Explainer: Hong Kong at 25
Is Asia's World City Now Just Another Chinese City?
Not too long ago, taking the subway from Shenzhen, China, to Hong Kong felt like crossing into another country in every way, shape, and form.
In Shenzhen, get out at LuoHu station, stand in line at Chinese passport control, walk across the small border river, get your passport stamped by Hong Kong immigration, take two more steps and: your phone starts buzzing with Twitter alerts, which only moments earlier were caught by Chinese censors. One more step: the first 7/11, selling today’s FT even if the front-page headline criticizes China.
In July 2022, 25 years after Beijing got back control over Hong Kong, things are very different.
‘Hong Kong is a Chinese city with British characteristics,’ Chris Patten, the last British governor of the territory, said on the day of the handover. On the same day, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin stated Beijing ‘will not intervene in matters that ought to be handled by Hong Kong.’ He stressed the protection ‘in full’ of rights and freedoms of speech, press, and assembly.
According to the Sino-British agreement, it should stay like that until at least July 1, 2047. But the words of both men sound hollow already now, a mere 25 years later. Increasingly, Hong Kong is a Chinese city, with mainland Chinese characteristics such as censorship and crackdowns. An overview of what was, what is, and what might come.
HONG KONG, REAL SHORT
- On July 1, 2022, it’s 25 years since the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China.
- Beijing promised to guarantee Hong Kong full freedoms until at least July 1, 2047, and to introduce a system through which the city’s leaders are chosen directly by the people.
- Protests in the city have escalated since 2014, when the introduction of that popular vote got postponed, and have intensified ever since.
- To quell the unrest, China introduced a National Security Law in Hong Kong in 2020, leading to the collapse of the city’s once-vibrant civil society.
- While China’s and Britain’s Joint Declaration on Hong Kong technically still has another 25 years of life in it, the text has been rendered null and void on the streets. Hong Kong may soon become mostly ‘just another Chinese city’. Plans for further integration with the mainland have already been presented.
For most of its existence in modern history, Hong Kong was a backwater fishing town, ruled by China’s emperors. It’s not until the mid-1800s that a process starts which will turn the territory into a global powerhouse of 7.5 million people, labeling itself credibly as ‘Asia's World City’.
- During the early 19th century, British traders recognize Hong Kong’s harbor as an excellent entry point into China. The Brits trade silks, tea, and porcelain against opium they smuggle in from India, creating millions of Chinese opium addicts in the process.
- The Qing emperor attempts to fight back, but his soldiers lose the First Opium War (1839-1842). As a result, Britain gains control over Hong Kong Island and makes it a Crown Colony.
- In 1898, Britain successfully negotiates the rent-free lease of the New Territories, between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, from a severely weakened China. The lease is set to expire after 99 years, in 1997.
- Between 1941 and 1945, Japan occupies Hong Kong. After Britain regains control, the economy starts really taking off as Hong Kong becomes a manufacturing hub. Not everyone profits, though. The 1960s are a tumultuous decade, with people vehemently protesting growing inequality—a problem present-day Hong Kong still grapples with. As Deng Xiaoping opens China up to the world from the late 1970s onwards, Hong Kong turns into an international financial powerhouse.
- The U.K. and China sign a Joint Declaration on the handover in 1984. The U.K. agrees to give back control to China of its Crown Colony Hong Kong Island plus the leased Kowloon and New Territories on July 1, 1997. China agrees to a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, under which Hong Kong will become a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic, while retaining its freedoms and rule of law for at least 50 years. Beijing also promises to introduce a popular vote in the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. This would be the first time in history that all Hong Kong residents get a voice in who leads them.
- July 1, 1997: on a rainy night in Hong Kong, the U.K.’s Union Jack is replaced by the red, five-starred flag of the People’s Republic of China. A regiment of the People’s Liberation Army moves into its barracks in the city. Other than that, not much changes. Hong Kong grows in its role as a global financial and trading hub.
- People still expect the city’s freedoms will blow over to Mainland China.
The streets of Hong Kong have hardly ever been quiet. In 2003 and 2004, hundreds of thousands come out against Beijing’s first attempts to limit the city’s democratic freedoms. The wave of protests that rolls over the city in the 2010s, however, is unprecedented.
- In 2012, tens of thousands protest the planned introduction of ‘moral and national’ education, aimed at fostering students’ Chinese identity. Protesters, led by then 15-year-old Joshua Wong, now in prison for his continued role as protest leader in the following years, think it’s brainwashing children with pro-Beijing propaganda. The Hong Kong government retracts the plan.
- The Umbrella Movement brings downtown Hong Kong to a stand-still for 79 days in 2014, after Beijing rules out ever introducing open elections in the city. The protestors' demand for universal suffrage is ignored, but the movement galvanizes strong support for democratic candidates in the city’s district elections.
- In 2019, Hong Kong wants to introduce an extradition treaty, allowing people to be sent to Mainland China for trial for the first time. Millions march the streets, fearing critics of the Chinese Communist Party who have been seeking refuge in the city for decades, are in danger of ending up in Chinese prisons. The protests turn violent. The Legislative Council building and the airport are occupied. After three months, Chief Executive Carrie Lam retracts the bill. Many still demand her resignation, as they feel she is giving Beijing total control over their lives.
Hong Kong’s scores have been swallowed by a sink hole on the latest global human rights measurement tracker, run by academics out of Wellington, New Zealand. A severe crackdown on civil society and freedoms has put some of the territory’s perimeters on par with Saudi Arabia and close to Mainland China. Here’s how the freewheeling place got dismantled:
- The National Security Law of 2020, together with before sparsely used colonial-era ordinances, has stifled any and every form of dissent and protest. It criminalizes secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces, and terrorism. It has spread fear to speak out, as anything can be deemed to go against the law.
- The city’s police commissioner claims Hong Kong is not a police state, but advises people not to watch documentaries about the 2019 protests online if they’re unsure about the legal risk. He also introduced a ‘counter-terrorism hotline’, where people can get paid for information on ‘extremist plots.’
- The crackdown has led to a spike in political prisoners in Hong Kong. There are now 614 of them, compared to 26 two years ago. Almost 75% of them are under 30, 14% even under 18.
- In the past two years, more than 1,000 people have been sentenced for political reasons. In May, the police arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of the most senior Catholics in Asia, for being involved with an organization that aimed to guarantee arrested protesters access to legal aid.
- Opposition parties, NGO’s, unions, and media outlets have been forced in exile or extinction. In August 2020, authorities arrested Jimmy Lai, one of the city’s most famous tycoons, for his support of the pro-democracy movement. His media outlet, Apple Daily, was shut down. The now 74-year-old is serving multiple sentences in jail, as is student protest leader Joshua Wong (25).
- In December 2021, pro-Beijing candidates sweep to victory in the first ‘Patriots Only’ election, a new system under which only people who the government vets as ‘patriots’ are allowed to run for office in Hong Kong. Turnout, at 30.2%, is half that of the previous elections.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam handed over the reins to John Lee on July 1, 2022. She feels ‘Hong Kong is as free as ever’ upon her departure. Lee led Hong Kong’s police force as it was cracking down on the pro-democracy movement over the past decade. He promised more security legislation to plug ‘loopholes’.
- As Chinese President Xi Jinping professes his continuing love for Hong Kong, many of its residents are leaving: 93,000 of them in 2020, followed by another 23,000 in 2021. This year, that number is expected to shoot up sharply. The U.K. reports having already received 123,400 applications for a special visa for people from Hong Kong.
- Large companies are also moving their regional headquarters out of town, mostly to Singapore. The years of unrest, the continuing harsh COVID restrictions, and the uncertainty over rule of law are the motivators.
- Business executives, however, are optimistic about Hong Kong retaining its status as an international financial hub. They see the city as the only available gateway between China and the rest of the world. Its stock exchange has been the world’s number 1 by IPO value seven times since the handover, most recently in 2019.
- Next school year, students will learn from new textbooks, which teach Hong Kong was never a British colony, while the recent protests were fueled by ‘external forces.’ A 121-page textbook mentions national security 400 times.
- Beijing has introduced a plan to incentivize young people from Hong Kong to move to Nansha, a new city district across the border in Mainland China. Perks include tax breaks, free childcare, and education. It is part of the Greater Bay Area master plan to integrate the cities of the Pearl River Delta, like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Dongguan, into one mega-metropolis. Hong Kong would be one of the smaller districts of this urban sprawl.
On the date of the handover, 25 years ago, then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin gave the strongest pledge yet of non-interference by Beijing in Hong Kong affairs. That promise was, under international law, supposed to last at least another 25 years.
It’s gone mute.
Ten days before the handover's 25th anniversary celebrations, Xi Jinping wrote a letter to Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee, stating the implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle will definitely start a new chapter.
No one in Hong Kong doubts that chapter has already begun.
Here are some sources to dive deeper into Hong Kong, which remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities:
- The 25th anniversary of the handover has an official website celebrating ‘a new era of stability, prosperity, and opportunity’.
- There’s an official theme song and music video as well: Heading Forward
- The Hong Kong Free Press is a last dodo in the city: a still operating, independent, English-language news source on all things Hong Kong.
- China Daily, a state-owned newspaper from the Mainland, delivers the English-language perspective from Beijing on the 25th handover anniversary with this web special.
- Revolution of our Times is the award-winning documentary from director Kiwi Chow on the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. The city’s police chief says viewing it is at your own risk. It can be streamed on Vimeo.
- Two for the road: features from The Guardian and Nikkei Asia on the identity crisis of Hong Kong’ers who left for Taiwan, Canada, and Australia.