The former British colony is seeking a role and a future.
Hopeful students out on the streets, twitchy police officers and authorities seemingly unnerved by sudden prodemocracy demonstrations: the comparison between the Hong Kong protests and Tiananmen Square for many was unavoidable. The 1989 massacre turned out to be a watershed moment for China as the nation emerged from poverty and began its frenetic economic development. Today’s demonstrations pose questions that risk becoming a long-term thorn in Beijing’s side: how to marry the ‘peaceful ascendancy’ of the increasingly selfassured Chinese dragon with the aspirations of a former British colony that doesn’t want to become a Chinese city like any other.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has been governed by a chief executive appointed by an electoral committee of 1,200 members. Having conceded that from 2017 the chief executive would be selected through popular elections, the introduction of the caveat that candidates be drawn only from a Beijing- approved list was the spark that ignited the current protests. However, discontent in Hong Kong has been bubbling under the surface for years and the surprise was the speed at which the protests snowballed.
The ‘one country, two systems’ agreement with London left room for interpretation on the scope of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Many of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million inhabitants expected full democracy. Beijing’s interference has twice led to widespread discontent amongst the local population: first in 2003, with a controversial law on national security and again in 2012, against the introduction of patriotism classes in schools.
Relations between Hong Kong and the mainland have been slowly deteriorating and not only for political reasons. The huge influx of Chinese tourists (40 million in 2013, more than six times the local population), many of them wealthy, has led to a housing bubble with prices rising beyond the reach of many in a city where one-fifth of the population live below the poverty line.
Local services struggle to keep up, the cost of living is rising as are inequalities. Hong Kong residents’ sense of superiority towards their mainland Chinese cousins, seen as uncouth and ill-mannered, is also a factor. The Chinese landing in Hong Kong are referred disdainfully as “locusts,” lording it over the Hong Kong natives.
Powerful stereotypes colour thinking on the mainland too. The Chinese used to look upon the British colony with a mixture of admiration and a sense of a historical injustice that needed righting. Nowadays such feelings have been replaced by resentment at being snubbed by their ‘ungrateful’ compatriots. At a time when nationalism has become a pillar of government ideology, Hong Kong’s differences arouse suspicion and are perceived as a threat to China’s stability. Many analysts have played down the risk of protests spreading to the rest of the country where media censorship has rendered the protests virtually invisible, or alternatively portrayed them as a devious Western destabilization plot.
Furthermore, these events are playing out under the watch of President Xi Jinping, who has centralised decision-making and fuelled a cult of personality not seen since the Mao era. From the South China Sea to Tibet to Xinjiang, the dragon is now boldly asserting its control over the outlying areas; it won’t stand being contradicted, especially by a ‘hybrid’ territory such as Hong Kong. As Evan Osnos pointed out in the New Yorker, a Communist Party internal directive last year “identified seven ‘unmentionable’ topics: Western style democracy, ‘universal values’, civil society, pro-market liberalism, a free press, ‘nihilist’ criticisms of Party history, and questions about the pace of China’s reforms. The list was, in retrospect, a near-perfect inventory of the liberties that distinguish life in Hong Kong.”
The ex-colony itself is split. In contrast to the 200,000 people that have hit the streets, a substantial segment of the population fear repercussions on the economy and are more concerned about stability. The question is divisive for many families. Young people, the main victims of middle class erosion, are taking over the streets while their parents are more pragmatic.
“My family wished death on the protestors even though they knew that I was ‘one of them’. Now I don’t speak with them much and spend less time at home,” says activist Henn Penn. In the long term, the question remains: what is Hong Kong and where is it headed? The figures don’t lie: it is no longer the gateway to China that it once was. In 1997, Hong Kong’s GDP accounted for 19% of the national total. Now it has fallen to 3% and other cities have stepped in as financial and shipping hubs. “Understandably, many Hong Kong Chinese are … experiencing a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement. They know their future is inextricably bound up with China but that is very different from embracing the fact,” writes historian Martin Jacques.
Economic integration is undeniable but Hong Kong’s future rests on whether politics and identity can be integrated. At the height of Chinese pride during the 2008 Olympics, one-third of Hong Kong’s residents defined themselves as “Chinese”; today that figure is one-fifth while 67% see themselves as “citizens of Hong Kong.”
It was once believed that the ‘one country, two systems’ formula would make the colony a laboratory for the unavoidable democratic evolution of China. Today, however, it is Hong Kong that fears it will have to take a step backwards: a common metaphor among the protestors was a frog that slowly boils to death in a pan. The choice is between jumping out in time or waiting to see how warm the water gets, though by then it may be too late.