As the sun set over Hong Kong on 30 June 1997, a small group of dignitaries led by Prince Charles and China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, gathered for a ceremony to mark the official handover of the territory from British to Chinese rule. The Scots Guards’ band played “God Save the Queen” as the Union Jack was lowered slowly at midnight, before the red and gold Chinese flag was hoisted in its place. A deafening barrage of celebratory fireworks exploded into the night sky.
For the UK, it marked the end of the last vestiges of empire as the British delegation boarded the royal yacht Britannia in the pouring rain and sailed off into the night, the sodden prince waving from the deck with as much dignity as he could muster. In mainland China, however, the handover was celebrated as a great victory and the beginning of a new era, in which the country’s growing strength meant that it would no longer be pushed around.
Hong Kong Island had been ceded to the UK in 1842 after the Chinese defeat in the First Opium War. It was followed by further swathes of territory in 1860 and 1898 during what is known in China as the “century of humiliation”. The writer Yangyang Cheng recalled in a recent article for the New Statesman how the 1997 handover had been portrayed on television in China at the time, with commentators describing how the “British imperialists lowered their arrogant heads” and “a century of national humiliation was washed away”.
For Hong Kong itself, the handover was the beginning of a period of profound uncertainty and a high-stakes exercise in trust. Unlike other colonial territories, the end of British rule for Hong Kongers did not augur independence; rather, they were passed from the control of one great power to another. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership had promised that the territory’s capitalist system and cherished freedoms – such as freedom of expression, a free press and freedom of assembly – would be protected for 50 years from the handover under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”. That commitment was enshrined in a treaty that was signed by China and the UK and lodged at the United Nations.
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Yet only halfway through the agreed term, those promises have already been broken – and Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society has been crushed. Where once pro-democracy activists could march through the streets without fear of arrest, now most of the prominent opposition figures are in jail or in exile. Mass protests in 2019 were violently suppressed by the police, and Beijing imposed a new national security law the following year, which gives the central authorities sweeping powers to investigate so-called political crimes, which can be punished with harsh jail terms including life imprisonment. Among those arrested under the law in May 2022 was the 90-year-old former bishop and well-known pro-democracy campaigner Cardinal Joseph Zen. The young opposition activist Joshua Wong, who has already been convicted on charges of unauthorised assembly and attending a vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, is due to stand trial again under the national security law.
“What we have witnessed, and are still witnessing, is the destruction of one of the freest societies in Asia by communist tyranny,” writes Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor, in The Hong Kong Diaries. “The world has criticised, but the Chinese leadership is oblivious.” Patten told me that British officials had hoped at the time of the handover that Hong Kong’s economic success and its importance to Beijing as an international financial hub would help to persuade the CCP to abide by its commitment and preserve the territory’s unique identity. “I really did think it was possible that Hong Kong might change the rest of China more than China would change Hong Kong,” he said. “I could never understand why China would need to change very much, given that she was taking over a Rolls-Royce and all she had to do was to turn the ignition.”
Instead, Beijing has opted to take the car to pieces and remove its engine, prioritising political control over its treaty commitments, the promises made to Hong Kong citizens and the economic consequences that followed (Hong Kong was stripped of its special trade status with the US in 2020, and international sanctions have been imposed).
That process did not happen all at once, but rather Hong Kong has been “slowly throttled” over 25 years, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, told me. Beijing and the local Hong Kong authorities had cracked down by increments, he said, trying to avoid producing a single moment or iconic photograph that would draw international attention in the same way that the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square to crush the peaceful protests there in 1989 had done.
“There has been this odd mix of subtlety and crudeness,” Wasserstrom explained. “Subtlety, so that the world doesn’t have an easy story to focus on, but also crude enough to terrify the local population.” He said it reminded him in some respects of the approach the CCP had taken in Tibet and Xinjiang, where it has steadily increased repression over decades, while attempting to assuage international opprobrium.
On the anniversary of the handover this year, there will be another grand ceremony, likely to be attended by China’s current president, Xi Jinping, and there will be spectacular fireworks over the city once again. But while there are still brave individuals fighting for their freedoms and demanding that Beijing honours its promises, there will be no illusions this time about Hong Kong’s future under Chinese rule.
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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working