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Story Publication logo March 22, 2017

Is It Too Late to Save Hong Kong from Beijing’s Authoritarian Grasp?


A workday street scene from the "Central" neighborhood, in Hong Kong, which was the scene of unprecedented anti-government protests in 2014. Image by Howard W. French. China, 2017.

Why, despite growing vastly richer and steadily more powerful over the last generation, has China...

Joshua Wong (center) leading pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Image by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images. China, 2014.
Joshua Wong (center) leading pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Image by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images. China, 2014.

Early one morning in January, under the veil of darkness, a team of undercover police from China quietly entered Hong Kong's Four Seasons hotel and made their way into a luxurious residential suite. After sweeping aside the billionaire occupant's private contingent of female bodyguards, they shrouded the man's head in a white sheet and bundled him off in a wheelchair.

Xiao Jianhua was one of China's richest businessmen. He had built his fortune over the past two decades through deals involving the cream of China's political elite, reportedly including close relatives of the president, Xi Jinping. Because of China's opaque political culture, one can only speculate about the reasons for Xiao's abduction, but it seems that he had taken careful steps to protect himself. Not only was he residing and conducting his business outside of China, his country of birth, he had a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda and had adopted Canadian citizenship, perhaps thinking that this might offer him some extra degree of legal or diplomatic protection.

Hong Kong fields its own police, border control and immigration services, each theoretically separate from China's own vast security apparatus. But when authorities in Beijing decided to come and get Xiao, none of that mattered. Since then, Hong Kong authorities have not dared to publicly protest Xiao's arrest, nor has China offered any explanation.

The incident was yet another blow to the idea that Hong Kong has control over its own affairs. Just a year earlier, five publishers and booksellers had been secretly whisked away to China for interrogation. From unknown places of detention, where most of them remain, some were forced to make crude televised confessions. Like Xiao's abduction, this incident remains shrouded in secrecy, but many believe that the five men were targeted for selling lurid books about rivalries and corruption at the highest level of Chinese politics. Such books were particularly popular with visitors from the mainland, who could never find such uncensored material back home. One of the publisher's books purported to reveal details of President Xi's secret love life.

For many Hong Kong residents, the abductions were reminders of the sheer flimsiness of the agreement negotiated between Britain and Beijing when China regained sovereignty of the city in 1997. Indeed, Xiao's abduction had been preceded by an even bigger blow to the promise of self-rule in Hong Kong. In November, a pair of young, telegenic candidates, who had just won election to the city's Legislative Council, were denied their seats. LegCo, as it is widely known in Hong Kong, is a semi-democratic, 70-member body that makes laws, approves budgets and can hold the city's governor to account. No one disputed that the two candidates, who represented a new pro-independence political group named Youngspiration, had prevailed at the polls. The pretext offered to reject them was that they had refused to specifically pledge allegiance to China during their oath-taking ceremonies, instead using the phrase "the Hong Kong nation". (Establishment politicians also complained that they had referred to China with the derogatory term "Shina", a word once favoured by Japanese imperialists.)

Hong Kong's staunchly pro-Beijing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, first sought a court injunction to prevent the Youngspiration candidates from taking their seats. This was a worrying move – but then Leung did something unprecedented and, for many locals, far more disturbing. Eliminating any discretion Hong Kong's independent courts might have had in the matter, Leung put the issue before Beijing, inviting a leading committee of the Chinese National People's Congress to rule on the dispute. The pair were duly disqualified from office.

Since the handover, Beijing had rarely intervened in Hong Kong politics so bluntly, and anger over this turn of events quickly spread, especially among younger people. The mood remains tense. On the day after I arrived in Hong Kong in January, a delegation of pro-democracy activists flew to Taiwan, led by the city's most prominent opposition leader, 20-year-old Joshua Wong. At the Hong Kong airport, just before departure, and then in Taiwan, crowds of pro-China demonstrators jostled Wong's delegation and showered them with threats and insults. Many commentators described the demonstrators as rent-a-mobs pulled together by organised crime groups acting on behalf of Beijing. The mobs were there to send the message that no one from Hong Kong who preaches separation from China is beyond Beijing's reach.

If that was indeed the intention, the message seems to have been received. But that is not all that was delivered. I have been visiting Hong Kong since the late 1990s, and after more than a week of scheduled interviews and spontaneous encounters with people of many different walks of life and political persuasions, what I found was an unmistakable, shared sense of foreboding among the people of the city. In formal interviews and over meals in crowded, neighbourhood restaurants, the fear people expressed was that their home – one of Asia's freest and most cosmopolitan cities – is locked on a collision course with the authoritarian system that governs China.

The freedoms and democratic culture that make Hong Kong so special might not survive. As one prominent lawyer put it to me: "If there is a solution to Hong Kong's predicament, surely no one has imagined it yet."

For years, Hong Kong residents have looked forward to 2017, the 20th anniversary of the British departure, as a milestone in their political evolution. According to promises made by Beijing, this was meant to be a moment when they would take a critical step toward direct universal suffrage, under the city's mini-constitution.

Instead, when the city's next elections are held on 26 March, rather than ushering in a more democratic era for Hong Kong, they will be conducted under the old terms, leading many people to fear a return of the protests and confrontation that have marked the last three years.

Relations between Hong Kong and the mainland haven't always been like this. At the time of the handover in 1997, the anxiety that many of Hong Kong's 6.5 million residents felt about the future under the Chinese Communist party was offset, in part, by a strong surge of pride. It is true that thousands of locals emigrated, or sought second passports as a hedge against the uncertainty of this new era. But many others believed that as people on the mainland grew wealthier, political liberalisation would follow. Rather than Hong Kong being remade as China, China would come to look ever more like Hong Kong. For people of this persuasion, there had never been a better occasion to reaffirm one's Chineseness.

It helped, of course, that the most vital things had not been left to chance. Britain's final act of decolonisation, which had been negotiated for decades, appeared to cede control over the city not so much to the Chinese state as to the people of Hong Kong themselves. Under an arrangement with Beijing that became known as "one country, two systems", Hong Kong would be allowed to govern itself for 50 years with minimal Chinese interference. (Even then, however, there were local critics who bemoaned what they saw as a design flaw, or original sin, even: the people of Hong Kong were given no role in negotiating the new terms.)

Hong Kong was so valuable to Beijing's state planners that optimists convinced themselves the Chinese Communist party would not risk tampering with it in any fundamental way. The city had been the first source of capitalist investment for China – booster fuel during its initial economic takeoff in the early 1980s. Through the 1990s and into the next decade, Hong Kong remained an all-important source of investment, as well as a conduit through which China hungrily absorbed western technology and management techniques. Western-style institutions, such as the city's impartial courts, transparent financial markets and free press, moreover, made Hong Kong a halfway house for China's own nascent global companies. It was the ideal place to set up international operations, giving them the extra credibility they needed to win over skittish foreign investors.

One other factor helped reassure Hong Kongers who felt anxious about their future. To many observers, "one country, two systems" seemed partly designed to appeal to the 23 million people of Taiwan, a self-governed democracy off the coast of the Chinese mainland. Bringing Taiwan into the fold of a unified China had been a sacred goal for the Communist party ever since 1949, when Mao defeated China's Nationalist government, which fled to the island. Now, political commentators throughout the region speculated that if Hong Kong was seen to be prospering as a liberal society under Chinese sovereignty, then perhaps the people of Taiwan might also be gradually won over to the idea of uniting with the mainland under a similar arrangement.

During its early years of implementation, many international observers gave "one country, two systems" good odds to succeed. For some, it even looked like a true "shuang ying" (win-win), one of the most cherished stock phrases of Chinese diplomacy. When one factored in Taiwan, it looked like it could even become a win-win-win: something that all three societies might eventually come to embrace.

Today, though, in the 20th year after the handover, this Sino-British arrangement is charitably described as limping along on life support. Many believe it is in danger of collapsing altogether, even as a pretence. As China has grown richer and more powerful, it has also become less patient and less willing to sacrifice control. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the idea of "one country, two systems" has been riven by the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for autonomy. Beijing has found itself confronted by increasingly disaffected and radicalised youths, who are as unwilling to compromise over democracy and civil liberties as China is itself.

For its part, Britain – Hong Kong's old colonial master – has been reluctant to publicly criticise Beijing, as it eagerly courts Chinese business and investment. Chris Patten, the Conservative peer and last colonial governor of the city, recently said: "I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists. I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well."

There is no single narrative to explain how Hong Kong's situation has become so troubled. Yet one cannot understand the city's present state of permanent crisis without reckoning with a simple fact: the mainland is no longer dependent on Hong Kong. In reality, the reverse may be true. The impact of this fact is not solely economic or political; it is also psychological, transforming the way mainlanders and Hong Kongers conceive of themselves.

Today, China's economy is more than 11 times larger than it was at the time of the handover. Over that same time span, Hong Kong's economy has been stagnant by comparison, becoming ever more dependent on China. Upward mobility has stalled, and many young people are pessimistic about the future. Nearly everyone under the age of 40 interviewed for this article still lived with their parents and saw no hope of that changing soon. "There's not much economic growth outside of a small minority that works in banking and finance," said Alan Wong, a 30-year-old who worked in his father's manufacturing company. "The math behind home ownership is just impossible, and it feels like everything is stacked against you."

In 1997, the average per-capita income in Hong was 35 times that of China, and in the early years after the handover, the trickle of Chinese who were granted permits to visit returned home with envy-inducing tales of high-end shopping malls and an affluent, effortlessly cosmopolitan population. A sense of what has changed is captured vividly in the 2008 novel Beijing Coma, by the exiled Chinese author Ma Jian. It recounts a doomed love affair between a young Hong Kong woman and a man from the mainland, both medical students in southern China. Coming back from trips to Hong Kong, she first brings him Marlboros and then music cassettes, only to realise he has no tape player, and finally a camera, which he later sells for the equivalent of a year's rent. Her parents object to her being with him, ostensibly because of the great gap in wealth. The man describes seeing her off at the train station on the border between Hong Kong and the mainland. "The Hong Kong tourists entering the hall were well dressed, with neat hair and tidy suitcases," he writes. "They didn't seem to belong to the same planet as the dishevelled hordes of mainland tourists who were trudging wearily around the hall in their bare feet, with plastic bags over their shoulders."

Today, the contrast between the mainland and Hong Kong is no longer so stark. Hong Kong has become a stop on the tourist circuit for millions of mainland Chinese, whose currency is now worth more than the once-coveted Hong Kong dollar. Their swelling numbers have become a source of resentment by natives of Hong Kong. Rich mainlanders, including many in the Chinese political elite, snap up luxury housing and are blamed for helping making real estate unaffordable for locals.

Visitors from China's mainland have repeatedly been the target of angry protests by Hong Kong natives who have sometimes denounced them with the kind of epithets more familiar in societies deeply divided by race – words such as "pestilence", "vermin" and "hordes". Many Hong Kong natives frown at the supposedly coarse behaviour of members of the newly minted Chinese middle class, who they accuse of spitting in public, jay-walking and letting infants relieve themselves in the street. But for these visiting Chinese, Hong Kong is no longer so much a place to marvel over as it is a confirmation of their own society's arrival. More and more, in fact, it looks like the places they've come from.

"They have very complicated attitudes to Hong Kong people – a complex," said a man in his late 20s who works in corporate relations for a small manufacturer, explaining his support for tighter restrictions on tourism from the mainland. "They say that Hong Kong people are really just Chinese people, and nothing special. Hong Kong people in the 70s and 80s invested a lot of money in places like Shenzhen, and behaved like tycoons. They say you bought prostitutes there. Now we are rich, and it is the Hong Kong people's turn to be our slaves. When Chinese people come to Hong Kong now, they like to act like they are operating in their colony. They don't care what you think and are very free, because they have the Chinese government behind them, and the Chinese government controls everything."

More than any economic statistics, it is this kind of psychological role-reversal that has unsettled people most. And that feeling is exacerbated by the assertive, even swaggering, manner of Xi Jinping. During his four years in power, Xi has established himself as the country's most powerful leader in decades. Under his presidency, China's own fledgling civil society has been under relentless attack. Lawyers working on human rights issues have been prosecuted and universities have been ordered to toe a rigid ideological line. In this climate, Hong Kong's democracy movement has been depicted as a tool of the west, whose ultimate purpose is to subvert China and undermine its stability by encouraging liberalism on the mainland.

Xi has been almost as assertive on the international stage, particularly in Asia, where he has built up China's navy, undertaken a provocative programme of island construction in the South China Sea, and launched ambitious trans-continental infrastructure projects.

Bold foreign policy moves such as these help sustain the Chinese president's popularity at home, but in Hong Kong, as in Taiwan, they have mostly driven fear, not pride. "Nobody expected China to rise so fast in 10 years, or for the decline of other powers to be so great. And the surprise is even stronger with America under Trump," says Lam Wai-man, an expert on the city's political culture at the Open University of Hong Kong. "We are quite optimistic about China's economic future, but not about its political future."

Many in Hong Kong saw the swearing in of Leung, the city's deeply unpopular chief executive, in 2012, as a calculated rebuff to liberal groups in the city. The carefully orchestrated ceremony, which was almost certainly approved in Beijing, was conducted entirely in Mandarin, the official language of China, but one that few Hong Kongers speak well. (Cantonese is the native language, and a key component of local identity.) During his swearing-in, Leung did not even utter the words "Hong Kong", fuelling widespread derision and leading one man to later petition for his impeachment.

At the end of 2015, a groundbreaking Hong Kong film imagined the city's future in 2025. Ten Years – a collection of five dystopian stories, each by a different director. The movie's opening story, Extras, was by far the darkest. It shows establishment political parties promoting an ideology of mindless materialism and obedience to halls full of middle-aged and older Hong Kong natives. But Beijing's exhortations to keep quiet, work hard and be happy with your lot are not reaching younger people. Beijing, it seems, is losing its grip on the city.

The solution, cooked up by a sinister-looking envoy from the mainland, is to engineer a crisis so that China can justify an outright takeover of the city. "The more panic, the better," Beijing's envoy says. Two petty criminals are recruited to shoot a couple of municipal councillors. The short ends with a black screen, across which a news bulletin scrolls. It congratulates the police for their response to a terrorist attack fostered by "hostile foreign powers", announces that the suspects were killed on the spot, and then declares that, to preserve order in the city, a "National Security Act" will take effect immediately.

What made Extras so powerful was its shock value in imagining the sinister means Beijing might use to regain total control of Hong Kong. Barely a year later, though, suspicions like these have become widespread. Many among the city's youthful, pro-democracy groups, for example, told me that there are paid stooges operating in their midst, waiting for the order to create the incident that will be used as a pretext to impose more direct control over the city.

What delivered the city to its present state of permanent crisis is partly a tale of good intentions gone awry – Britain's, Hong Kong's, even Beijing's – in granting the city a 50-year period of transition. But it is also, increasingly, a tale of the inflexibility and heavy-handed tactics that arise when a stodgy and fundamentally insecure political system finds itself confronted with stark generational change and demands for true democracy.

Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing can best be understood in terms of quickening cycles. Those who hold the progressive torch in the city's politics become steadily discredited for the least sign of accommodation toward Beijing. They are then replaced by younger, more radical successors, whose own failure to achieve any breakthrough breeds impatience toward them in turn, leading to greater radicalisation still. The cause of this impatience is, above all, a yearning for the true autonomy that seemed to be promised during the handover. This frustration has led some to argue for outright independence – an idea never even implied in the bargain struck between Beijing and London.

The first and longest cycle in this story involved the slow rise, from the 1970s onwards, of a group of liberal activists who combined pro-democracy activism, Chinese patriotism and anti-corruption crusading. Many of them won office when Britain introduced elements of representative democracy to the colony in the 1980s, and once the terms of the handover were decided, they spoke with optimism about the city's future. They were lawyers, academics, community leaders and other professionals who hoped to quietly prove the city's worth to Beijing, not just as an economic centre but as a kind of laboratory of civic virtue. By working patiently within the system, they believed they could achieve universal suffrage for the city's residents and gradually deepen Hong Kong's autonomy from China.

In the early years after the 1997 handover, many among this loose coalition, which became known as the Pan-Democrats, began to profess the additional belief that through their example, and through the good works of Hong Kong residents who invest in mainland companies, the city might gradually encourage China to accept more liberal ways. For the true believers among the Pan-Democrats, this became an article of faith connected to their very identity as Chinese. Slowly catalysing progressive change on the mainland was their duty as members of Greater China. This was the opposite of the separatism that Beijing so fears. It was patriotism.

But over time, the Pan-Democrats began to be seen as too accommodating towards Beijing. In 2009, with little prior consultation, Hong Kong authorities announced a scheme to link the city to the high-speed rail network that was being built on the mainland. The Pan-Democrats opposed the project, but lacked the votes to stop it in the Legislative Council. A protest movement quickly sprung up. The opposition voices did not just include people from affected communities, but many others who saw the infrastructure scheme as a way for China to silently swallow up their city. In retrospect, many people cite the anti-rail protests as a turning point in Hong Kong's political culture, when the Pan-Democrats began to be seen as ineffectual, and protest as the only way of protecting local rights. (Hitherto the most famous protests in Hong Kong were driven by Chinese nationalist sentiments. These included a 1967 anti-British riot that was supported by Beijing.)

The next big turn of the screw occurred in 2010, when Beijing attempted to introduce new, highly nationalistic history textbooks. The textbook reform, which was stodgily branded "the Moral and National Education campaign", was a sign of the Communist party's fear of the rapid emergence of a heightened sense of local identity in Hong Kong – something it feared would feed separatism, just as it had in Taiwan. But this ill-judged reform quickly backfired.

"The textbooks said that you have to cry when the flag is raised to show your love for the country," says Ng Sin Hang, a solemn, curly-haired 21-year-old, who was in his early teens when he joined the first protests against the textbooks. "Like a lot of people, I thought national education would brainwash Hong Kong people. You can't force an emotion on someone, but the textbook said, no matter what, you must love your country regardless of what it has done."

The movement against the nationalist textbooks quickly grew. On 29 July 2012, around 100,000 demonstrators gathered outside of the Hong Kong government headquarters. They were led by Joshua Wong, then a frail-looking 17-year-old with thick-framed glasses and a soup-bowl haircut who was emerging as the most important opposition figure in the city; he was the leader of a since-disbanded group that took the name Scholarism because of its roots in curriculum-reform protests. "You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle," Wong would later say, giving definition to his insurgent's creed. The protests eventually forced Beijing to back down.

As stunning as it was, Scholarism's defeat of the Moral and National Education textbooks also stands out as the final success for anti-establishment political movements in Hong Kong. China's leaders, fearing a repeat of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests of 1989, are especially wary of student-led movements and have signalled their determination not to let them drive change in Hong Kong. Since 2012, it has adopted a much firmer stance and begun issuing increasingly shrill warnings that any calls for Hong Kong independence amount to treason. Nor has Beijing allowed the Pan-Democrats to register any kind of meaningful successes lately, despite their commitment to working within the system.

With no escape valves available, two things have happened. More and more Hong Kongers, particularly young people, have joined in anti-government actions. At the same time, these young protesters have rejected the Pan-Democrats as hopelessly tainted members of the establishment. Critics of the Pan-Democrats often lump them together with pro‑Beijing politicians, calling them, in English, "old seafood". This is a sly play on words: the English word "seafood" sounds similar to the Cantonese word for "asshole".

"The Pan-Democrats feel they are Chinese, that Hong Kong is part of China, and they think we can achieve fully democratic government in Hong Kong, but that we can still be Chinese people or be under the rule of China," says Lewis Lau, a prominent, 26-year-old pro-democracy blogger and author, who calls present-day Hong Kong a colony of China. "They are encouraging us to walk in the wrong direction. The Pan-Democrats hate the idea of independence, because they fear that would make Beijing angry, and [if Beijing is angry] they won't give us democracy. But in our view, Beijing will never give us democracy."

The emergence of thinkers such as Lau reflects the rapid radicalisation of public opinion among people under 40, with larger and larger segments of this demographic expressing reservations about the very idea of being Chinese at all. This sharp turn of public opinion was borne out in elections last September, when more than 20% of voters supported candidates who called for greater self-determination or outright independence in the Legislative Council. As recently as four or five years ago, electoral support for this camp was insignificant.

"I am a Hong Kong person, and Hong Kong should have its own sovereignty, its own government, its own border," says Lau. "When we travel abroad we have to write [on immigration forms] that our nationality is Chinese. Every time I see that I feel strange, because I feel that I am not Chinese. I live here. I've spent my life here, and I don't really feel like things from China are familiar. I feel alienated. Nothing I see in China chimes with me."

Lau is one of the most eloquent exponents of a movement that has come to be known as Localism. But over time this movement has become highly fragmented. Some advocate outright independence, while others simply call for greater autonomy and enhanced protections for Hong Kong culture, including more curbs on visitors from the mainland and measures to safeguard Cantonese against the encroachment of Mandarin. One faction, led by a prominent professor of Chinese studies, Chin Wan-kan – whose contract at the university where he worked was not renewed last year for what many believe were political reasons – positions Hong Kong as a truer embodiment of China than even China itself. Other groups, smaller still, have even argued that Hong Kong should return to some form of British oversight.

Hong Kong's youthful insurgents crossed their biggest threshold in September 2014 with the most extraordinary series of protests the city has ever seen, as massive crowds filled the streets of the business district for 79 days. This came after a push by Pan-Democrats and others had failed to win reforms of the city's electoral system. The demonstrations, branded Occupy Central with Love and Peace, became famous not only for their turnouts of tens of thousands of people day after day, but for the way participants carried yellow umbrellas, initially for protection against the teargas and baton charges of the police (hence an alternative nickname, the Umbrella Movement).

The most prominent leader of Occupy Central was the same Joshua Wong who had previously galvanised the 2010 protests against the new history curriculum. Early on, the protests inspired many in the city, including more than a few older residents, to believe that people power might finally enable Hong Kong to triumph in its struggle for undiluted democracy.

But in the end, the protests failed to achieve any political reforms. Suddenly Wong and other organisers found themselves characterised by many of their fellow activists as politically naive romantics, as deluded in their belief in the power of Gandhi-style tactics as the Pan Democrats had been in their faith in patience and process.

"Back then, when the protests against patriotic education were successful, it was seen as a model of what could be – of David rising up against Goliath," says Alan Lai, a 30-year-old who has helped organise a number of popular protests. "After Occupy Hong Kong failed to change anything, though, a lot of people were very dismissive, saying these were nothing but a bunch of hippies who thought something as mild as resistance like this could change Beijing's mind."

In response, some protestors grew more radical. In 2016, during the city's traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, some young demonstrators gathered to confront the police and threw bricks and other objects at them. "I stood by and watched, but didn't do anything myself," says one young activist who calls himself Johnny. "I wanted to see things for myself, to be a witness. It may not be the time yet, but violence cannot be ruled out."

Others feel a creeping sense of apathy setting in, which is almost certainly what Beijing hopes for. "We are experiencing something like what the post-Tiananmen generation experienced in China," a young activist named Xeron Chen told me. "You can have a good life, but if you care about democracy all the time, you get really depressed, because all the information you can get brings the conclusion that there is nothing you can do. In the political arena, the most horrible thing is not the police with guns, but all the people losing hope."

Chen, who had been a member of Scholarism until it disbanded, complained that more recent movements, such as Youngspiration, seemed to have few practical ideas about political change. For his part, Chen is committed to preaching democracy to other residents at the ultra-local, neighbourhood level, attempting to win hearts and minds through everyday, one-on-one conversations. "Calling for change without any real ideas is nothing but demagoguery," he said.

Other young activists, however, speak of political reform in Hong Kong as a generational struggle, and one that will not fade. "We have to love Hong Kong," said one of them, who goes by the name Greg. "This is our homeland. We must defend it, and this is why we choose not to live somewhere else. We must stand up for it, for our rights. If we don't, the mainland government will take these things away from us, one by one.

"It will take time – maybe 30, 60 or 100 years to get what we want. But it is meaningful to fight for these things, for our Hong Kong."


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

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