“No one knows how long Hong Kong will exist, or how long it will prosper.”
This quote is from the 1950s, but it could have been said at many different points in Hong Kong’s history:
- Upon its foundation as a British colony when it was unclear whether this sleepy backwater would ever amount to anything besides an “also-ran” to Portuguese Macau;
- On the brink of Japanese invasion and occupation in World War II;
- During negotiations in the 1980s over its return to China from Britain;
- And now, as Hong Kong continues to feel the heavy influence of its reunification with the Mainland.
The South China Morning Post is full of articles highlighting the seemingly growing tension between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Hongkongers complain about Mainland Chinese coming to Hong Kong to buy basic necessities, luxury goods, and real estate (and recently slapped a tax on property purchases by non-local buyers to discourage this). Many Hongkongers were furious over a “National Education” program that they feared would whitewash Chinese history and wrongly alter the sympathies of the territory’s youth (and which was subsequently withdrawn). And there are fears by some over the continued independence of the judiciary.
Frustration over these issues has led to many protests including some that have included calls for Hong Kong independence and the waving of old colonial flags. I honestly can’t gauge how serious these independence sentiments are or how many Hongkongers feel this way. Waving old colonial flags seems, however, like a strategy for maximizing the impact of otherwise smallish protests that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
And indeed they were noticed.
And they infuriated Mainland officials.
Some called for would be secessionists to leave “China” (and by that they mean Hong Kong as well). Some called the British colonial-period flag wavers traitors and seek increased anti-treason legislation. Some have even hinted at cutting off Hong Kong’s water supplies from the Mainland if an independence movement grew out of hand.
All a huge over-reaction that reveals how little Mainland officials understand people who are used to living in a society where rights to free speech are important, well-loved, and legally protected.
An overreaction that only further heightens Hongkongers’ fears over the future. Legal agreements at the time of the handover in 1997 stated that Hong Kong would be able to maintain its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years.
Hongkongers increasingly wonder what will happen in 2047 (in 35 years): “If a few silly flag wavers are enough to upset Big Brother, will there still be a free press? Will our nascent and partial democracy be allowed to continue? Will I be able to post drunk pictures of my friends on Facebook?”
There was a thoughtful op-ed in the South China Morning Post this week that reminded Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (considered rather sympathetic to the Mainland) that:
“[his] job is to protect our freedom to wave any flag.”
The author, Keane Shum, also made this on-the-mark statement:
“If Hong Kong was once the world’s laboratory for unbridled capitalism, we are now the great Chinese experiment in freedom.”
Let us hope it is a successful experiment.
For the initial quote at the top of the post: Steven Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong (2004) himself quoting a visiting British labour advisor in the 1950s.
For the quote on Hong Kong being “the great Chinese experiment in freedom: Keane Shum, “Leung’s job is to protect our freedom to wave any flag,” South China Morning Post, 7 November 2012.
See also, generally: Gary Cheung and Stuart Lau, “Love China or leave, Lu Ping tells Hong Kong’s would-be secessionists,” South China Morning Post, 1 November 2012.
For a quick and dirty history of the handover see this Wikipedia article, “Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong.”
For a tongue-in-cheek overview of recent events see: Chip Tsao, Politically Incorrect: “My Firm No to Hong Kong Independence,” HK Magazine, Friday, November 9, 2012.