Why Hong Kong’s 1997 Handover still matters

Photo taken in Nathan Road, Kowloon, HK, during my 2015 trip.

I’ll get back to talking about travelling soon (I promise!) but I want to talk about something else that’s currently topical and also close to my heart: the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover.

I have friends and relatives in Hong Kong but I’m not a Hong-Konger, nor have I ever technically lived there. But still, Hong Kong had a defining influence on my childhood and how I grew up seeing the world. At the age of 13 I went to Asia for the first time and I fell head-over-heels in love with Hong Kong’s culture, people, language, food and just the physical place; the urban (and green) jungle that had me totally transfixed. I found a peculiarly strong sense of belonging that I had never found back in my native country. In Hong Kong, I was an ethnic minority and, at that time, couldn’t speak a word of Cantonese. I should have felt the opposite of ‘belonging’. Regardless, from August 2007 until the present day, a little piece of my heart has always belonged in Hong Kong and secretly (or not) called it my second home.

But this post isn’t about me! It’s about Hong Kong, but I wanted to give just a little context about why I have this seemingly peculiar fascination with a tiny territory which exists 6,000 miles away from where I grew up.

So, back to the issue at hand. Hong Kong had been a British colony from 1841 and the 1st of July 1997 marked a significant day in history: the handover of British Hong Kong to China and the end of the British Empire. The handover also marked the return of six and a half million people to the same autocratic regime from which their elders had fled less than fifty years previously.

Twenty years on from the handover, much has changed in Hong Kong but its British legacy largely remains, albeit somewhat challenged. Hong Kong exists as a peculiar global anomaly. Journalist Jason Ng sums up the Hong Kong paradox perfectly: “Nowhere else in the world are citizens so deprived of the right to a free vote and yet given such unfettered freedom of expression.”

Protesters in Admiralty, 2015, carrying their leader’s ‘coffin’.

Protesters in Admiralty carrying CY's 'coffin'

Hong Kong is a modern, cosmopolitan, freethinking and financially lucrative city, and yet it does not gift its citizens with true democracy. As a city that enjoyed great social freedoms in its latter decades as a British colony (albeit, not actual democracy), China promised, prior to the handover, to preserve these freedoms in an agreement referred to as ‘one country, two systems’. This agreement would last for fifty years. In 2047, Hong Kong will essentially be swallowed up by its autocratic neighbour. The clock is ticking.

Protesters in Admiralty

Present day Hong Kong is already having those freedoms steadily eroded by its communist overlords. Akin to boiling a frog, if you turn up the heat slowly enough, the frog will not jump out of the pot. The kidnappings, allegedly orchestrated by Beijing, of five outspoken Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 will attest to this erosion. The price of being outspoken and opposing the government has become much higher.


For those who live in or have ties to Hong Kong, like myself, the 1st of July provokes conflicted opinions and emotions about what could have been or what should be. Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, and his advisors did a noble job of trying to secure a prosperous and independent political future for Hong Kong but, alas, Patten was up against a notoriously stubborn Chinese government.

In present day Hong Kong exists a generation of young adults who do not remember life under British colonial rule. Most are determined to now steer their territory onto a truly independent path, thus defying their autocratic motherland. Precocious teenager Joshua Wong, the face of the 2014 pro-democracy protests that engulfed Hong Kong, is testament to this powerful and tenacious generation. What happens next for Hong Kong will not solely be down to Beijing.

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