Hong Kong twenty years on: reasons to be cheerful

Hong Kong twenty years on: reasons to be cheerful

A new mindset seems to be emerging from Beijing and it has increased anxiety levels in Hong Kong, but it is too early to write off the resilience of the Hong Kongese, writes Kerry Brown

Twenty years after the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty there seems nothing but perpetual gloom in the Hong Kong.

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first visit to the territory as national leader commemorating the event in July was marked by a security lockdown. Nervous local officials looked more like they were receiving a visiting emperor than participating in public revelries.

In some ways, signs of nervousness are appropriate in these times. Beijing has increasingly asserted itself in the city in the last five years since Xi’s ascent.

There is a raft of accusations about Beijing’s pushy behaviour. It ranges from interference in the local legal system to dictating outright what system is used to choose chief executives, and which politicians are allowed to sit in the local parliament, the Legislative Council, regardless of how they fared in elections.

So the balance sheet for Hong Kong twenty years since handover is uniformly bleak?

Let’s start with one simple recollection. There were plenty of commentators in the build-up to 1997 who thought the city was on a path to oblivion. The most dystopic visions had People’s Liberation Army vehicles moving into the city the night the reversion happened, with an immediate takeover of institutions by hostile forces from the Communist Mainland.

How the impact over 20 years stacks up

That never happened. Nor, for that matter, was the city visibly facing orders to change its system in the ensuing few years.

All the more remarkable is the fact that after the huge impact of the Asia Financial Crisis on Hong Kong over 1998—searing unemployment, and collapsed growth—China never used this as an excuse to impose radical change as an emergency measure in governance. And the city recovered remarkably quickly.

In the ensuing decade, crises came and went. On the whole, the most striking thing is how much the status quo continued, and how durable the one-country-two-systems rubric proved to be.

The original agreement between the UK and China for handover in 1984 has provided the broad framework for Hong Kong to continue with its capitalist system, despite being part of the sovereign territory of a socialist country. It was also able to maintain a high degree of autonomy in its legal system, its currency, in setting interest rates, and conducting internal governance.

Real changes have occurred recently and the outcomes are far from clear

In this context, we can say that the first 15 years of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty ran remarkably smoothly. Challenges like massive opposition to Article 23 anti-secession laws (named after the clause in the Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution) saw public protests during 2002 handled without spinning out of control.

Chief executives of the city have never been spectacular, and none so far has lasted their full two five-year term. But they at least could hang around longer than the average, recent Japanese or Australian Prime Minister. And the territory has shown resilience in the fall-out from the 2008 economic crisis.

Spirit of the 1997 agreement seems under threat

Real changes have occurred recently, however, and here the outcomes are far from clear. This is the source of the city’s rising levels of anxiety. Because the changes show that it looks like the will to preserve the original agreement of 1997 is disintegrating, and that a wholly new mindset is emanating from Beijing.

There are two types of change. The first relates to the incremental, but recently increasingly tight, assertion of Mainland control already referred to. Chief executives now need to do Beijing’s bidding, the claim goes.

The fiasco of attempts to introduce a highly managed new system to elect chief executives in 2013 simply failed because of widespread, prolonged demonstrations and lack of consensus.

Trust of local leaders is scant. C Y Leung, the last city chief leader, left after one tumultuous term. His replacement, Carrie Lam, faces the same challenge. How to square the circle she was constantly faced with – forge constitutional change, but do so in a way that satisfies the wholly different worlds of Chinese elite politicians and local, more restive, increasingly assertive public constituencies.

Hong Kong rally Source: Wikimedia Commons

These worlds seem to be growing further apart, not closer.

The search for an amenable, balanced civic space that at least unites most parties is proving tougher. Hong Kong politics is blighted by the same divisiveness that now dominates in the US and Europe. This could give Beijing even more excuse to intervene in order to impose its version of stability and order.

The second change is a more amorphous threat to identity. Mandarin, not Cantonese, seems to be daily becoming the new lingua franca of the city. Over ten million Mainland tourists flood the city each year. Tensions between the visitors and locals often flare up.

There is dwindling cohesion. All this is exacerbated by the high levels of inequality locally and the brute fact that for most who live in the city, life is becoming more challenging. Accommodation is hugely expensive, costs of living perpetually rising, and competition from other centres in the region warming up.

People are still allowed to protest and local politics remain lively and contentious

Despite these two big issues, the most remarkable thing about the 20th anniversary of reversion to Chinese sovereignty is how Hong Kong has managed to maintain its distinctive atmosphere.

People are still allowed to protest. Local politics remains lively and contentious. Local people are not passively accepting a kind of Mainland takeover, by any measure.

Underneath this is a very simple reality. In the negotiations before 1997, both the UK and China returned many times to the idea that the key objective was to deliver a Hong Kong for Hong Kongese. They were the core elements of the process.

For both sides, there was much posturing about who was most able to demonstrate they were actually supporting this. The Chinese and British each loudly proclaimed their key strategy was to deliver a Hong Kong that worked for the people of the city, rather than having any ulterior motive.

In 2017, we can see plenty of evidence that there are people throughout the city that are at least taking this promise at its word. They, and they alone, are the guarantee that the city will be able to enjoy its unique status, despite the increasing challenges and complexities of the last few years.

So far, they have managed to maintain that aim, despite the many things that fate has thrown at them. Twenty years on, it is still way too early to discount the resilience of Hong Kong and the people who live there.Featured image: Hong Kong Chief Executive Election 2017 Photo: Iris Tong Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Politics at King’s College, London.

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