Twenty years on, uncertainty lingers over Hong Kong handover
Hong Kong Letter: Contrasting styles then and now, but Beijing is far more assertive
A firework display over celebrations at Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong on Saturday, July 1st, 2017. President Xi Jinping warned challenges to China’s rule would not be tolerated. Photograph: Billy HC Kwok/Bloomberg
The water ran over my feet as I walked down Hong Kong’s Centre Street on June 30th, 1997, wading through the rain to the Convention Centre in Wan Chai where the handover to Chinese rule would take place at midnight.
This year the rain held off a little longer but the 20th anniversary of the handover was still a very wet event.
In the run-up to the handover in 1997, we witnessed two very different styles of military pomp: the Black Watch soldier whose bare bottom was exposed as his kilt billowed up during the regiment’s last changing of the guard; and when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army arrived, 500 troops came in trucks over the border from Shenzhen at midnight, and they were all business.
Prince of Wales barracks became Shek Kong and it was here that Xi Jinping chose to make the first of a series of appearances for the 20th anniversary of the handover. He drove in an open-topped jeep – in blazing sunshine – past thousands of troops as he shouted “Hello comrades!”
The Liaoning aircraft carrier – a source of great pride in China – will dock in Hong Kong. And for probably the first time in many years, the visit of a navy vessel will not see a major uptick in revenues in the bars and clubs of Wan Chai, as People’s Liberation Army sailors have more censorious overlords than the US or British navies which have always made Wan Chai such a lively place.
Feeling of resignation
During the handover, one of my journalistic responsibilities was to report on the feeling in the bars of Wan Chai. Nearly all of the places I reported from that night have shut, victims of the high rents in the area. In Delaney’s in Wan Chai I spoke to a Hong Kong resident called Ringo Lam who watched the Union Jack come down with a feeling of resignation.
In 1997, one of the most telling acts of political opposition came from the legendary Trotskyist Leung Kwok-hung, also known as “Long Hair”, founder of the Revolutionary Marxist League who has been jailed several times for burning a Chinese flag.
We gathered in a small circle of journalists and protesters as Long Hair set fire to a flag, which quickly shrivelled into a ball, and then everyone went home.
Or rather, went to the Foreign Correspondents Club, a beloved institution that was a heaving base camp for the journalistic community in 1997 and where humorist PJ O’Rourke propped up the bar. It’s still a busy and fun place, but there are far fewer foreign correspondents around these days.
This year, tens of thousands turned out in Victoria Park to protest against heavy-handed rule by Beijing. Many people, youngsters especially, are angry about the abduction of booksellers across the border and other infringements on rights in the territory.
Watching these project managers, graduate students and software coders complain about not having a say in their own destiny is a sorry testament to the situation in Hong Kong. These are not agitators seeking independence, they simply want a stake in who runs Hong Kong.
Their anger causes barely a ripple in Beijing, which has been emboldened by the success of the Hong Kong government in containing fallout from the 2014 Umbrella Protests, which shut the city down for weeks.
The Hong Kong government, with strong backing from Beijing, simply sat tight until the students went home. The major divisions in the former crown colony seem to be a source of indifference to Beijing, which has never had a high tolerance for the feelings of anyone opposing single-party rule.
There was a vague sense in 1997 that China was trying to play nice and placate the fears somewhat among the local populace that it really did mean to stick to the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration.
So when the foreign ministry in Beijing said the joint declaration with Britain “no longer had any practical significance”, it came like a bombshell.
It was clear that truly representational democracy was going to be a tough call for Hong Kong. Democracy on Chinese soil, unless it is some form of limited local vote carefully controlled by the Communist Party in Beijing, was never on the cards.
This was underlined still further a day later when President Xi gave a stern warning to democratic activists not to “cross the red line”.
Nothing here to inspire the youngsters of the democracy movement with much optimism going forward.
Of course, the fireworks for the 20th anniversary were spectacular, just as they were in 1997, but uncertainty about the future means they were a bit of a damp squib. And the people of Hong Kong are not optimistic that they will have to wait until 2047 to see how Beijing wields its power in Hong Kong.