What Happened in Hong Kong?

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Wednesday, July 31, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

For those who frequently visited Hong Kong in the mid-1990s and were present at the “handover” on July 1, 1997, it is sad to watch the continued deterioration of Hong Kong’s freedoms and false “promise of full democracy.”

As song-writer Bob Dylan’s famous line in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” put it: “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.”

When the handover took place, innumerable people attended to experience what on the surface was a festive occasion. History was in the making. Who would have ever expected that past British negotiator, Claude MacDonald’s 99 year lease granting the UK unrestricted China trade would ex-pire? Yet there it was; 99 years had rolled by.

The Manchu Empire, which had granted the original 99 year lease, had subsequently been overth-rown, a war lord period followed; and stability would only come in snatches as China then erupted in civil war. World War II would see Japan take temporary control of Hong Kong. And then the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would be created in 1949. Change after change followed, and still somehow the lease expired.

For many foreigners in Taiwan, including me, the “pre-Handover” Hong Kong was a favorite desti-nation for a quick getaway, a change of pace, or even a visa run. It was still British and colonial, but with a free-wheeling international flavor that made it appealing.

This is the reason, so many flocked to Hong Kong for the handover. The British nobility were present. Banquets and parties took place. Was there anyone who did not want to attend?

That was the century long backdrop for July 1, 1997. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had promised Hong Kong a full democracy within twenty years of the handover, that is by the year 2017. And it was to last until 2047.

Hong Kong would be a Special Administrative Region under the “one country-two systems;” and eventually by 2047 it would become a full fledged part of China.

As with the previous 99 year lease, few ventured to predict what would happen in the coming 50 years. Most movers and shakers present in 1997 would be long gone by the time 2047 rolled around.

Would the age old economic competition between Hong Kong and Shanghai return? Would old jealousies resurface?

Regardless, while hopes were high for Hong Kong, one other nagging question remained: “Why would it take some 20 years for China to give Hong Kong full democracy? It already was half way there. Yet, no one wanted to put a fly in that ointment.

Unfortunately, the winds quickly changed, and they have not been blissful. New restrictions did not take long in coming. Hong Kong school curriculums were being regulated by 2012. Universal suf-frage was never achieved. The governor of Hong Kong had to be vetted by Beijing. Only a desig-nated number of seats in the legislature would be open to election by the people and that number continued to be reduced. Everything was moving in the opposite direction.

This gave rise to the Umbrella Movement protest in 2014, which was harshly put down. By 2019 there was the anti-extradition protest and Hong Kojg’s new National Security Law seemed to give authorities carte blanche to find someone guilty of being “anti-government.” Most recently the number of seats in the legislature directly elected by the people dropped to about 80 out of 240.

Those who had previously protested and fled were also being pursued and a bounty of approx-imately US$127,701 was put on each one’s head. Similarly, for some time, it had been legal to commemorate those who died at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. However, even that was re-stricted.

Using the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic dangers, new gatherings were forbidden and arrests followed. Those commemorating were branded as “de-stabilizing, anti-China forces.” Finally the new National Security Law that was passed in 2020 provided additional blanket reasons to suppress protests.

Books are expected to be written detailing this deterioration. In hindsight, the beginning could have been sensed back in 1995 when the South China Morning Post did away with Larry Feign’s long-standing cartoon, “The World of Lily Wong” — a cartoon that often satirically panned the CCP as the Handover drew near.

When it comes to promises, some governments honor them and others do not. After 99 years, the UK did live up to its promise and surrendered sovereignty over Hong Kong by July 1, 1997. In con-trast, for Hong Kong, the dreaded dystopian CCP rule that was expected in 2047 had already ar-rived. The time for wishful thinking is past.

This is the lesson for Taiwan. It is time to learn from it. The CCP never intended to keep its word.

Remember that whenever any candidate brings up the “1992 consensus” and says that Taiwan should talk with China.