HONG KONG (AP) – When the British handed Hong Kong over to Beijing in 1997, it was promised 50 years of self-government and freedom of assembly, speech and the press, which are not allowed in communist-ruled mainland China.
As the city of 7.4 million people celebrates 25 years under Beijing’s rule on Friday, these promises wear thin. Hong Kong’s honeymoon of business as usual is over, and its future remains uncertain, determined by forces beyond its control.
Before the handover, many in Hong Kong feared life would change if Beijing took over. Thousands rushed to obtain residency elsewhere, and some moved abroad. In the first decade or so such measures looked overly dramatic – this bustling bastion of capitalism on China’s southern coast, its freedoms seemed to be intact, and the economy was booming.
In recent years, Beijing has increased its influence and control. These moves appeared to have been accelerated by mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019. Now schools must teach patriotism and national security, and some new textbooks deny Hong Kong was ever a British colony.
electoral reforms have ensured that no opposition lawmakers, only those considered “patriots” by Beijing, sit in the city’s legislature, silencing once-lively debates about how the city should be run. China installed John Lee, a career security guard, succeeding Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
freedom of the press was attacked and pro-democracy newspapers that openly criticize the government, like Apple Daily, were forced to shut down. Editor Jimmy Lai was imprisoned.
Hong Kong has also banned annual protests marking China’s June 4, 1989, crackdown on the pro-democracy movement centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with authorities citing anti-pandemic precautions. The city’s tourism and businesses are suffering from adhering to strict COVID-zero guidelines enforced on the mainland.
Alex Siu, a building technician, was born in Hong Kong and only left in 2020 – his parents had made sure he had the opportunity by getting him a British National Overseas Passport years earlier.
Siu moved to Manchester, England with his girlfriend after being fed up with both the working environment and the political situation in Hong Kong. He’s homesick for food, friends and family, but has no intention of going back.
“I think there is no hope because the government has absolute power,” Siu said of Hong Kong’s deteriorating political freedoms. “We little citizens don’t have much power to oppose them or change the situation.”
Kurt Tong, a former US consul general in Hong Kong and a managing partner at consultancy The Asia Group, said the changes reflect growing dissatisfaction in Beijing with the freewheeling semi-autonomous region. Dismay deepened when some of the millions of Hong Kong residents who took part in peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2019 stormed the city’s legislature complex and at times violently clashed with police.
“The things that China found irritating about Hong Kong started to matter more and the things that it found attractive about Hong Kong started to stand out less and friction built over time,” he said.
As of 2020, authorities cracked down on political dissent, arresting dozens of activists and jailing them for unauthorized assembly, despite provisions guaranteeing freedom for such assemblies in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s constitution.
John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, was skeptical that Beijing would ever allow Hong Kong full democracy or universal suffrage, goals enshrined in the Basic Law at the time of the 1997 handover.
“Hong Kong should become part of a local government of an authoritarian country ruled by a Leninist party. How could it be a Western-style parliamentary democracy?” Burns said in an interview.
Authorities cracked down, trying to stamp out dissent to help restore stability after months of 2019 protestshe noticed.
“But this is a brittle stability based on enforcing the law and arresting pan-democracy leaders and detaining them and expelling them,” he said, and many in Hong Kong still support the pro-democracy movement, even if they’re silent for now.
“We’re in a hell of a place. Hong Kong is not part of the system and therefore cannot negotiate in this way, (but at the same time) we are not free. We’re in that hybrid middle ground,” added Burns. “The party has never had to govern a place like Hong Kong, so it’s learning how to do it.”
Former Democratic Party leader and ex-Rep. Emily Lau says she is disappointed but not surprised by the changes. “If you are dealing with a communist regime, you should not expect anything. Nothing should surprise you,” Lau said.
She focuses on the future of Hong Kong. The city remains separate from the mainland, she said. Her friends and colleagues may be imprisoned, but she can visit them and they can choose their own lawyers – rights normally denied to political prisoners in China.
“I know it’s very difficult. But I think we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do our best to fight for our core values, which are human rights, democracy, the rule of law and personal security, and social justice,” she said.
Chan Po-ying, 66, and his longtime partner and fellow pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung — better known by his nickname “Long Hair,” serving a nearly two-year sentence and awaiting a hearing on national security-related charges, she says she’s moving on.
“I’ve persevered for a long time, I believe that I shouldn’t give up so easily, especially during this difficult time,” said Chan. “The government and the law have granted us these rights (under the Basic Law). ”
In May, during an election for Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Chan and several others staged a small protest to demand universal suffrage. On June 4 of this year, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chan, along with two others, stood on a street in silent protest, dressed in black and wearing white face masks with black “x’s” taped on them.
However, given the security measures ahead of Friday’s ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the handover, Chan issued a message to Hong Kong media saying that she and her group would not be holding a protest.
After being called to “talk” by the State Security Police, they decided “that we cannot conduct any protest activities that day,” she said.
AP writer Kelvin Chan in London and Hong Kong news assistant Karmen Li contributed to this report.