HONG KONG (AP) — When the British handed Hong Kong over to Beijing in 1997, they were promised 50 years of self-government and freedom of assembly, speech and press that are not allowed in Communist-ruled mainland China.
If the city of 7.4 million people Friday marks 25 years under Beijing’s rule, those promises are getting thin. Hong Kong’s honeymoon period, when it continued much as it always had, is over and its future remains uncertain, determined by forces beyond its control.
Before the handover, many in Hong Kong feared that life would change if Beijing took over. Thousands rushed to obtain residence permits elsewhere and some moved abroad. For the first decade or so, such measures looked overly dramatic – this bustling bastion of capitalism on China’s south coast, it seemed to hold its liberties, and the economy was booming.
In recent years, Beijing has expanded its influence and control. Those moves appeared to have been hastened by massive pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019. Now schools are required to teach classes on patriotism and national security, and some new textbooks. deny that Hong Kong was once a British colony†
electoral reforms have ensured that no opposition lawmakers, only those deemed “patriots” by Beijing, sit in the city’s legislature, silencing the once lively discussions about how the city should be governed. China installed John Lee, a career security officer, succeeding Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong has also banned annual protests marking China’s June 4, 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with authorities citing pandemic precautions. The city’s tourism and businesses are recovering from the adherence to strict COVID zero policy performed on the mainland.
Alex Siu, a construction engineer, was born in Hong Kong and didn’t leave until 2020 – his parents had ensured that he would have the opportunity by providing him with a UK national foreign passport years earlier.
Siu moved to Manchester, England with his girlfriend, after being fed up with both the work environment and the political situation in Hong Kong. He is homesick for the food, friends and family, but has no intention of going back.
“I believe there is no hope because the government has absolute power,” Siu said of deteriorating political freedoms in Hong Kong. “We little citizens, we don’t have much power to oppose them or change the situation.”
Kurt Tong, former US Consul General in Hong Kong and managing partner of consultancy The Asia Group, said the changes reflect growing discontent in Beijing with the free-running semi-autonomous region. The consternation grew as some of the millions of Hong Kong residents who marched in peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2019 stormed the city’s legislative complex and sometimes violently clashed with police.
“The things that China found annoying about Hong Kong started to become more prominent, and the things that it found attractive about Hong Kong started to become less prominent, and over time there was friction,” he said.
Starting in 2020, authorities launched a crackdown on political dissidents, with dozens of activists arrested and jailed for unauthorized assembly, despite provisions guaranteeing freedom for such gatherings under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s constitution.
John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, was skeptical that Beijing would ever allow full democracy or universal suffrage in Hong Kong, goals enshrined in the Basic Law at the time of the handover in 1997.
“Hong Kong would become part of a local government of an authoritarian country, ruled by a Leninist party. How could it be a Western-style parliamentary democracy?” Burns said in an interview.
Authorities stepped in and took action to stamp out dissent to help restore stability after the months of protests in 2019he noticed.
“But this is a fragile stability based on enforcing the law and arresting pan-democratic leaders and incarcerating and expelling them,” he said, and many in Hong Kong still support the pro-democracy movement, even if they are not that. silent for the time being.
“We’re in a kind of hellish place. Hong Kong is not part of the system and therefore it cannot negotiate that way, (but at the same time) we are not free. We are in this hybrid middle ground,” Burns added. “The party has never had to rule a place like Hong Kong, so it’s learning how it goes.”
Former Democratic Party chairman and ex-legislator Emily Lau said she was disappointed but not surprised by the changes. “If you’re dealing with a communist regime, you don’t have to expect anything. Nothing should surprise you,” Lau said.
She is focused on the future of Hong Kong. The city remains distinct from the mainland, she said. Her friends and colleagues may be imprisoned, but she can visit them and they can choose their own lawyers – rights usually denied to political prisoners in China.
“I know it is very difficult. But I think we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do our best to fight for our core values of human rights, democracy, rule of law and personal security, and social justice,” she said.
Chan Po-ying, 66, whose longtime partner and fellow pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung — better known by his nickname “Long Hair,” is serving a nearly two-year prison term and awaiting a hearing on national security charges, she says will press ahead.
“I have held out for a long time, I believe that I should not give up so easily, especially at this difficult time,” Chan said. “The government and the law have granted us these rights (under the Basic Law).”
In May, during an election for Hong Kong’s new president, Chan and several others staged a small protest to demand universal suffrage. On June 4 of this year, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chan stood in the street with two others in silent protest, dressed in black and wearing white face masks with black “x’s” plastered on them.
However, with tight security ahead of Friday’s ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the transfer, Chan sent a message to Hong Kong media saying that she and her group would not stage a protest.
After being summoned by the state security police for a “chat,” they decided “not to take any form of protest action on that day,” she said.
AP writer Kelvin Chan in London and news assistant Karmen Li from Hong Kong contributed to this report.