Why Hong Kong’s 1997 Handover matters now more than ever


The world of 21 years ago can seem far removed from our world today. Bill Clinton was still in the White House, 9/11 had not yet happened and the Internet was in its infancy. However, for the people of Hong Kong, events from 1997 are inextricably interwoven with events of today and those of tomorrow.

The 1st of July 1997 saw the ‘handover’ of Hong Kong’s to China and, by extension, the end of the British Empire. 21 years on and the fallout of that day is still clearly evident in Hong Kong today.

This post will be a little bit of a throw back to last year’s Handover blog post. However, much has changed in this field over the last year and some additional points are needed. In italics is my post from last year. After, I will do a quick summary of the last year.

For those who live in or have ties to Hong Kong, the 1st of July still provokes conflicted opinions and emotions, more so after the 2014 pro-democracy protest movement. The handover of Hong Kong saw the return of six and a half million people to the same autocratic regime from which their elders had fled less than 50 years previously. And so, in 1997, the seed was sown for an inevitable and prolonged fight for true universally suffrage, albeit a fight that could often be selectively ignored.

However, the scale of the protests in 2014 was quite unprecedented; even the protesters themselves were surprised. In late September, their cause gathered momentum and quickly became an issue Beijing could not ignore. This tiny, yet tenacious, powerhouse of a nation had spooked the Great Red Dragon and it would not cow. Hong Kong now teetered on the edge of its biggest crisis since the 2003 SARS epidemic.

Let me first give some context to the significance of these protests. Hong Kong is a modern, free-thinking, cosmopolitan and financially successful city. Yet it does not gift its citizens with true democracy. Hong Kong appears to be a global anomaly. As it was a city that enjoyed great social freedoms in its latter decades as a British colony (although, admittedly, not actual democracy), a promise was made by China prior to the handover to preserve these freedoms, in an agreement referred to as ‘one country, two systems’. This agreement would last for 50 years. In 2047, Hong Kong will essentially be swallowed up by communist China. The clock is ticking.

But present day Hong Kong is quietly having those freedoms gradually eroded by it’s 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, unlawfully orchestrated by Mainland China, 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.

Prominent Hong Kong journalist Jason Ng sums up Hong Kong’s political 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.”

By summer 2014, tension in Hong Kong had been growing for months, with the 25th annual vigil in June marking the Tiananmen Square massacre playing a more poignant role than usual. That same month, Beijing issued a passive-aggressive threat to the people of Hong Kong, stating Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy is subject to the central government’s authorisation.” Read as: ‘step out of line and we will remove the remainder of your freedoms as we see fit’.

However, the main catalyst was the political decision Beijing handed down in their first ever ‘White Paper’ on the 31st of August. The ruling essentially said that citizens of Hong Kong would only be allowed to vote for their leader, the Chief Executive, from a pool of  ‘Beijing approved’ candidates. Essentially, China would stretch to implementing censored democracy but not true universal suffrage, despite the promise of direct Chief Executive elections being enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law (which took effect on the 1st of July 1997).

‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love’ was a campaign established in 2013 that had already planned to occupy central Hong Kong, its financial hub, with a peaceful sit-in. The aim was to pressure the government into changing how Hong Kong’s elections were held. After China’s White Paper was released in August 2014, their campaign was brought forward to capitalise on the student protests in September 2014, which were orchestrated by ‘Scholarism’ (led by precocious teenager Joshua Wong) and Hong Kong’s Federation of Students. By the 1st of October, China’s celebratory National Day, tens of thousands of people occupied central Hong Kong.

These protests were undeniably youth-driven: textbooks and homework were dutifully carried along with makeshift equipment to protect themselves from tear gas.  The student-led movement had an undeniably ominous echo of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The police, armed with riot gear, fired tear gas at peaceful and unarmed protesters, most of whom were students. This crossed a line for many citizens, compelling thousands of them to join the fray.

Some later claimed the police had orders from Beijing to use force to deliberately antagonise the protestors in order to give them a reason to quickly shut down the movement. Goggles, surgical facemasks and umbrellas were all that the protestors had to protect themselves against the tear gas. And so the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ was born.

Once the chaos had dispelled and the protestors appeared immovable, the authorities changed tack and hoped to drive out the protesters with boredom. Leave them be and they will eventually get fed up with sleeping on concrete, they thought.

Drone footage showed bizarrely beautiful images of Hong Kong’s streets packed with multi-coloured tents and people holding yellow banners and symbolic umbrellas. Protestors began to sing their own re-written version of ‘Do you Hear the People Sing?’ and a sense of community quickly developed. In the streets, diligent protestors set up homework stations, water stations and translation services. They were in this for the long haul.

After two months of disruption, even the most sympathetic citizens grew impatient. In the ultimate anti-climax, the Umbrella Revolution finally fizzled out in December 2014, 79 days after it had started.

The Umbrella Revolution was both a win and a loss but, for Hong Kong’s youth, it was just one chapter of the fight for democracy. In April 2016 they founded their own political party, Demosisto, led by 19-year-old Joshua Wong. In September 2016, Demosisto ran for a seat in the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s government), which they won.

As testament to how powerful just one teenager and a social movement can be, the Mainland Chinese government has blocked ‘Joshua Wong’ as a search term on social media: surely the highest accolade you could award a Hong Kong democracy advocate.

On the surface, little has changed in Hong Kong over the last year. The capitalist economy is as well-oiled as over, property prices are still on the up and citizens are no closer to achieving true universal suffrage.

Underneath, however, the political ground in Hong Kong has shifted. Carrie Lam took office as Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, seemingly moving the top political office in Hong Kong ever closer to Beijing. Several pro-democracy politicians, many of them young activists, have been barred from standing for election or imprisoned on trumped-up criminal charges. Joshua Wong, one of the main orchestrators of the 2014 Student protests, served two months in prison before being released in November 2017. He then served another month in January 2018.

Perhaps most significantly, Xi Jingping, China’s President and a fierce critic of the democracy struggle in Hong Kong, was essentially made President for life at the Chinese Communist Party’s annual conference in March 2018 by way of a constitutional change. Xi is now arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao. This is anything but good news for liberal Hong Kong. The arrival at 2047 and the swallowing-up of Hong Kong into communist China may now be expedited. Xi and his comrades have already proven that constitutional laws are merely advisory…

For the above reasons, and more, those in Hong Kong who are still holding on to the values of democracy and freedom of speech, which colonial Britain had promised Hong Kong come 1997, are facing a fast-approaching collision with Beijing’s communist regime. All of Hong Kong’s political shortcomings today stem directly from the Handover of 1997, and it’s accompanying botched legislation. It is impossible to examine Hong Kong politics outside the context of the Handover.

For any country, the hatred of a free press and freedom of speech damages democracy. In a city that has a limited supply of the latter, limiting freedom of speech and enforcing stricter press regulation will only lead Hong Kong down one path. Young Hong Kong activists have done a valiant job over the last four years in trying to shape Hong Kong’s political landscape. Now, more than ever, Hong Kong (and the world) also needs good journalism. It needs brave, tenacious journalists to take up that mantel no matter the costs.

This is by no means an exhaustive post on the current political situation in Hong Kong. (Many excellent books, particularly in recent years, have been written on Hong Kong politics and society. I will write a post on them one day). And the situation is anything but a dichotomy. It is a complex, drawn-out and multi-faceted problem with no obvious solution that is within reach. All I can say is ‘watch this space’. Hong Kong far from a place that should be ignored. Much will happen but who can really tell what?

(If you want to learn more or are just interested in hearing about the above events first-hand, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary-film ‘Joshua: Teenager versus Superpower’. It’s about Joshua Wong and focuses on the 2014 protests but also about his previous territory-wide protest success in 2011).

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