Discontent among young people in Hong Kong, 20 years after the handover to China

Discontent among young people in Hong Kong, 20 years after the handover to China

The young pro-independence activist Yau Wai-ching in front of the Legislative Council ("Legco", Hong Kong Parliament) with the banner she displayed in the Legco in 2016, on swearing in as an MP. The slogan and adjectives used in reference to China led the High Court of the former British colony to disqualify her from office.

(Ismael Arana)

Claudia Mo was 40 years old when on the night of 30 June 1997, she ended the day under the Union Jack in her native Hong Kong and began the next under the five-star red flag. “We felt a sense of expectancy and relief,” the former reporter-turned-parliamentarian tells Equal Times, recounting her memories of the handover. “We were finally free from foreign rule, after being a colony for so long. That day was the start of a new chapter in our history, a future filled with uncertainty but also full of hope.”

On the night in question, Hong Kong, home to 6.5 million people (now over 7.3 million), was handed over to Beijing by the British Crown, bringing an end to the 156 years of “humiliation” – as the Chinese refer to it – following China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and the signing of the “Unequal Treaty” with the colonial powers.

But before the last rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ sounded in the enclave, London and Beijing came to an agreement that, for half a century following the handover, the city would be governed in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle.

By virtue of the agreement, the Pearl of the Orient became a semi-autonomous region, continuing to operate under its own capitalist system, its own currency, its own legal system and borders, etc., shielded by freedoms that the mainland Chinese could only dream of. It would become part of China, but with free access to Internet, Falun Gong practitioners in the parks and a market economy.

Creeping colonisation

The handover reinforced a relationship that had already been developing in the economic sphere since the 1980s, when Hong Kong became the gateway for foreign investments in China. The city also became an outlet for the recently acquired fortunes of Chinese businesses or private individuals, be it as a channel for outbound investments or as a place to shop or launder dirty money, which Hong Kong welcomes with great expediency, as underlined by financial columnist, Peter Guy, from the South China Morning Post.

It has made many Hong Kongers very rich, but not everyone is happy with the results.

“Red money is taking over the city, from houses to businesses or the mass media. It’s all part of the strategy to bring us under their control.”

These words are spoken by Nathan Law, the youngest parliamentarian in the history of Hong Kong and one of the leaders of the 2014 protests for greater democracy, which brought the city to a standstill for 79 days.

Law also points to the colossal plans for regional integration (such as the longest maritime bridge in the world) as another form of control that threatens Hong Kong’s singularity. “The connection between Hong Kong and China has always existed,” says the 23-year-old, a great admirer of Mandela.

“We are, nevertheless, different. We speak a different language (Cantonese, not Mandarin) and we have different values, and a freer, more cosmopolitan outlook on the world. The [physical] border between us not only separates two territories, but two lifestyles,” he insists.

His position is shared by a portion of society that sees the China-fication of Hong Kong as the root of all its ills, including its loss of competitiveness relative to other financial hubs like Singapore or the insurmountable rise in house prices.

“In 1997, we thought Beijing would copy our model and become more like us. But the opposite has happened. They are quietly colonising us, and soon it will be impossible to distinguish Hong Kong from any other Chinese city,” complains Mo, for her part.

Whilst relations have been smooth in the economic arena, the last twenty years have seen a steady rise in political tension. The attempt to introduce a National Security Law (still pending), in 2003, and the education reform of 2012, brought a significant portion of the population out onto the streets (half a million in 2003 and around 90,000 in 2012).

But the pinnacle was reached in 2014, when Beijing’s refusal to allow universal suffrage for the 2017 election of the chief executive (Hong Kong’s top leader) triggered the Umbrella Revolution, the toughest challenge faced by the Communist Party (CPC) since Tiananmen (1989), despite being far removed from Beijing and in a Special Administrative Region.

The protests were dismantled without a single concession being secured from Beijing, but the young people who had come together joined forces to ensure this was only the beginning. On failing to find a place for themselves in traditional political structures, they decided to create their own parties (favouring various degrees of autonomy). As a result, in the September 2016 elections, a “localist” third way made an entry into the Legislative Council, in front of which voters and elected representatives had camped two years earlier.

Expressing frustration or surrender

Amongst the winners of the elections was Yau Wai-ching, a 26-year-old woman from the Youngspiration party. “We despise the CPC and its thirst for control. The only solution we are left with is independence,” she told Equal Times.

This radical option is gaining traction among young people (40 per cent now support it, according to polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong). The mere mention of it infuriates Beijing. On being sworn in as a lawmaker, the young woman displayed a banner that read “Hong Kong is not China”, stirring up a controversy that pushed the central government to do everything in its power to punish the affront.

In the end, Yau and her party colleague, Baggio ‘Sixtus’ Leung, were disqualified from office in November. Other members from the localist camp could now face the same fate. According to Nathan Law, the one country, two systems formula is in a critical state, and he doubts it will last another 20 years.

His viewpoint is shared by many citizens, who see this episode, and others such as the “forced disappearance” of five booksellers – specialised in literature critical of the CPC (and their subsequent “reappearance” in China, on the other side of the border with Hong Kong), as an illustration of how their rights and liberties are being eroded.

With the deterioration in the political situation in Hong Kong, combined with social and economic concerns, increasing numbers of young people, around 60 per cent according to a poll by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), envisage a future far from the city.

“I will never be able to have a decent house, to vote in free elections or make a name for myself in this society that is so unequal. Hong Kong is not worth it any more,” says 25-year-old Jenny Ho.

She hopes to move to Canada, one of the favourite destinations of this disenchanted generation.

The sense of powerlessness in the face of Beijing’s interventionism is also reflected in the world of academics, sports, or the cultural scene, and has become a central theme for many local artists. “Expressions of frustration or submission, these are the key words defining the art that has arisen out of the Umbrella Movement,” says artist Chow Chun-fai, one of the most vocal.

This breeding ground has spawned works such as the film Ten Years, a modest local production that revolutionised the city’s cinema halls for weeks, with its unsettling portrait of the Hong Kong of 2025, or the 2047 Countdown project, focussing on the year marking Hong Kong’s total integration with China, which, according to its creative team (Add Oil Team), is a source of “great anxiety among the population”.

But after 20 years of “one country, two systems”, the recent election – without citizen participation – of Carrie Lam, the female leader of the Hong Kong executive, who is close to China’s interests, and the fact that this Asian giant is wielding ever greater political and economic power at global level, indicate that Beijing is not prepared to budge an inch (also in the interest of synchronizing the message with the rest of the nation and smothering any possible democratic or separatist aspirations).

“Under no circumstances should (Hong Kong) use the promise of a high degree of autonomy to challenge the central government’s authority,” warned Zhang Dejiang, number three leader of the CPC, in May. He also seized the opportunity to send a message out to young people: that they should recognize their shared destiny and reject all separatist notions.

On 1 July, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover, Chinese President Xi Jinping was to take part under heavy security during his first visit there. Pro-democracy activists were expected to voice their discontent. Though a few leaders, including Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, were detained this week for their participation in unauthorised protests.

A demonstration has been called for that day under the slogan “One country, two systems, a lie of 20 years. Democratic self-government, retake Hong Kong.”

It contrasts with the “Together, Progress, Opportunity” slogan, chosen by the local Executive to celebrate the date, with more fanfare and security than the 10-year commemoration of 2007 with then-President Hu Jintao. The numbers of protestors will be key to gauging the mood of those disgruntled about the future.

“But, whatever happens on that day, we will continue to fight,” warns Law, who is conscious that people are growing weary, having mobilised for several months without securing any visible results.

“Now, just like in 1997, we, the people of Hong Kong, have been stripped of the right to decide on our future. Now, it is our turn to speak,” he concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish.