This July 1st marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China. Chinese President Xi is visiting Hong Kong to commemorate the occasion. He'll attend a series of highly choreographed events, including overseeing the swearing-in ceremony of Beijing new "anointed" chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Liam.
If Hong Kong were no different than any other Chinese city, Xi's trip would go according to plan. But Hong Kong is different than all other Chinese cities. Hundreds of Hongkongers welcomed Xi by first staging protests calling for universal suffrage, and then a candlelight vigil for China's Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu was a prominent leader of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement. He has been in jail since 2008 and is currently suffering from terminal liver cancer. During the protests, tourists from mainland China, many not even knowing who Liu Xiaobo is, were amazed at the level of political freedom that Hongkongers demonstrated.
When we think of Hong Kong, we often focus on its economic role, while forgetting that it has long assumed an important role as Beijing's conscience.
Even before the 1997 handover, Hong Kong offered the lone hope to life, liberty and happiness for mainland Chinese who desperately tried to escape hunger and persecution brought on by Mao's ruthless Communist regime. The prosperity of Hong Kong had served as such a shining example of the success of free market capitalism, that Dr. Milton Friedman used scenes from Hong Kong to open his popular PBS series, "Free to Choose."
During the handover negotiations in 1984, both the U.K. and mainland China governments signed a declaration which stated that Hong Kong would be governed under the "one country two systems" principle and would continue its capitalist economic system and protection of individual freedom for 50 years from 1997. Thus, Hong Kongers have been able to enjoy a level of political freedom that is beyond reach for mainland Chinese.
In the last two decades, much to Beijing's annoyance, Hong Kong has been the only place in China that can legally and openly commemorate victims of 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In mainland China, however, any slight sign of public commemoration would be sufficient to put someone in jail. Mainland netizens couldn't even search phrases such as "June 4th" around the anniversary. Beijing has wiped out the collective memory of Tiananmen so successfully that young mainland Chinese have no knowledge it ever happened. The only Chinese city that has kept that memory alive is Hong Kong, the only place Chinese people can voice dissent openly.
But how long can Hong Kong remain the political oasis and continue to check Beijing's conscience?
There's no denying that Hong Kong has changed in the last 20 years. Some of those changes were brought upon by Beijing. As China's economy grows, Beijing becomes more assertive and is determined to reshape Hong Kong politically and economically.
Politically, Beijing rejected a persistent call for universal suffrage and insisted on picking each Hong Kong chief on behalf of the seven million Hongkongers. Its previous attempt to indoctrinate Hong Kong children with compulsory "patriotic" education was met with loud protests. But early this year, Hong Kong's delegates to China's People's Congress were asked to promote national patriotic education in Hong Kong's education system. Beijing believes that enforcing patriotism education in Hong Kong is the key to countering the pro-independence movement. But many Hong Kongers viewed Beijing's meddling in their education system as an intrusion. Beijing has showed no sign of backing down, though. It sent mainland Chinese police to Hong Kong to arrest Hong Kong book sellers and a Chinese tycoon, bypassing Hong Kong's own judicial system.
Economically, red capital from mainland China, backed by seemingly unlimited resource of the local and central government, is increasingly dominating Hong Kong's economy and crowding out local investors. The first victim is the real estate sector. According to The New York Times, "The share of land that Chinese developers have bought in Hong Kong increased from less than 6 percent of the city’s total in 2009 to 30 percent in 2016 and 50 percent so far this year!" Not to mention more than half the companies listed in Hong Kong's exchanges are from mainland. Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao recently told Hong Kong businesspeople to focus on economy, not politics. But like anywhere else in China, the economy and politics are closely linked. James Tien Pei-chun, a former legislator and a successful businessman in Hong Kong warned that “when a country can fully control our main economic arteries, when the boss has full say, the kind of good life and democracy that we all yearn for will be much more difficult to attain.”
Not all changes in Hong Kong are the result of Beijing's interference. Some of the changes were brought upon by different factions of Hong Kong people. Some Hong Kong elites are eager to kowtow to Beijing in order to gain political favors for their business gains. Local activists are struggling to keep the memory of June 4th alive. 2017's annual commemoration saw the smallest crowd in thirty years.Student leaders of the Chinese University of Hong Kong not only boycotted the annual vigil, but also called for an end to this event. They reflect the reality that some Hong Kong youth care little about “building a democratic China.”
Will Hong Kong just become another Chinese city? Will it continue to check China's conscience?
Yesterday I listened to a BBC interview of Chris Pattern, the last UK appointed Hong Kong governor. When he was asked to give some suggestions to the Hong Kong people, he declined. He explained that any suggestion he gave would be denounced immediately by Beijing as a contrived effort to interfere in China's internal affair. So rather than giving any suggestions, he trusted that the Hong Kong people will make the right choice.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared "now that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 20 years, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any realistic meaning." Looks like a choice has been made for Hongkongers.