It was a simple gesture that would have been impossible in Beijing – a yellow umbrella, a pro-democracy symbol – unfurled and placed in the driveway of Hong Kong’s Parliament.
There it stayed, confirming Hong Kong is different.
Metres away, waterfront Wan Chai was being barricaded in preparation for the first visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Huge bollards that prevent any glimpse from a travelling motorcade of what people lining the streets might carry.
More than 10,000 police have been deployed across Hong Kong this weekend.
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, and Xi will swear in Hong Kong’s next chief executive Carrie Lam, elected with 777 votes from the 1194-member Election Committee – and the backing of Beijing.
Twenty years after handover, the report card is mixed. Business groups say Hong Kong’s status as the financial hub of Asia remains undiminished. Even China’s giant state-owned corporations rely on Hong Kong’s free flow of capital to strike international deals.
Andrew Macintosh, deputy chair of the Australian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong, says Hong Kong is still the gateway to China, the source of $80 billion in investment a year to Australia, compared to $70 billion from China.
“The three things you need for a financial hub are currency convertibility, free access to information, so you base your investment decisions on reliable and unfettered information, and the rule of law,” he says.
A pro-democracy activist is arrested by police in Golden Bauhinia Square ahead of the 20th anniversary celebrations. Photo: AP
Hong Kong has them. Shanghai doesn’t.
Academics say the judiciary remains largely independent, and there is no indication Beijing intends for Hong Kong to fade into just another Chinese city, usurped by Shanghai.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, speaks to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive-elect, in West Kowloon. Photo: Bloomberg
But there is dissatisfaction that the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong in the joint declaration between Britain and China has been eroded in recent years. The abduction of booksellers in 2015, and then a Chinese billionaire by mainland authorities shook Hong Kong residents’ sense of security.
Last year’s intervention by Beijing in a court case to disqualify young democracy activists from taking their seats in parliament, after they breached an oath, was an unwelcome exercise of the mainland’s right to “interpret” Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Huge barricades near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit. Photo: Bloomberg
Voting reform for the 2017 chief executive election was abandoned after 2014 street protests for universal suffrage failed to persuade Beijing to allow the public to choose a candidate.
“After Xi Jinping became general secretary we have seen Beijing trying to impose Chinese values on Hong Kong. The emphasis has been on the One Country, rather than the Two Systems,” says Willy Wo-Lap Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referring to the 1997 blueprint for how a communist country would take control of one of capitalism’s freewheeling capitals.
Chinese President Xi Jinping with first lady Peng Liyuan at Hong Kong International Airport on Thursday. Photo: Bloomberg
Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the government studies department at Hong Kong Baptist University, says “it is true that Hong Kong’s autonomy has shrunk”. He says the Central Government Liaison Office had become the backseat driver of Hong Kong’s government.
The problem with the One Country, Two Systems formula is that it is left to Beijing to flesh out the details, he says. But he rejects the claim there has been a betrayal of Deng Xiaoping’s intentions for Hong Kong, because it was designed as a hybrid system to give Beijing control.
Tim Summers, a senior fellow for Chatham House’s Asia program, also argues Beijing hasn’t changed its approach, with Deng intending for a patriot to run Hong Kong in a system of constrained democracy.
The key worries held at the time of handover haven’t been realised, as Hong Kong continues to have a free press, with basic rights and freedoms maintained, says Summers, who started work at the British consulate-general in the year after handover.
Nathan Law, lawmaker and chairman of Demosisto, addresses a protest near the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, China, last year. Photo: Bloomberg
But any conversation about the handover anniversary this week always comes around to the seismic political shift among Hong Kong’s young, who don’t accept the future spelt out for them in the 1997 documents.
“The political centre of gravity has shifted away from Beijing, not towards it. The rise of Hong Kong identity, which to some degree rejects Chineseness, has been a big change,” says Summers.
More than 10,000 police have been deployed across Hong Kong this weekend. Photo: Bloomberg
On the eve of Xi’s visit, police arrested and detained 26 democracy activists, including Demosisto’s high-profile former schoolboy activist Joshua Wong and elected Legislative Council member Nathan Law, for public nuisance after they climbed the Golden Bauhinia statue given to Hong Kong by Beijing in 1997.
Demosisto, which grew out of the 2014 umbrella street movement that occupied central Hong Kong, was indignant that a day later, 22 protesters remained in detention, although they considered theirs to be a “peaceful protest”. It seemed a clear attempt to keep the protest leaders off the streets until after July 1.
Agnes Chow, deputy secretary general of Demosisto, the political party set up by a group of student activists following the Umbrella Movement. Photo: Lisa Murray
Lam is under pressure from Beijing to show that “independence movements” will not be tolerated. She is expected to renew Beijing’s push for national security legislation, criminalising sedition, abandoned after 2003 street protests.
But Willy Lam says the use of the label “independence movement” by Beijing is a red herring – because few Hong Kong people support the concept – to justify a crackdown on all democracy activists.
Pro-democracy activists shout slogans from the top of the golden bauhinia statue, which was given to Hong Kong by Beijing in 1997. Photo: Kin Cheung
Multiple people interviewed by Fairfax Media warned of a “vicious cycle” emerging where the more hands-on Beijing became in Hong Kong, the stronger the reaction from young people who had been educated in a liberal system.
Xi’s visit to the PLA garrison as part of his 20th anniversary tour was “very disturbing”, says Willy Lam.
“Britain has no sovereignty, no governing power and no supervising power over Hong Kong after the handover,” Chinese government spokesman Lu Kang said. Photo: Aventurier/Getty Images
“For the past 20 years, the 6000 to 7000 soldiers there have been invisible. You don’t see them on the street and they are seldom mentioned by Beijing or Hong Kong officials. It is an implicit threat that the soldiers will be used.”
The Liaoning aircraft carrier is due to visit Hong Kong later in the month. “It is a new development. The Chinese authorities are reinforcing the army as playing a big role in safeguarding One Country, Two Systems,” he says.
Lawmaker Albert Chan (left) and pro-democracy leaders Nathan Law and Joshua Wong show their anger at how Beijing wants to shape Hong Kong’s future. Photo: AP
In a short speech after arriving in Hong Kong, Xi promised economic support and called for “all sectors of Hong Kong to work together” to uphold One Country, Two Systems.
Summers said Beijing would prefer the status quo in Hong Kong, but the problem was Hong Kong society had changed.
In an annual survey by the University of Hong Kong, just 3 per cent of young people identified as Chinese, down from a third at the time of handover.
Gestures such as a visit by China’s astronauts to Hong Kong schools this week, and the visit by Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan to a kindergarten, signal a campaign by Beijing to win back Hong Kong’s youth.
Lam recently told Chinese state media that patriotic education will need to begin with kindergarten children, and Chinese history lessons should become compulsory for schools.
The risk is in reopening the battle that originally gave rise to the radical youth protest movement.
Cabestan says Hong Kong parents micro-manage their children’s education, and among religious families anything pro-Communist “won’t go down well”.
Derek Lam, who formed Scholarism with Joshua Wong as a 16-year-old in 2011 to fight against the first attempt to introduce patriotic education to schools, says: “Most Hong Kong teenagers and their parents won’t let it happen again.”
Scholarism’s Lam, Wong and Agnes Chow all graduated to Demosisto.
In the Netflix film Joshua: Teenager versus Superpower, Derek Lam likens the battle of the school students to Star Wars.
Teenagers attending the demonstration outside the North Point police station where Wong was being detained on Thursday, gave similarly stark views. One 17-year-old, who didn’t want to be named, said: “I hate China.”
Another, Charlie, said: “We are angry about the Chinese government. I can’t find any solution or any future.”
Addressing the socio-economic factors driving youth disengagement may be more fruitful than patriotic education, analysts said.
Cabestan says the government has failed to address housing affordability by not building enough public housing. Students are facing pressure in the jobs market from more highly qualified mainland Chinese graduates who enrol in masters programs to access Hong Kong residency visas.
Derek Lam says “the rich-poor gap is very severe” and there is no prospect for young people without wealthy parents to own their own apartment.
He said the “young firebrands” have little in common with the older generation of democratic politicians.
Eddie Chu, 39, an independent elected to the Legislative Council with the highest number of votes in September, said the “old democrats” stick to the Basic Law to fight for universal suffrage, but he doesn’t think this will work.
“What young parties like Demosisto are thinking, and I am thinking, is we need to rebuild a process for a referendum, to ask ‘what kind of future do you want?'” he says.
“It is a healthy argument.”
He said the first 20 years of his life were in the colonial era, before handover. “Since my birth the sense of uncertainty has been overwhelming,” he says.
Chu said he disagrees with pro-independence groups because they try to divide Hong Kong people.
Derek Lam also rejected the “independence” tag, saying: “We are about using democracy to determine Hong Kong people’s future.”
By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald