On its 22nd handover anniversary, what does the future hold for Hong Kong?

July 1 marks the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China. The city's future is even more uncertain now than it was back then, writes Professor Will Hayward.

Twenty years ago this August I arrived in Hong Kong, a young academic looking for a job in the city where my wife grew up. Britain had handed Hong Kong back to China two years earlier, and while people were unsure about what the future held, they were not particularly nostalgic for colonial days. My students felt proud being Hong Kongers, but cheered for China at the Olympics. The main anxieties were not political, but financial — Hong Kong’s housing market was crashing, with prices ultimately dropping 70 per cent lower than their peak in 1997.

Still, the Hong Kong economy was about 20 per cent the size of the entire Chinese economy — not bad for a city of 6 million versus a country of 1.3 billion — and China was on a mission to gain the respect of the world. By the time of the 2008 Olympics, the mood was cautiously optimistic and the long-term future of Hong Kong seemed something to worry about later.

Hong Kong people have decided that time is now. Hundreds of thousands of them have been marching on the streets, worried that the Hong Kong they know and love is disappearing. To understand why, we need to look at how Hong Kong is governed. It is run according to a set of principles called the Basic Law, agreed by China and Britain as the way in which Hong Kong would conduct its affairs until 2047 under the framework known as “one country, two systems.” The Basic Law enshrines certain protections of law, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and all the things that allow people to express themselves as they see fit; these same freedoms are not available to people in other parts of China.

But ultimately it is still one country, and the Central Government has always felt the need to directly control the levers of power in Hong Kong. And so although the Hong Kong Government is run by Hong Kong people, and although some seats in the Legislative Council (think city council but on a big scale) are democratically elected, the Central Government in Beijing ensures that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is their preferred candidate, who will do their bidding. The Chief Executive is always caught in a bind between the public that they are supposed to serve and the Central Government in Beijing who they need to please. 

Hong Kong

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks. PHOTO: Will Hayward

So what happened? After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China felt less need to get the world’s approval, especially as its economy became large enough that others started worrying about what China thought of them. The Arab Spring of 2011 taught China that opening up society was fraught with risk, particularly for authoritarian governments. Xi Jinping assumed the Presidency of China in 2012 and immediately started tightening up society, banning discussion of more and more topics, imprisoning ethnic minorities in Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province, and creating a massive security state.

This tightening leaked across the “two systems” divide. The Basic Law said the Chief Executive should be eventually selected by universal suffrage, but as Hong Kongers started asking for that, Beijing announced in 2014 that such an election could only take place between candidates they approved. The result was the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day protest, led by young people, that occupied streets in several districts of Hong Kong. The main demand of the protesters was “true” democracy. The government refused to negotiate and simply waited them out.

Protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong recently over a proposal extradition bill.  The pressure finally got to the government, and the Chief Executive announced that she was suspending the bill. At least for now, people-power seems to have got its way. But no-one is pretending that anything has changed in the structural dynamics of “one country, two systems.”

The Hong Kong Government raises its own taxes, runs its own health, education, and welfare systems, and operates an independent judiciary in a common-law system. After living here for seven years, I was able to become a permanent resident of Hong Kong, but I still need a visa to go across the border into Mainland China. Hong Kong is not a different nation from the rest of China (one country), but in many ways it feels like it is (two systems).

It does not seem possible that Xi's administration will do anything other than seek stronger and tighter integration of Hong Kong into Mainland China. This presents tremendous economic opportunities to the people of Hong Kong but also carries risks to the city’s freedoms and its cultural distinctiveness. Fundamentally, it strikes at the heart of the idea of a Hong Kong run by Hong Kong people.

Hong Kong is my home, and has been incredibly welcoming to me and my family. I spend my days working in the city but my weekends up in the hills, trailrunning through incredible landscapes and sparsely-populated Country Parks. My kids were born here and are as at home in a local bubble-teahouse as they are on the deserted beaches of Golden Bay. We look at the future and like all Hong Kong people we’re not sure what we see, but there are ominous clouds on the horizon. Still, it’s a wonderful place and each of us in our small way works hard to keep it that way.

As Kiwis we have the privilege of choice; our kids will start heading back to New Zealand to university in the next couple of years and we’ll probably follow them when it’s time to retire. Many local Hong Kongers do not have such a choice. I’m confident that Hong Kong will remain a bustling city over the lifetimes of my kids, and they may well make their adult lives here. But will it be the same Hong Kong they grew up in, or will it be just another Chinese city?

 - Asia Media Centre