Alternative views on... Hong Kong 20 years after the handover
A regular Irish Times selection of challenging writing on world affairs
Pro-independence demonstrators in Hong Kong during a protest to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China on July 1st, 1997. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA
Just as the headlines were doom-laden 20 years ago at the prospect of communist China taking over the helm of Hong Kong, so too are the stories today warning of erosion of the territory’s freedoms as Beijing tightens its grip.
Despite promises of 50 years no change, there is certainly fear in Hong Kong that Beijing is slowly but inexorably taking apart the freedoms guaranteed as part of the handover in 1997 in the Basic Law, following incidents such as the cross-border abduction into Chinese police custody of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015 and the disqualification of two pro-democracy parliamentarians elected to the legislature.
While Hong Kong has enjoyed the benefits of closer links to China, the arrival of huge quantities of mainland investment, especially in property, has seen property prices rise sharply, putting affordable housing out of the reach of ordinary Hong Kong residents. Services have also been affected, leading to public discontent
The “one country, two systems” model is under pressure, foreign media reports, and in the run-up to the 20th anniversary events and the visit by China’s president Xi Jinping, student pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong was detained by police along with dozens of others following a sit-in at a harbour front statue donated by China to Hong Kong.
The failure of the 2014 umbrella protests for universal suffrage is read as a further sign of Hong Kong’s worsening plight.
One of the starkest pieces on the decline of Hong Kong under Beijing’s rule came from Keith Bradsher in the New York Times, which ran a front-page story headlined: “Once a Model City, Hong Kong is in Trouble”.
Bradsher writes that the vision of Hong Kong as a special, vibrant place is fading fast. “Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.”
The view in the Chinese state media paints a completely different picture.
The Global Times is a nationalist tabloid, published by the same house that publishes the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, and its views often, although not always, reflect the prevailing view within the party ranks.
In an editorial the tone is aggressively positive about the situation in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) that is Hong Kong. “The smooth implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ has been recognised by the majority in the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong,” it says.
The commentator accuses the West of taking “a snide tone when commenting on Hong Kong affairs and hoping for events to disturb the anniversary events.
“Radical forces in Hong Kong and the Western media chant the old tune that freedom and democracy have been suppressed in Hong Kong and the city is losing its core values. This opinion reflects a clash in politics and ideology. It is not related to whether Hong Kong is losing its uniqueness,” the Global Times said.
“All problems in Hong Kong are under control; the central government has seen strengthened authority and Hong Kong society has maintained diversification and prosperity, just as the system promised. This is what history will record,” the leader-writer wrote.
In its commentary, People’s Daily Online said how Hong Kong’s development over the last 20 years had defied those trying to “sing the blues” about the territory’s future.
“Time and facts have proven China’s unique contribution to mankind’s political development. As an important reflection of modernised national governance system, the policy of ‘one country, two systems’ has achieved a success recognized by the whole world,” it said.
The English-language China Daily ran a photo series called “Daily life of Hong Kong in 1997”, which set the scene for the positive coverage of the anniversary events. “Beijing’s strong support for Hong Kong has been consistent and evident over the past two decades,” the China Daily said.
“On a more personal note, Xi said in his remarks on Thursday that Hong Kong always tugs at his heartstrings ... the SAR can use its advantages, such as in finance and shipping, as well as the trust it enjoys with investors, to play a vital role in the Belt and Road Initiative,” it said.
“Xi’s visit will strengthen Hong Kong’s confidence in its future. What anniversary gift could be more precious than that? It is now Hong Kong’s turn to deliver on the goodwill and faith the central government is showing in it.”
On the southcn.com website, there were testimonials from proud Hong Kong passport holders, which allows them to travel to many places without a visa, something which didn’t happen under British rule.
“Change and not change is relative. The world is constantly changing. The key is to make Hong Kong a better place, which is the most important,” said Fang Zhou, director of the One Country, Two Systems research centre in Hong Kong.
Li Xiuheng wrote how more and more people were moving to the mainland for college or business, and increasingly Hong Kong women were marrying mainland men.
“For Hong Kong, there is more opportunity and the unchanging advantage that the one country, two systems policy has brought,” said Li.