Hong Kong on July 1
Posted on Jul 1, 2012 / Author: Nicole Leung / Tags: Politics, Policy and Diplomacy, Human Rights and Development, Establishment Day, Hong Kong, July 1
To the Hong Kong expats living in Canada, July 1 is more than just Canada Day; it is also the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day (anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China). This year is the 15th anniversary of the handover. So does this mean excitement doubled up? Unfortunately, for many, the answer is no.
On this day, Canadians wear red and white and wave the Canadian flag. However, in Hong Kong, a lot of people would wear black, and tell you that July 1 is not a day to celebrate, but rather one for unleashing their anger at the government.
Demonstrations in the former British colony started in earnest in 2003, when about 500,000 people (out of a population of 7 million in the city) took to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the SARS crisis and the failing economy. They also opposed the legislation of Basic Law Article 23 (a security and anti-subversion law). Many feared the article, once enacted, would take away their freedom of speech and of expression, which Hong Kong people have always treasured.
Protestors demanded that senior officials, including Tung Chee Hwa, who was then Chief Executive, to resign. The demonstration made history as the biggest since the handover. I remember sitting at home in front of the television, and witnessing the historic moment with excitement. Not long after the protests, two high-ranked officers stepped down, and the bill was withdrawn. (Tung resigned in March 2005).
Since then, demonstrators have hit the streets every year. The social issues being contested might vary from time to time, but the political concerns remain the same: Hong Kong people are still fighting for democracy and universal suffrage. The enactment of Basic Law Article 23 still looms, and even though universal suffrage might be implemented as early as 2017, Beijing has yet to set a roadmap.
It is hard to say whether Hong Kong is less democratic now that the British have left (the issue is far too complicated to discuss here), but one thing is certain: the general Hong Kong public does not trust the Chinese government.
In fact, 15 years after the handover, many Hong Kong people still do not identify as Chinese. A recent survey by the University of Hong Kong found that the public’s “identification with ‘Chinese citizens’ has dropped to a 13-year low since 1999.” Worries over whether Hong Kong would lose its uniqueness when moving towards integration with China (e.g. more tourists and RMB, the Chinese currency, pouring in) have never been higher.
The reason is hardly surprising. On June 4, a record-breaking number of people (around180,000) gathered in Victoria Park to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre and call for democracy in China. Then the sudden death of blind and deaf Tiananmen Square activist Li Wangyang later in the month caused an uproar in Hong Kong, with many demanding a full investigation.
Boosting economic development in the coastal city (e.g. the introduction of CEPA, the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) is one of the carrots that Beijing has used to woo the Hong Kong population, but the general public’s impression of their motherland has yet to improve. Visits by Chinese leaders or Olympic gold medallists and public openings of the Chinese army camps in Hong Kong do not help much either.
It is widely expected that the turnout at this year’s protest will increase significantly (weather permitting). While the reasons mentioned above play a factor, it was the local political and social issues that could prompt more people to take to the streets. The widening wealth gap, the surging property prices in Hong Kong, and the fact that special interests fall into the hands of a small circle of elites, all contribute to the public’s discontent with the government.
In March, Hong Kong experienced its first ever Chief Executive election (in which the general public did not get to vote) that saw tough competition between two pro-Beijing candidates. CY Leung eventually won the race, but many suspected the Chinese government was behind his victory. Some have even claimed that Beijing would gradually interfere with local Hong Kong politics more directly, violating its promise that the city’s civil liberties would be preserved for 50 years after the handover.
Hong Kong has reached a crossroads, and it is the uncertain future that worries many. For them, Establishment Day is still not something to celebrate.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.