Hong Kong university student Arthur Yeung recalls the widespread feeling of despair when the massive pro-democracy protests that brought Hong Kong to a standstill four years ago yielded no results.
- Hong Kong was transferred back from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997
- This year, distrust in China’s Government hit its highest level since the handover
- Almost 100 activists in Hong Kong have been jailed or put on trial in the past year
The so-called Umbrella Movement was sparked after Beijing decided it would pre-screen the candidates standing for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.
It was seen as a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle that Beijing promised exactly 21 years ago, when Hong Kong was handed over from British rule back to China.
“Before the Umbrella Movement, everyone seemed to have some hope that if you fight for something, you might succeed,” Mr Yeung told the ABC.
“But since the Umbrella Movement there has been no such thing, and everyone is feeling more and more despair.”
A public opinion survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program earlier this month showed distrust in Beijing’s Central Government in the first half of 2018 hit the second-highest level since the handover — the highest was during the Umbrella Movement.
Results from the poll of 1,000 people revealed the younger the respondent, the less proud they felt about becoming a Chinese national citizen, and the more negative they were about the Central Government’s policies on Hong Kong.
This public sentiment is a stark contrast to a feeling of hope during the handover, when former vice premier Deng Xiaoping said it would be business as usual, or in his exact words: “horse racing and dancing as usual”.
Honeymoon period ends as Beijing tightens control
Samuel, who did not want to disclose his surname, made a surprising decision to return to Hong Kong after graduating from university in Melbourne in 1994, as many people fled Hong Kong because they were worried about its future under Beijing’s rule.
Beijing at the time wanted, to some extent, satisfy what the Hong Kong people wanted and implied that the only thing that would change was the flag, said Samuel, who recently migrated to Sydney.
The Chinese parliament in 2010 passed the Basic Law, a mini-constitution of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which guaranteed ‘One Country, Two Systems’, allowing it to retain a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.
However the honeymoon period between the Hong Kong people and Beijing ended a few years after the handover, when former chief executive Tung Chee Hwa proposed to amend the Basic Law to include Article 23, which prohibits any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central Government of China.
The proposed bill sparked massive demonstrations on July 1, 2003 — the sixth anniversary of the handover — which was attended by half-a-million Hong Kong people.
It forced the Hong Kong Government to indefinitely shelve the bill.
Professor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, adjunct Professor at the China Studies Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that since the 2003 demonstrations: “Beijing’s control or containment of Hong Kong has become more and more severe.”
“This kind of clamping has been increasing since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012,” he said.
‘Hong Kong turned from rule of law to rule by law’
Joshua Wong, 21, one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, said the younger generation’s dissatisfaction of the Chinese Government had been gradually rising since the handover, but recently “rapidly increased”.
In the past year, he was aware of nearly 100 activists in Hong Kong jailed or on trial in different court cases.
“The situation in Hong Kong turned from rule of law to rule by law,” he told the ABC.
“‘One country, two systems’ just turned to ‘one country, one-and-a-half systems’, and high-degree autonomy is under the threat of Beijing.”
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Mr Wong himself had been sentenced to six months last year for his involvement in 2014 protests, but then had his sentence overturned after serving more than two months in jail.
He was sentenced for a second time in January for the same protest but on a separate charge, and was released on bail pending appeal.
The “one country, two systems” principle has been on shaky grounds with China’s interference in Hong Kong’s politics, and more recently the drafting a Chinese National Anthem Law which observers say is intended to make it an offence to show disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.
Umbrella Movement ‘an important turning point’
Tensions between Hong Kong citizens and the Chinese Government intensified in August 2014 when Beijing rejected calls for open nominations for the city’s next chief executive.
Students boycotted class and started protesting outside the government headquarters, with protesters blocking key roads and police using pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
The Hong Kong and Beijing Governments denounced the occupation as “illegal” and a “violation of the rule of law”, and the 79-day protest ended when police cleared the site in December.
Mr Yeung described the movement as an important turning point for young people in Hong Kong, where the Government was also taking a tougher approach to protesters.
“It used to be OK for you to demonstrate. There was no problem,” he said.
“But now … if you go to a demonstration, you have to be prepared to be beaten by the police.”
“Everyone knows that demonstration is useless. No matter how you demonstrate, they still can put you under control.”
Radical localists cross the ‘One China’ red line
Discontent towards the Chinese Government also gave rise to “localist” groups which advocate the Hong Kong people’s right to self-determination and greater autonomy.
In the first Legislative Council election since the Umbrella Movement in 2016, the localists — many in their 20s or early 30s — won six seats and gained 19 per cent of the vote share.
Some radical localists have even called for Hong Kong’s independence from Beijing, which from Beijing’s perspective crossed a red line.
“In Beijing’s eyes, the most acute conflict in Hong Kong has gone beyond political identity and is challenging the ‘One China’ bottom line,” Ding Xueliang, a prominent professor of social science with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told the ABC.
“This is not acceptable for Beijing.”
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of handover, he made it clear that sovereignty was not up for discussion.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR, or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland, is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” he said in his speech last July.
Professor Ding said while Beijing was able to put up with young people in Hong Kong criticising its political systems and its response to the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1989, they could not tolerate them “drawing a line with Beijing in national, cultural and ethnic identity”.
Young localists are like ‘spoiled children’: Professor Lui
Another renowned academic, Francis Lui, an adjunct professor of economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, described the young localists as “spoiled children”.
“They think they are sticking to the principles, but in fact these principles are all fake,” he said.
“They were spoiled by their families from childhood to adulthood, thinking that their opinions are the only opinions.
“They can’t look at things thoroughly. In other words, they are not very mature and do not know that the world does not operate like this.”
Professor Lam, however, argued young people in Hong Kong were unhappy with Beijing because it is challenging Hong Kong’s core values, such as freedom of speech and rule of law.
“Many young people, such as college students or people in their twenties express their aspirations and put forward their local awareness,” he said.
“These are actually the reactions of resisting Beijing’s tightening up of one country, two systems and the tightening up of a high degree of autonomy.”
‘I will try my best to defend this place’: Yeung
There are many uncertainties about what will happen to Hong Kong after 2047, when the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle expires.
But Mr Wong said Demosisto, a political party he co-founded, advocated for self-determination, “which means the future of Hong Kong after 2047 should be determined by Hong Kong people instead of Beijing”.
University student Mr Yeung believed independence was not the realistic way out, because he learned from his discussions with his father and grandfather that Hong Kong’s older generation had nationalistic feelings towards China.
He said he also believed there was increasing integration between mainland China and Hong Kong — his mother even suggested that he learn Mandarin, because there were many opportunities on the mainland.
But Mr Yeung does not want to take up that opportunity.
“I have a strong [belief] that I am a Hong Kong person and I love this place very much … I will try my best to defend this place,” he said.
“Although many people choose to leave, I feel that I have the responsibility to stay and do something to change the future. Trivial as it may be, I still need to try.”
By Xiaoning Mo and Christina Zhou