time for people in Hong Kong to speak out, to ensure that there is no further erosion of the “one-country, two systems” model that was set up before the city’s return to China.
The “one country, two systems” model was established before the handover to ensure that Hong Kong’s norms such as rule of law, freedom of expression and religion continued for 50 years after its return to Chinese rule.
Now, just two decades since that event, there is growing concern that China is going back on its promises.
“Why does the Chinese government not believe the Hong Kong people should have this type of democracy ((direct elections))?” asked C.Y. Wong, another participant. “It was promised in the Basic Law. We are not asking for anything extra.”
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees universal suffrage and activists have called for direct elections for the territory’s chief executive. China ruled out that idea in 2012, maintaining that candidates be chosen by a committee made up largely of pro-Beijing members.
Many see direct elections as crucial for Hong Kong’s development and argue that the stalled political reforms are dividing society and fueling concerns about a range of issues from the economy to education.
"I don't like how the Chinese government is suppressing the voices of opposing views. I don't think that is how a country should work,” said Athena Tam, a university student in Hong Kong.
Calvin Lai, a Hong Kong resident who is currently studying overseas, said that Hong Kong still has many advantages and opportunities, but it needs to focus on more than just real estate and finance.
"I think Hong Kong has been overly dependent on consumer power from China and we haven't got much different industry,” Lai said. “We have had several decades of booming growth, but we've failed to manage to have innovative industries."
Others want to see the divide created by the debate to end.
"I think there are too many arguments and we need leadership to align the different stakeholders in Hong Kong to make society move forward,” said Leo Cheung, an engineer.
Concerns are unlikely to dampen the mood that authorities have mapped out for the event.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong this week ahead of the anniversary. Xi has said he will meet with people from all walks of life during his three-day visit, but heightened security is likely to keep further protests and calls for political reform - as well as the unconditional release of Liu - out of view.