July 1: For many, it’s a day of patriotism and pride that this year will mark the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong’s rightful return to the motherland after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. For others, it’s a day of politics and protest against an authoritarian central government, and city officials who would rather please their superiors in Beijing than pursue the hopes and dreams of the people they are supposed to represent in Hong Kong.
So, here we go again – on Friday, both parties will be out out in force.
In the morning, officials and dignitaries will gather at Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai for pomp and ceremony rich in the symbols of nationalism as the Hong Kong and Chinese flags are raised while marching bands blare out the national anthem. Out of respect for the two firefighters who lost their lives in the Ngau Tau Kok blaze last week, the government has cancelled performances at the cocktail reception that follows, but different civil groups will host lion dances, carnivals and fairs throughout the day.
It’s a special day, and it’s right to feel proud and it’s right to be happy. In the 19 years since that stormy night when the Union Jack was lowered for the final time under the doleful eyes of Britain’s Prince Charles, the Hong Kong experiment has worked better than almost any Western analyst predicted.
Prior to the handover, a Fortune magazine cover famously prophesied “The Death of Hong Kong,” and thousands of the colony’s skittish subjects baled out for new lives in safe havens such as the United States, Canada and Australia. Many of those who fled the fearful prospect of Hong Kong under Chinese Communist Party rule have since returned and once again prospered here.
Hong Kong did not die; it adapted, it soldiered on—through the Asian financial crisis, through bouts of bird flu, through SARS, through the 2008 global financial tsunami and through the 79-day pro-democracy Occupy movement that polarised the city into yellow-ribbon and blue-ribbon camps — still struggling to understand each other nearly two years after the last umbrella-holding demonstrator gave up and went home.
There have been many post-handover tests and setbacks. Looking at the Brexit fiasco of last week, however, it is getting harder and harder to pine for the good old days under British rule. Indeed, Hong Kong appears to be in far better shape at this point in its history than its former colonial master. Good riddance.
Of course, the city faces new challenges today—one of the largest wealth gaps in the developed world, a paralysed political system and an alienated younger generation facing ever-diminishing prospects, just to name a few. But its history of hard work and resilience in a culture where East and West have ultimately met with great success on both sides should give everyone cause for hope and faith in the city’s future.
So light the fireworks and let’s celebrate.
At the same time, there are reasons for concern—even alarm—that the “one country, two systems” guarantee made to Hong Kong by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader during the negotiations that led to the 1997 handover, is unravelling. The current Chinese leadership appears to have calculated that most people in the city are willing to trade core freedoms granted under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, for the economic benefits of maintaining peaceful, cooperative relations with a one-party state that brooks no dissent.
Thus, although the Basic Law promises full, unfettered democracy, our election for chief executive is rigged so that only Beijing-approved candidates can win. Moreover, our bizarrely structured legislature, with its rotten boroughs going by the farcical misnomer of functional constituencies, further assures that our dysfunctional politics can be controlled from the north rather by the people who actually live and vote here.
Finally, as long as publishing books about Chinese leaders—even salacious ones full of gossip and half-truths—can result in Hong Kong citizens being kidnapped and kept for months in secret detention cells on the mainland without access to a lawyer, family or friends, then handover anniversaries cannot be just a time of joy and celebration.
While Chinese officials agreed this week to talks about improving the current notification mechanism between the mainland and Hong Kong, notification is only one of the issues involved in the booksellers’ ordeal. What about kidnapping, physical and psychological abuse and forced confessions?
Coming just two weeks after one of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, returned the city with shocking revelations of his extrajudicial abduction and abusive treatment for eight months at the hands of secret police on the mainland, this year’s anniversary, like all those that have preceded it, will see plenty of protesters, with Lam himself in the vanguard. That, too, is only meet and right.
July 1 is once again—and perhaps always will be—a time of celebration and lament, joy and fear, laughter and tears.
That’s Hong Kong.