The 1st July 1997 marks a significant day in history. On this day, 18 years ago, Hong Kong was officially handed back to the People’s Republic of China after an emotional and poignant ceremony on 30th June. The handing over of Hong Kong marked the end of the British Empire as it was known.
For those who live in Hong Kong or have ties to Hong Kong, 1st July still provokes conflicted opinions and emotions, with some young people even being pro-Beijing. After last autumn’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the recent result of the Legco’s reform package vote, this year’s 1st July anniversary will be more significant than ever. Today, thousands of people are once again expected to take to the streets to mark the anniversary, with the fight for a truly free press being the latest big issue. Over half a million people turned out for last year’s 1st July protest march.
When I was in Hong Kong back in May this year, there were still visible signs of last autumn’s protests. Granted, if you had not paid attention to the previous year’s news you probably could have missed them but they were certainly there. Abandoned tents of protesters in Causeway Bay, pro-democracy stickers on lampposts, traffic cones with ‘fuck the police’ written on them; the latter of which being pretty significant as Hong Kong has a strong collective respect for authority and society.
On the 31st May, my aunt and I walked through Admiralty to see the pro-democracy march that had been planned. I was intrigued to see some of the protests first hand. However, according to my aunt, it was a tiny and ineffective march compared to the ones that had previously taken place. Still, an interesting experience.
Right from the beginning of my trip, I wanted to find out first hand what individual Hong Kongers truly thought about the previous year’s protests. Where they for them or against them? What did they expect the future to bring for this small but tenacious territory?
In truth, it was a lot harder than I thought to get people to talk to me. I understood it was a sensitive and current issue but I was not prepared for the huge reluctance people had in talking about it. One 23 year-old local explained to me that she was not a supporter of the protests because they caused a lot of disruption to people’s everyday lives for both commuters and small business owners in the areas which came grinding to a halt for several weeks. She seemed to carefully avoid any kind of stance on democracy. I couldn’t decide whether what she was saying to me was her full and genuine opinion.
It seems the same ‘protests are disruptive and ineffective’ sentiment was shared by a number of local people my age. This in itself was puzzling to me. These views were not the ones shared by the thousands of young people I saw relentlessly protesting for two and a half months last autumn.
Feeling like I was not getting any real answers, I brought up the subject with my Hong Kong family. Being British Caucasian but local Hong Kongers for the last 21 years, they were perfectly placed to understand both sides as much as possible and to speak freely to me, particularly as they had lived in Hong Kong before, during and after the 1997 handover.
I was under the impression people would not talk to me because I was white and assumed to be a foreigner. My uncle explained to me that firstly, most people would be reluctant to talk about it with any kind of stranger because it’s difficult to gauge who I am. How do they know I’m not a journalist? Perhaps I was an undercover government personnel? In a culture and territory where a government job is seen as the ‘iron rice bowl’, people would likely be reluctant to speak out against the government to avoid jeopardizing job security or opportunities. Who knew who was listening and who they would tell what?
I asked him how effective he personally thought the protests were. He shared the view of others who thought they had eventually gone on for too long, patience and support for their cause was wearing thin towards the end and that as they did come to an end, the number of protesters had dwindled in numbers, significantly diluting the message. My uncle and others agreed that they would have been much more effective if, at the height of the protest movement, they all left without a trace except a foreboding ‘we will be back’ message lingering in the air. (They did eventually do this but only right before the remaining protesters were cleared up, so it had little significance and assertiveness behind it).
The next thing my uncle said initially came as a surprise. From the point of view of someone who lives in the UK and had just experienced a General Election, the Right to Vote is hugely significant, particularly for young people like myself. Therefore I couldn’t understand why more people in Hong Kong were not fraught about this lack of a right. For a city that is so modern, progressive and, to a certain extent, Western, were they not hungry for the long-awaited promise of democracy and right to directly elect their leader?
Simply put, my uncle said the average Hong Konger doesn’t care who runs the government or how involved citizens are in the political process, as long as they have a roof over their heads and a secure income. In a city where there is no public health service and the rich and poor gap is substantial, I could see why people would feel this way. To them, democracy is a secondary issue.
On the complete opposite end of the scale, I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner with several businessmen and businesswomen who live in Hong Kong. The individuals I met were a combination of hedge-fund managers and business owners. Extremely wealthy and fascinating people. Interestingly, they were also a mix of backgrounds. Some American/Canadian-Chinese, some Caucasian American/British and others born and raised Chinese-Hong Kongers.
Soon enough, the dinner conversation turned to Chinese politics. All had different views on Hong Kong’s political situation. I particularly remember one Caucasian American gentleman being very against the protests whilst being indirectly pro-Beijing and branding Joshua Wong “an asshole”. To an extent, it was easy to see why he felt this way. Over his many years in China and a few in Hong Kong, he had financially done remarkably well for himself. He had no reason to complain about the way the government in Hong Kong or China was run.
He also interestingly remarked that Beijing genuinely “doesn’t give a shit” what Hong Kong does or doesn’t do, providing GDP continues to grow and civil unrest falls. It was a succinct summary of the situation. Hong Kong is just 7 million people out of the 2.2 billion Chinese population. A drop in the ocean. However, there’s no doubt that Beijing fears Hong Kong’s tenacity and the way it would inspire a similar sentiment in the Mainland. Cue another Tiananmen Massacre…? Needless to say, China has been stringently censoring the internet and media for any mention of Hong Kong’s protests.
However, there’s still a sentiment that crosses the population of Hong Kong that democracy is a right, a desire and an unfulfilled promise. Sparked by last year’s Occupy movement, this year’s June 4th Victoria Park Vigil saw an increasing amount of Hong Kongers separating their battle for universal suffrage and democracy from China’s own battle, adding to the growing divide between Mainlanders and Hong Kongers. Hong Kongers do not want to join that significantly larger battle which they would be guaranteed to lose. Their worries and efforts are now concentrated much closer to home. Others disagree, with ‘together we are stronger’ being their sentiment.
Years ago, pre-1997 handover, Hong Kong was seen as an example of how future democracy could work under Chinese rule and ideas that could eventually infiltrate the Mainland. Unfortunately, these days it seems the opposite has happened. The Beijing government is slowly but gradually corroding the freedoms Hong Kong is entitled to.
With the years-long promise of universal suffrage and a legitimate one-person-one vote election for the next Chief Executive in 2017, who knows where this will take us? Many are understandably highly skeptical of this promise actually being fulfilled.
What are your opinions on the politics in Hong Kong? Do you see any positive changes happening in the coming years? What does the long-term future hold for Hong Kong?