After 20 years of Chinese rule, Hong Kong hype marred by pro-democracy tensions

What was once described as ‘one country, two systems’ is now being called ‘one country, 1.5 systems’ as Hong Kong citizens feel increasingly stifled under a tightening Communist grip. 

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Pro-democracy activists chant slogans on the Golden Bauhinia, a gift from China at the 1997 handover, during a protest a day before Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to arrive for the celebrations, in Hong Kong on June 28, 2017. The anti-Communist sentiments contrast with celebrations planned to commemorate 20 years under Chinese rule.

Hong Kong is planning a big party as it marks 20 years under Chinese rule. But many people in the former British colony are not in the mood to celebrate.

Fireworks, a gala variety show, and Chinese military displays are among the official events planned to coincide with a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping starting Thursday for the occasion.

Ahead of the anniversary, state broadcaster China Central Television has been running daily news features extolling what it calls the inextricable ties between China and Hong Kong in fields ranging from sports to the military and the arts.

Underneath the surface, however, tensions are simmering as Hong Kongers, especially the young, chafe at life under the tightening grip of China's Communist leaders.

"People are not celebrating but worrying about Hong Kong's future and its current situation," said Nathan Law, who at age 23 was elected the city's youngest-ever lawmaker last year and was a student leader of 2014's massive "Umbrella Movement" pro-democracy demonstrations.

Mr. Law and activists from his Demosisto political party and other groups have targeted a giant flower sculpture bequeathed by Beijing in 1997 that is popular with mainland tourists. On Wednesday evening they staged a sit-in, with some climbing up inside the sculpture, and chanted "No Xi Jinping" before police moved in to arrest them. Two days earlier they had briefly draped the sculpture in black cloth.

Other protests in the works include a rally by a pro-independence group on Friday evening and a pro-democracy march on Saturday, the latter an annual event that has drawn big crowds in the past.

Law said there's growing concern that Beijing is steadily eroding the "one country, two systems" principle put in place after it took control of the Asian financial hub. Under that principle, Hong Kong largely runs its own affairs and enjoys civil liberties unseen on the mainland, but now, he said, "there are lots of people describing the current system as 'one country, 1.5 systems.'"

He and others tick off a list of incidents that stoke fears about China tightening control. At the top is the case of five Hong Kong booksellers secretly detained on the mainland starting in late 2015 for selling gossipy titles about elite Chinese politics to mainland readers. One of the men, Gui Minhai, is still being held.

In a similar case, a Chinese-born tycoon with a Canadian passport went missing earlier this year from his hotel suite. News reports indicated mainland Chinese security agents operating in Hong Kong abducted him – a violation of the city's constitution.

Myriad other government plans have raised hackles, including stationing Chinese immigration officers in a downtown high-speed rail terminus under construction; setting up a local branch of Beijing's Palace Museum without public consultation; introducing so-called patriotic national education in schools that many parents fear is a cover for pro-Communist brainwashing; and introducing anti-subversion national security legislation.

Another worry, said veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo, is the flood of so-called "red capital" as mainland investors buy up property and expand businesses in Hong Kong, elbowing aside indigenous tycoons. The wave of buying has been blamed for further inflating housing prices that make Hong Kong one of the world's most unequal places.

"We're supposed to be capitalists – fine. Except when it comes to public auctions of land, when all the big mainland concerns will always win," Ms. Mo said.

Mr. Xi's three-day visit includes an inspection of People's Liberation Army troops based in the city and culminates in the swearing-in of Hong Kong's new leader Carrie Lam. Police are ratcheting up security, with media reports indicating officers will crack down on political banners and images.

China's Communist leaders are eager to tout the success of "one country, two systems," which was envisioned as a way to entice back Taiwan, which Beijing sees as renegade province.

The recent tensions have drawn "serious attention" from Beijing, which can't afford to see pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan and Hong Kong at the same time, said Liu Shanying, political researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"Therefore, it must be put under control," whether by force or gentler methods, he said. "There must be room for reflection on how to handle the Hong Kong issue properly because people in both Hong Kong and the mainland are Chinese after all."

For many in Hong Kong, the fundamental problem is the legitimacy of the city's Beijing-backed leaders. Ms. Lam was chosen by a coterie of pro-Beijing elites over a far more popular rival in what pro-democracy activists slammed as a fake election. The system was at the root of the 2014 pro-democracy protests.

"Many people believe Hong Kong is under the strict supervision of the Chinese government. And it has led to lots of conflicts," said university student Emily Chung, who was born July 1, 1997, the same day Britain relinquished control to China.

She identifies as both a Hong Konger and Chinese. She added, however, that "if conflicts between Hong Kong and China hadn't existed, I would identify myself as Chinese," underscoring the wider trend of young people torn over their allegiances despite spending most or all of their life under Chinese rule.

Hong Kong University pollsters who have conducted polls on ethnic identity since 1997 found that the level of young people identifying as Chinese fell to 3.1 percent this month, the lowest ever level, according to a phone survey of 1,000 people. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Many young people lost hope after the 2014 protests, with the government refusing to give in to their demands for wider electoral freedom. The unresolved conclusion fueled the rise of a pro-independence movement, alarming Beijing. Authorities have moved to clamp down on separatist sentiment, disqualifying two pro-independence candidates from office last year for making improper oaths.

It underscores widening divisions in Hong Kong society, between young and old, rich and poor.

"They're just wasting their time. They should make good use of their time to study," said Choi Wah-bing, a retiree. He said he didn't understand young people protesting and agitating for more autonomy or independence. Hong Kong is like Beijing's "naughty child," he said.

Deepening divisions pose a risk of further instability, said David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Beijing "can't figure out why 20 years after the transition, people in Hong Kong don't love the mainland more," said Mr. Zweig, adding that Hong Kongers don't have a problem identifying as Chinese until their freedoms are restricted. Or, as many residents put it, they don't want their home to become just another Chinese city.

"People like living in a free society," he said, "and they want their kids to live in a free society."

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