Amid anniversary protests, fears that Hong Kong is 'just another mainland city'

Twenty years after Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control, questions about Beijing's commitment to the city's legislative and judicial autonomy are widespread. But for many, being Hong Konger is also a cultural identity – one that they worry could be diluted by mainland influence.

Kin Cheung/AP
Pro-independence supporters stand around cutouts of Chinese President Xi Jinping with a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, during a march marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule, in Hong Kong, China on July 1, 2017.

Wing and Gabbie Wong had been thinking about moving abroad even before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech here on Saturday. But Mr. Xis stern warning against challenging Beijing’s rule over the semiautonomous city reaffirmed many of their greatest fears.

“We want to protect our way of life, but it’s getting harder year by year,” says Mr. Wong, a salesman for a fashion company. “Hong Kong is losing its identity.”

And so he and his wife want to move to Japan, where a friend has offered to help them apply for work permits and open a coffee shop. Ms. Wong says that at least there they could raise their 18-month-old daughter free from mainland China’s growing – and, in her and her husband’s minds, corrosive – influence. 

Twenty years after Hong Kong’s reunification with China, many residents in this prosperous global city say much of the change that has occurred since then hasn’t been for the better. Soaring housing costs and widening inequality are among their top concerns, but many are equally nervous about the threat mainland China poses to Hong Kong’s culture and identity.

“People are worried that Hong Kong is becoming just another mainland city,” says Stephan Ortmann, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “The city is dying for many of them.”

Beijing's red line

Xi exacerbated those concerns in the speech he delivered at this weekend's anniversary ceremony, marking the anniversary of the 1997 day that Hong Kong was returned to China after more than 150 years of British rule. Under the arrangement known as “One country, two systems,” Hong Kong was supposed to retain relative autonomy and civil rights for the next 50 years.

While the Chinese leader acknowledged Saturday that the city is a “plural society” with “different views and even major differences” from the mainland, he also said that its liberal way of life has its limits.

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government ... or to use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi warned.

The speech was a clear message to the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets Saturday afternoon in an annual pro-democracy protest. Implicit in their calls for freedom of speech and self-determination was a deeply rooted desire to preserve Hong Kong’s way of life, one that has long been defined in opposition to the mainland.

“We want to have freedom,” says Alex Chan, a 35-year-old nurse who joined in the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 to demand free elections. Nearby, a group of people carried a banner calling for the release of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was recently moved from prison in northeast China to a hospital for cancer treatment.

Many of the people who marched on Saturday say their freedom is under threat by Beijing’s increasing control. They point to a series of recent interventions by the central government that they say violated Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, and promoted a climate of fear.

One of the most prominent cases occurred in 2015, when Chinese authorities appear to have abducted five booksellers who sold gossipy stories about mainland officials. Similar suspicions were raised earlier this year when an influential billionaire, Canadian citizen Xiao Jianhua, went missing from his hotel suite. And late last fall, Beijing intervened in Hong Kong’s independent legal system to block two pro-independence politicians from taking their seat in the city’s legislature.

Hong Konger first

Sonny Lo, a political commentator in Hong Kong, says Beijing’s heavy-handedness has led more and more young people to distance themselves from the mainland and to see themselves as Hong Kongers first and foremost. Only 3.1 percent of those between 18 to 29 years old identify themselves as broadly “Chinese,” according to a University of Hong Kong survey released last week. The figure stood at 31 percent in 2006.

They’ve also grown to resent the mainland Chinese who have poured money into Hong Kong’s housing market and made it one of the world’s most expensive places to live. The rising cost of living has squeezed young people and middle-class families especially hard. Unable to afford a place of their own, Mr. Chan and his wife have rented an apartment from one of his relatives for the last 10 years.

Then there’s the rising anxiety about language. Longtime Hong Kong residents say it was rare to hear Mandarin, the official language of China, on the streets a decade ago. Now, with the influx of mainland tourists, it has become common. Cantonese is still the “usual language” for 89 percent of Hong Kong residents. But big international companies and banks increasingly prefer to hire fluent Mandarin speakers who can help negotiate deals on the mainland.

Growing sensitives over language extend to politics as well. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s newly selected leader, took her oath of office and delivered her inaugural address in Mandarin after Xi’s speech on Saturday. She spoke briefly at the end in Cantonese. Later that night, a fireworks display included simplified characters for the word “China” rather than the traditional characters used in Hong Kong, a move that was widely criticized here. 

Looking ahead

As divisions over identity and culture deepen with the mainland, Hong Kong’s separatist movement continues to grow – as well as pressure to put an end to it. Xi’s speech hinted that he wants the city’s government to introduce new legislation against subversion, which critics fear will provide a pretense to rein in criticism of Beijing. He also said Hong Kong should “step up the patriotic education of young people,” a highly controversial idea. Mass protests shelved a similar plan in 2012.

Victoria Hui, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who closely followed the Umbrella Movement, says young people are sure to resist. Many have already started to question Beijing’s commitment to “One country, two systems,” doubting that the central government will allow Hong Kong to maintain its own legal, economic, and local political systems until 2047. Even if the central government does uphold its side of the agreement, what happens then?

“For me, I’ll likely be dead,” says Dr. Hui, a pro-democracy advocate who grew up in Hong Kong. “For young people, this is something real. They can't just allow to have ‘One country, one system.’ For them, everything matters.”

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