A decade after the handback of Hong Kong in 1997, most analysis was positive. The period up to 2007 had had its up and downs – the calamitous impact of the Asian Financial Crisis that began in1997 for instance, and the rows over Article 23 law forbidding subversion, which led to mass protests and the fall of the inaugural Chief Executive Tung Chew Hwa three years later. But on the whole, the one country-two systems rubric, where the city was allowed to maintain is capitalist economics and enjoy, in the words of the Basic Law, the de facto local constitution, a `high degree of autonomy’ seemed to be working.
A further 10 years has elapsed. How is Hong Kong doing now? That question is linked to what has happened within the People’s Republic. In 2012, Beijing saw a change of leadership. The self-effacing, largely silent Hu Jintao was replaced by the more outward going, muscular leadership of Xi Jinping. All of this happened at precisely the time a new leader was appointed in the city – C Y Leung. His main job was to try to steer through one of the most complex undertakings in the original handback agreement – making elections for the Chief Executive position run according to a universal franchise system. The proposal he eventually came up with – one that many suspect was simply handed down by Beijing – created a super-committee that had the right to screen candidates before they could go before the electorate. Protests in 2014 scotched the idea, with its final failure at the Legislative Council a few months later. Carrie Lam, Leung’s successor, was appointed on the old, unchanged system.
That more than anything shows that Hong Kong is locked in a sort of static position. Its political system, where elections for the local parliament, the Legislative Council, combine managed and universal constituencies, shows deepening divisions. The Council elections in late 2016 had stark disjuncture between pro-Beijing parties versus increasingly pro-local autonomy parties. Even those overtly supporting outright independence got elected, though two were unable to take up their seats as a result of a controversial Supreme Court judgement – controversial because it was pre-empted by a statement from the National People’s Congress in Beijing which sounded more like an order than a comment.
Nothing at the moment looks likely to break the impasse. Never has the hand of the Beijing state apparatus been more visible in the city. Its culture and atmosphere remain distinctive – and yet very different from the place that reverted to Chinese sovereignty on the rainy July night 20 years ago. Vast numbers of visiting Mainland Chinese tourists have meant that Mandarin, rather than local Cantonese, is increasingly used. Even in terms of business, the greatest assets of the city – its highly educated population and the finance system where a large number work, dependent on a strong tradition of rule of law – have come under threat. Competition from other hubs in the area, from Singapore to Shanghai, has increased. GDP growth has been an unspectacular 2.3% in the last few years. Some days it seems that Hong Kong has to fight with all its energy to maintain its profile, and defend its distinctiveness.
What no one saw in 1997 was perhaps that complacency, rather than active moves on Beijing’s part, would cause the undoing of the city. And here there is a massive divide. Hong Kongese maintain their healthy desire to protest noisily going back at least as far as the 1960s when riots during the Cultural Revolution nearly brought the city to anarchy. The hoary old platitude about locals being apolitical has been disproved time and time again. In 2003, and again in 2014, massive protests caused contentious issues to be buried and heads to roll. And from the evidence of elections, local people are increasingly becoming assertive about the need to protect their home city’s rights.
But for the elite, things have been the opposite. Chief Executives have been underwhelming, often remote, and largely politically flat footed. C Y Leung was perhaps the most egregious of these – a mild mannered, almost scholarly man, who seemed unable to even whisper a single opposing thought to his masters in Beijing. The political elite have often seemed to be complicit in simply marching to Beijing’s tune, with no real ability or appetite to put up any sort of fight for the city itself. This above all was the cause for the anger around the farrago of the election reform argument from 2013.
Poor quality leadership was not unknown in Hong Kong before the handover: there were plenty of time servers and low achievers during the colonial era, with the added insult that these were all imposed with no consultation with locals at all. Even so, the mantra that 20 years on from the handover, Hong Kong is run by Hong Kongers rings increasingly hollow in view of the way that the most important and visible political figures do everything to make things look the opposite. With 2047 starting to appear on the horizon, when the Basic Law and all the current agreements in theory can be scrapped, the young in the city contemplate that, just as their parents dealt with all the uncertainties arising from the events of 1997, they too will, in middle age, have to work out an even greater uncertainty – what a city under `one country, one system’ might look like. The more cynical might say that they have a good clue to this – and that is the way the city is today.