In Depth

How the promise of a free Hong Kong turned sour

Twenty years after the British handed the reins to China, the city's politics are teetering on a knife edge

On the afternoon of Monday 30 June 1997, Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, sat down at his desk in Government House and composed a final telegram to London, to be dispatched at midnight. 

"I have relinquished the administration of this government," it read simply. "God Save the Queen."

Patten then joined the Prince of Wales for a farewell parade in front of departing British troops and about 10,000 spectators.

"Today is a celebration, not of sorrow," Patten told the crowd, a mixture of British transplants and Hong Kong natives, optimism undampened by the steady drizzle of rain. As the band struck up God Save The Queen, the heavens opened.

One minute before midnight, at the then-new Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the British flag and Hong Kong's colonial flag were solemnly lowered down the flagpoles to the ground. A minute later, the national flag of the People's Republic of China and the new flag of Hong Kong made the reverse journey, ending 150 years of British rule. 

"In a moment, the territory's 6.3 million people ceased to be British subjects and became citizens of a new entity called the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong," as Deseret News put it at the time.

Colonial legacy

Patten's farewell address steered clear of a jingoistic reading of Hong Kong's colonial past, but the governor was clear on the perceived benefits of British rule: "No dependent territory has been left more prosperous, none with such a texture and fabric of civil society." 

In 1997, Hong Kong's average residents certainly enjoyed more freedoms and a higher standard of living than their Chinese counterparts, but Britain's acquisition of Hong Kong was born of circumstances far from the high-minded civic responsibility of Patten's address.

In the early 1800s, the cash-strapped British government turned a blind eye as the East India Company flooded China with cheap opium from British-ruled Bengal, unleashing a destructive epidemic of addiction that infuriated the Chinese government and ultimately led to the First Opium War.

The Chinese navy was overwhelmed, and with British warships poised for action in Nanking harbour, a peace treaty was signed more or less at gunpoint. Not only did the 1842 Treaty of Nanking force China to open its ports to foreign trade, it also granted Britain permanent sovereignty over Hong Kong Island, at the time home only to a handful of fishing villages.  

The treaty is known in China as the first of the "unequal treaties", a series of humiliating deals in which a defeated China was forced to grant extensive economic concessions to Britain while receiving nothing in return.

Under the Convention of Peking in 1860 following the Second Opium War, British influence crept into the mainland, adding the Kowloon Peninsula to the territory of Hong Kong, again "in perpetuity".

A further acquisition in 1898 expanded British influence northwards again, this time on a 99-year lease.  

As Hong Kong swelled into the sprawling metropolis it became in the late 20th century, and the lease drew closer to expiry, the impossibility of dividing the city in order to return the so-called ‘New Territories’ to China became apparent. With dwindling British enthusiasm for maintaining colonial outposts, returning the territory to China seemed the logical option.

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which confirmed that Britain would hand over Hong Kong when the New Territories lease expired.

In exchange, the Chinese government promised to respect the "one country, two systems" principle, which allowed Hong Kong to maintain its capitalist economy and retain the same rights and freedoms it had experienced under British rule.

Chinese democracy

With the Tiananmen Square massacre still a recent memory in 1997, many observers were concerned that, despite the Joint Declaration, the city's liberal, westward-looking ethos would not survive for long under its new management.

More optimistic assessments hoped that Hong Kong "could eventually 'infect China with democracy'", the BBC reports. But now, "some believe the opposite has happened". 

Earlier this month, former governor Chris Patten warned a gathering of the Society of Publishers in Asia that in recent years "there has been a steady tightening of grip on Hong Kong's windpipe" from its overlords in Beijing. 

"Despite the promises that were made by officials, by foreign ministry and others back in the 1990s, Hong Kong people have not been allowed to determine the way in which their democracy should be managed," he said.

China has repeatedly been accused of interfering in Hong Kong's governance, including an incident where two elected officials who refused to swear loyalty to Beijing were blocked from taking their seats.

In another notorious incident in 2015, five employees of a Hong Kong bookshop that sells political books critical of China went missing. It's widely believed the staff members – four of whom were subsequently returned to Hong Kong – were abducted and taken to mainland China on the orders of the authorities.

But the major bone of contention is the way in which Hong Kong elects its leader, known as the chief executive. The Hong Kong Basic Law, adopted in 1997, states that the chief executive and legislature should "ultimately" be chosen by universal suffrage rather than the current indirect elections by committee. 

When Beijing announced in August 2014 that planned electoral reforms would still involve pre-screening of candidates by a Chinese congressional committee, pro-democracy advocates decided they had waited long enough.

From September to December 2014, a 79-day autumn of discontent known as the Umbrella Protests saw mass demonstrations, sit-ins and barricades that shut down much of the city. Police used hoses and tear gas during violent clashes with protesters that led to almost 1000 arrests.

The protests may have been sparked by the electoral reforms, but on a deeper level they were "a clear manifestation of the local people's longstanding discontent with what they perceive as an unresponsive and unrepresentative SAR [Special Administrative Region] government," says the Straits Times

Ultimately, however, the demonstrations "failed to secure any changes or promises from the government," says The Guardian. Last year, Beijing's preferred candidate, Carrie Lam, beat out a more popular pro-democracy nominee to become the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong. 

With deep-seated resentment over China's influence still unaddressed, "Hong Kong's political future has never been more fraught with anxiety," says Time magazine. 

As the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches, Patten has these words of warning for Beijing: "If you deny intelligent, moderate people control over their own destinies, it's not surprising that they sometimes become a bit immoderate."

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