In 2019 Hong Kong made the international news due to of waves of demonstrations lasting for months. The ex-British colony has a very complex relationship with mainland China to which it is geographically attached. More than a city, less than a country, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR) finds itself a very unique and delicate situation.
As we walk the Central business district on Hong Kong Island with our local guide Carmen, she feels she has to apologise for the posters & graffiti that have appeared on some walls. This is almost upsetting for her in the usually clean, sleek, and shiny megalopolis. If the stigma of the protests look shocking to her, the contestation seems unavoidable for deeply rooted reasons.
Pin this article for later!
In 1997 when Hong Kong was handed over to China, it was given a new constitution with the promise that one day its inhabitants would be able to democratically choose their leaders. At the time of writing, over 20 years later, the right to vote to all adult citizens is still far: about 1,200 people vote on behalf of the city to select the potential Chief Executive (HKSAR’s leader), and only 117 of them are elected by universal suffrage at the district council elections. The others are appointed automatically by the industry: HKSAR is run as a business.
A first wave of protests made world news in 2014 when Hongkongers rebelled against the pre-screening of the Chief Executive candidates. The pacifist demonstration of students was met by tear gas of the police. Unarmed, they retaliated by opening umbrellas giving its name to the revolution.
For a territory where everything has always been decided for its inhabitants by the colonial power, by non-elected leaders for the retrocession (namely Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping), and by the 1,200’s, 2014 was a big turning point when Hongkongers realised they had a voice. 2019 saw another wave of protests, established in time and more violent. It was sparked by an extradition bill. A Hongkonger murderer put on trial in Taiwan made the HKSAR Parliament (or legislative council) realise there was no extradition agreement in place with mainland China. With many Chinese who fled to Hong Kong during the civil war, and non-censored media critical against China that covered Tiananmen in 1989 in depth, the mainland is distrusted in the territory. Hongkongers feared that the extradition bill would be used to target journalists and free thinkers. In order to block its passing, they blocked down the building that we are standing in front of to simply prevent the vote.
Out of 7.5 million inhabitants, an estimated 1 to 2 million were in the streets on the first demonstration day to ask for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill. It was withdrawn a few months later, but demonstrations continue to ask for full democracy and investigation into police brutality during the protests.
For a territory that should lose its status as a special autonomous region within China dictated by “One Country, Two Systems” in 2047, and for which there are no legal arrangements past that date, the distrust level with mainland China may be tough to understand for outsiders. Carmen has heard her Chinese grandfather’s personal story many times. His family was farming and owned land in mainland China. With the land reforms implemented in the 1940’s, private ownership was gone. It was a serious setback, but what was really not acceptable for him was the prosecution of former land owners. When the communist party started ruling China in 1949, Carmen’s grandfather jumped on the train to Hong Kong with his family. They arrived by the famous clock tower on the Kowloon side, just across the water from where we are standing. Carmen’s grandfather arrived with nothing: no money, no education, and he just spoke Cantonese – the dialect of the Canton area in southern China. Carmen’s grandfather got himself a new name, a new birthday (to be a bit older and get a bit more money for his jobs) and a new life. Since he has had a Hong Kong permanent resident card, he has never wanted to take the risk to go back: “I escaped, I’ll never cross this border again” he has told Carmen repeatedly. We wonder what it felt like for him when the flags of China and Hong Kong were raised together with the Chinese anthem in the background in 1997 in the convention centre we are looking at.
In fact, after 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong is part of China but is also independent from it with its own money, passports, constitution, currency, tax system, immigration channels, legal system, free press, free speech, official languages as Cantonese and English, and even its own Olympic team. There is only foreign relations and national defence that cannot be handled by HKSAR. Hongkongers are deeply attached to these characteristics that they see slowly fading away. As they were thirsty for more democracy, they see their civil rights eroding.
HKSAR needs China: mainland China used to represent 70% of local tourism in Hong Kong with about half of these tourists staying less than a day in the territory to shop. With the protests, the territory has been feeling the pressure. Worse, energy (coal, petroleum, and a bit of nuclear) and fresh water are imported from China making Hong Kong fully dependent on China.
As we get back on the historical shoreline of Hong Kong Island – after three land reclamations Victoria Harbour is getting narrower and the Star Ferry trip to cross to Kowloon shorter and shorter – Carmen explains a point of view she has heard many times: “I have Chinese tourists sometimes asking me why we don’t want to be welcomed back”. The Chinese point of view is that the territory was stolen by the British empire, and that now it is being returned to its motherland. The arguments go further on the Beijing side: given the fact that the UK used to decide everything for the colony, why are Hongkongers so impatient to get full democracy?
Options are not many. The British National Oversea passport allowing Hongkongers to spend 180 days in the UK every year without a visa is barely a commodity. This is why about one to two percent of the local population left HKSAR between 1985 & 1997 to emigrate to Australia, Canada, or the USA. On the other hand, since the handover, more than 1 million Chinese moved to Hong Kong from mainland China, most often for economic reasons. International businesses are thrilled to settle in Hong Kong and hire Chinese staff in order to bridge easily with China. The balance of people is slowly shifted with 92% Chinese and less than 1% white. Still most Hongkongers define themselves as Hongkongers first and foremost, not as Chinese, especially amongst the young generations.
As we pass by the HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation) tower designed by Foster, and a bit further by the Bank of China building designed by Pei, the competition between China and the British origins of the territory is palpable. It is not by throwing knifes – the zigzags lighting up Hong Kong Island nightly along the Bank of China’s tower – or shooting canons – the supposedly window cleaning platform atop the HSBC tower – at each other that solutions will be found.
The recent history of the territory is complex and its inhabitants have been in the centre of a power game between nations. The game is definitely still on, and it has started costing lives. With the deeply rooted distrust between one another and diametrically opposed visions on leadership, freedom, politics, and capitalism between Hongkongers and the Chinese this issue is a long and tough battle, and the outcome of 2047 remains a mystery.
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photos: Marcella van Alphen
- We recommend you to stay at The Murray on Hong Kong Island, a landmark turned into a luxurious 5-star hotel that is the perfect base to explore HK providing tranquillity by the Hong Kong Park, convenience, top service, comfort and amenities.
- For your walking tours make sure to go with the excellent Hong Kong Free Tours.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
For more in Hong Kong: