On July 1, China and the residents of Hong Kong will mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s reversion to Chinese control. The occasion will be marked with celebrations and the first visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the city since he became head of the Chinese state. While Chinese are immensely proud of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, there is no missing the widespread disappointment among Chinese and native Hong Kong residents as they assess the evolution of the special administrative region.
Hong Kong was returned to China after nearly 150 years as a British colony. The event marked the end of a century of humiliation and Chinese insisted that there would be no stopping China’s march toward the return of its status as a great power in Asia and the world. Chinese officials, Deng Xiaoping in particular, made clear that return was the only option and that the only question to be entertained in contentious talks with London would be the terms of transfer.
Beijing did promise, however, that Hong Kong’s distinctive political and economic system would be preserved under the “one country, two systems” formula by which the government and citizens of the city would maintain practices (and freedoms) that they had inherited from the British, even as China assumed responsibility for core issues of state sovereignty, namely the exercise of hard power in foreign affairs, national defense and security. Some argued, however, that this was less of a concession than it seemed because the retention of Hong Kong’s distinct identity would set an example for the “renegade province” of Taiwan and help persuade its citizens that reunification with the mainland would offer more benefits than costs. Moreover, the role that Hong Kong played for China as a window on the world would insulate it from pressure that would undermine its life and institutions. Some even asserted that Hong Kong would prove to be a “Trojan Horse” through which the Chinese mainland would come to experience and appreciate the joys of political liberalism.
Twenty years later, all have been disappointed by the evolution within Hong Kong and relations between the city and the national government in Beijing. While key constituencies in Hong Kong are loyal to Beijing and support its growing power over the city, vocal minorities are not. Chinese officials and nationalists are troubled by the enduring commitment of many Hong Kongers, especially the young, to independent political institutions. For them, the “Umbrella Revolution” of 2014, which brought tens of thousands of people to the streets for three months to protest Beijing’s tightening grip on city politics, was particularly worrying. Nationalists note with alarm a recent survey by the University of Hong Kong that showed just 3.1 percent of those between 18 to 29 identify themselves as “broadly Chinese,” a number that has dropped from 31 percent when the regular twice yearly survey began 20 years ago.
For disaffected Hong Kong residents and many others around the world, China is discarding core promises of the reversion agreement and the “one country, two systems” model. They point to the attempt to impose an education curriculum that would teach patriotism to the mainland, the kidnapping by Chinese agents of critics and dissidents resident in the city and their forced repatriation to the mainland, the failure to implement universal suffrage and the erosion of autonomy of the judiciary. They note with bitterness that 10,000 security forces will be mobilized for the July 1 celebrations, and the annual prodemocracy rally, usually held in Victoria Park that day, will not be held there because the space has been given to the event organized by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Celebrations Association. This, along with reports that the security officers have been told to clean up routes traveled by Chinese officials to ensure that they will not see “sensitive images and words” is a slap in the face to Hong Kong’s democrats.
Anger in Hong Kong is magnified by fears that corruption is seeping into the political system, a not surprising development when politics is oriented more toward Beijing than Hong Kong. Also contributing are deteriorating economic prospects. University students worry that they will not find jobs, and those that do have seen incomes stagnating as the cost of living skyrockets. Inequality is reaching record heights.
Disaffection in Hong Kong is counterbalanced by powerful assertions of Chinese pride and power in Beijing. The return of Hong Kong was the essential starting point of the “China dream.” That residents of the city do not appreciate their role and their good fortune is one more reason for mainland Chinese to be disappointed in their Hong Kong brethren. Disinterested observers will rightly note that this is not a formula for celebration but a reason for concern in the months and years to come.