The Big Read: 20 years after handover, China’s tightening grip spells political limbo for Hong Kong

The Big Read: 20 years after handover, China’s tightening grip spells political limbo for Hong Kong
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, administers the oath to Hong Kong's new Chief Executive Carrie Lam's new cabinet in office at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center Saturday, July 1, 2017. Photo: AP
Published: 10:18 PM, July 7, 2017
Updated: 11:34 PM, July 7, 2017

HONG KONG — With pomp and pageantry, President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong last weekend to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover to China.

The historic occasion aside, Mr Xi sent a clear message: Beijing will not tolerate dissent in Hong Kong and any challenge to Beijing’s rule over the territory.

Since the handover, Hong Kong’s economic progress has been mixed. While it has benefitted by being more integrated with the mainland’s huge economy, there are also signs that the city is losing its shine as an international hub.

For many Hong Kongers, however, deeper economic ties with the mainland have come at the expense of political freedom and autonomy.

Under the “One Country Two Systems” framework, China had promised a high degree of autonomy and civic liberties to Hong Kong until 2047.

Things came to a boil during a massive civil disobedience campaign lasting almost three months in 2014.

Civic Party Leader Alvin Yeung noted that Beijing had first promised Hong Kong universal suffrage by 2007 but this never materialised.

“It is already 2017 and we still do not have it. We have no idea when we will have it. This is a promise they did not keep,” the opposition lawmaker told TODAY in an interview.

“The rights that were promised to Hong Kong have not been solidly enhanced. In fact they have been fading away,” he added.

Ms Tanya Chan, another lawmaker from the pro-democracy Civic Party said that even though Hong Kong is led by its own local Chief Executive who rose through the ranks of the civil service, “the influence of the Chinese government is growing stronger and stronger”.

“We need to do more… We need to mould ourselves more and we need to develop our own character and our strengths. We are now a bit lazy. We have an advantage because the Chinese government is looking after us,” she said.

New Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was sworn in on July 1, has her work cut out for her.

Growing calls from Hong Kongers to assert their distinct identity and values, with some going further to campaign for independence, put her in a no-win situation given the short leash her political masters in Beijing has given her.

She also inherits a fractured legislature, with major infrastructure projects and initiatives stalled due to a lack of consensus.

For now, she may enjoy a brief honeymoon as various parties are adopting a wait and see approach. But without making some progress to tackle livelihood issues, such as skyrocketing housing prices, Mrs Lam could quickly lose public confidence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Hong Kong's new Chief Executive Carrie Lam leave after administered the oath for a five-year term in office at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, Saturday, July 1, 2017.  Photo: AP


Days before the 20th anniversary of the handover, the Hong Kong government released a set of statistics highlighting the city’s achievements.

The city’s GDP grew from about HK$1.3 trillion (S$235 billion) in 1997 to roughly HK$2.5 trillion in 2016.

Other achievements include a roughly 50 per cent increase in GDP per capita and around 2.5 times increase in fiscal reserves over the past 20 years. 

Mr Holden Chow, Vice Chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) said in an interview that the city has been able to grow and survive economic crises because of support from the central government.

“With our privilege of having our own legal system and rule of law under One Country Two Systems, I am sure that Hong Kong will continue to thrive in the years to come,” the pro-establishment lawmaker added.

“Hong Kong has been enjoying high degree of autonomy. If some people say ‘we are losing our autonomy or our autonomy is diminishing or that the central government is depriving our economy’, that is wrong… It is an unfair accusation.”

At the same time, there have been reports of Hong Kong slipping down the global financial centre and container port rankings.

Experts have also said Hong Kong’s international airport may soon be edged out by Guangzhou as a hub.

On Thursday (July 6), the South China Morning Post reported that the profits of Hong Kong’s airport has fallen for the first time in 13 years, mainly caused by a growing income tax bill.

Ms Chan of the Civic Party said: “In terms of the economy, I can see that a lot of people are working very hard. (But) we still haven’t quite found new industries (to anchor our next phase of growth). I think we are quite behind other countries like for instance Singapore and South Korea.”

She added that Hong Kong’s economy has become overly reliant on the mainland. A case in point, she said, is how the many IPOs in the city are mostly from mainland companies.

An electronic monitor showing the China national flags outside a shopping centre in Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong handover to China. Photo: AP

On the political front, the report card is far from impressive.

Before the 1997 handover, people were concerned that Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city. But their concerns were assuaged in the early 2000s as the mainland left it to Hong Kong politicians to run the city as they saw fit. Then, observers gave the One Country Two Systems framework good odds to succeed.

Beijing had pledged to implement universal suffrage in 2017 at its earliest.

But by August 2014, Beijing proposed a tight electoral reform framework, which would have meant a direct vote for the city’s leader this year, but only after all candidates were to be vetted by a largely pro-mainland committee.

The pan-democrats managed to veto the proposal, but only after a fiasco that saw the majority of the pro-establishment camp leaving the chamber to wait for a colleague who was late when it was time to vote.

The political rift sparked a massive civil disobedience movement in the heart of the city for around 79 days, the longest protest in Hong Kong’s history. The pro-establishment camp countered with rallies in support of Mr Leung Chun-ying’s administration.

A card board cutout of Chinese President Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella is displayed as protesters march during the annual pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, Saturday, July 1, 2017. Thousands joined an annual protest march in Hong Kong, hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up his visit to the city by warning against challenges to Beijing's sovereignty. Photo: AP

Since then, concerns has grown over Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong.

Five booksellers said to have been selling sensitive political material banned in China disappeared in 2015, only to later reappear in custody in the mainland.

Early this year, a Chinese-born billionaire was taken by the Chinese police from his apartment at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong and spirited across the border.

This contravenes the “one country, two systems” rule that allows the former British colony to run its own affairs and bars the Chinese police from operating here.

Amid growing calls for stronger assertion of Hong Kong’s identity, Mr Xi made clear last weekend where China stood.  

In an address during Mrs Lam’s swearing in ceremony, he said that any move threatening China’s control over Hong Kong would be crossing a “red line”.

He also said that Hong Kong should do more in terms of “national security”, taken by some to mean enacting laws against sedition.

Prominent pro-democracy activists staged protests at the sidelines of his visit.

Pro-democracy protesters demand the release of Chinese Nobel winner rights activist Liu Xiaobo, during a demonstration on the 20th anniversary of the territory's handover from Britain to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Professor Ting Wai, who is with the department of government and international studies in Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) said that Beijing’s attitude towards Hong Kong has changed in the last 20 years.

He recounted that in 1997, Beijing regarded Hong Kong very highly. Then, the city constituted around 20 per cent of China’s GDP and Beijing needed help and investments from the south.

The early thinking of the Chinese government was: “We need these people from Hong Kong even if they are very different from us”, Prof Ting explained.

But with China’s rising global influence and economic might, the calculus has shifted.

“We have seen a massive inflow of Chinese investments, whether from public or private enterprises. That helps Hong Kong but there is a hidden agenda. They want to dominate Hong Kong’s economy,” the professor said.

Hong Kong’s GDP is now only around 2 per cent of the national GDP.

“In the future, Hong Kong people will have nothing to say. In order to survive, they will have to subscribe to the idea that Hong Kong’s economy is dominated by China… The mentality of the Chinese Communist Party is they have to supervise everything to make sure that everything is under their control,” he added.

Mr Albert Lai, the policy committee convener of The Professional Commons think tank in Hong Kong said at the heart of Hong Kong–China relations is a clash of cultures and value systems.

On the one hand, Hong Kong people are becoming more aware of their identity and the differences in the value systems between the city and the mainland, he said.

But on the other hand, instead of loosening up, China is becoming more dominant in its control of different aspects of life.

“China because of its economic self-confidence, is becoming more totalitarian in the way it treats Hong Kong and even other countries,” said Mr Lai, a former Civic Party vice chairman.

Chinese and Hong Kong flags are seen after celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule, in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters


A poll of 120 youths conducted last month by the University of Hong Kong (UHK) showed that only 3.1 percent identified themselves as “Chinese” or “broadly Chinese”, a historic low.

The results also showed that 93.7 percent of youths saw themselves broadly as a “Hong Kongers”, compared to 68 per cent in 1997.

A small number of youths have begun to call for Hong Kong independence, however unrealistic this is.

In November last year, China’s parliament passed a ruling that effectively barred two pro-independence politicians from the Youngspiration party from taking office in the Legislative Council.

The decision was Beijing’s most direct intervention in the territory’s legal and political system since 1997.

The pair, who uttered anti-Chinese slurs during their oath taking, are appealing the ruling.

Ms Yau Wai-ching, one of the politicians who was barred, said many people had hoped to engage the government in discussions on democracy back in 2014.

“But the attitude the government showed to people was it just ignored all comments and voices, and so people felt helpless,” she said in an interview.

Ms Yau stated that independence is merely one of the possibilities in Hong Kong’s democratic development. 

“When people are asked if they want independence, they’ll just answer you that it’s impossible. They didn’t ask themselves if they want Hong Kong to be independent – it is a problem that they didn’t even try to face,” she said.

Ms Alice Mak, a lawmaker with the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) noted that while some young people are advocating independence, they also understand that it is not feasible.

“Because they know Hong Kong depends on the mainland both on the economy and on water,” added the pro-establishment lawmaker.

Concurring, Mr Yeung of the Civic Party added that independence is “not something everyone realistically believes in”.

“Hong Kong people are generally very practical. People would know the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is only right there,” he said during an interview in his office in the Legislative Council, pointing to the military headquarters looming over the city parliament.

“If you try to claim independence of Hong Kong, it only takes them (the PLA) two minutes to (respond)... The PLA is so visible… No reasonable or sensible Hong Kong citizen would truly believe that we will get independence in the foreseeable future,” Mr Yeung noted.

In a show of force, Mr Xi attended a military parade in Hong Kong during his visit. More 100 pieces of military hardware, including air defence missiles and helicopters, were on display.

The Liaoning, China’s sole operational aircraft carrier, arrived in Hong Kong on Friday (July 7) as part of the handover celebrations.

The Liaoning, China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, sails into Hong Kong for a port call, Friday, July 7, 2017, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison's presence in the semi-autonomous Chinese city and former British colony. Photo: AP

Politicians and experts interviewed by TODAY said that from Mr Xi’s speech, it is clear that Beijing will crack down on any push for independence at all costs.

Dr Matthew Wong of the UHK said: “Sovereignty is China’s ultimate red line, and any attempts to challenge this would not be tolerated”.

“China can go very far in defending this red line. They have already used legal and constitutional procedures to disqualify elected legislators from these groups. It is easy to imagine that China is ready to go much further to suppress these elements,” added Dr Wong, who is with the department of politics and public administration.

Ms Mak of the FTU added: “The central government is willing to give Hong Kong people autonomy as far as the One Country Two Systems principle is not intervened with”.

“For the independence issue, they (Beijing) will not accept it and they will not let it grow or spread in the city,” she added


Mrs Lam has inherited a Legislative Council where divisions are starker than ever.

The opposition enjoys a one-third veto bloc in the council, ensuring that it can block major legislation and public funding.

According to a South China Morning Post report, the time spent on filibustering in the legislature doubled last year as compared to the year before.

Public works projects, including the construction of a high speed rail from China to Hong Kong, have been stalled.

The pro-establishment camp is pushing for changes to stop filibustering and introduce a penalty system for misbehaviour. But the pan-democrats counter that this will curb freedom of debate.

Hong Kongers that TODAY spoke to say that they are sick and tired of the political gridlock.

A cashier in a convenience store, who only gave her name as Ms Chan, said: “These (political divisions) have caused resentment in the society. They (the politicians) only debate about policies but get nothing done.”

“We keep hoping that they will do something for the people, but nothing ever comes to fruition,” added the cashier, who is in her 40s.

Mr Chow of the DAB said: “When you have a very divided city, it is very hard to reach consensus. To these hardliners, or the opposition, anything done by the central government despite the good faith, they believe it is wrong. With that sort of atmosphere, it won’t do us any good”.

He added that over time, if Mrs Lam can begin to resolve certain issues, “she would be able to clock up some brownie points and public support across the political spectrum”. 

“That would allow her to mend the rift,” he said.

“It won’t happen overnight. But I trust that with her passion and her experience, she would be able to deal with this problem.”

Defending the opposition’s approach on filibustering, Ms Chan of the Civic Party said they were merely expressing their views and questioning the government, particularly for what the party perceives to be a lack of public consultation.

“We need to tell the government that we oppose such an arrangement or the motion and hope that they will change,” she said.

For now at least, Mrs Lam may enjoy a brief honeymoon period.

On Wednesday (July 5), she announced HK$5 billion of funding for education during a special question and answer session in LegCo. She has also spoken on the need for political reconciliation and pledged to lobby all 70 democratically elected lawmakers.

“I am a bit saddened seeing the internal conflicts and scuffles in the past few years,” she said, an indirect critique of her predecessor.

The owner of an eatery in Tin Hau area, who only wanted to be known as Ms Mak, felt that the new chief executive was “a bit different” from Mr Leung in that she may be prepared to listen to what people have to say.

“We really dislike C Y Leung. When there is a fight among the people, he will do nothing and just run away. He doesn’t deserve to be the Chief Executive, said Ms Mak, who is in her 60s. 

“But at the end of the day, Carrie Lam will still have to follow instructions from China. For now, it is difficult to have true democracy here,” she added.

Mr Yeung of the Civic Party said that the lack for support for Mr Leung “has everything to do with personality”.

“He treated the opposition as enemy… He did not try to work with us. He did not try to convince us. He attacked us.”

Associate Professor Peter Cheung, who is also from UHK’s politics and public administration department cautioned that political divisions cannot be repaired overnight.

“But if the different parties can come together under the initiative from Carrie Lam and with Beijing’s restraint and toleration, such political reconciliation is not unthinkable. It needs all different parties to give and take,” he added.

At this early stage of the Carrie Lam administration, the various parties have signalled that they are prepared to listen to what she has to say. Her early moves will determine whether the political parties will dig in and cause further paralysis to the system.

But Mrs Lam has little room to manoeuvre and how she conducts her business will to a large extent be circumscribed by Beijing.

Public trust in her administration remains low, given the unhappiness over various livelihood issues such as high housing prices and falling wages for the lower stratas of society.

In the longer term, there is no guarantee that Beijing will continue to honour the One Country Two Systems framework.

Already, during Mr Xi’s visit to Hong Kong, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said at a regular press briefing that the Sino-British joint declaration on the handover has no practical significance, adding that China is not bound by the agreement in terms of how it wants to govern Hong Kong.

Dr Wong of UHK noted that the One Country Two Systems framework is “more relevant than ever for Hong Kong, but perhaps not so much for China”.

“20 years ago, China was still new to the global economy and Hong Kong’s experience was very valuable for the national development agenda. Nowadays it is always said that China can do well on its own with nothing more to learn from Hong Kong,” he said.

Prof Ting of HKBU added: “When China was relatively weak, it said good words to the people and tycoons of Hong Kong… But once they became very strong, they say ‘who are you? You are nothing’.” 

Looking ahead, Ms Chan of the Civic Party said: “I hope Hong Kong people still remember One Country Two Systems (after 30 years). I hope that the Basic Law (the city’s mini constitution) wouldn’t become a historic document.”

“I hope they can still remember that Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong. It is fading now.”