When Britain handed the prosperous colony of Hong Kong back to China 20 years ago, after 156 years of rule, most people assumed that Beijing wouldn’t want to do anything to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Much of the talk then was of convergence. Hong Kong boasted a freewheeling capitalist system underpinned by an independent judiciary, a largely free press and basic individual rights.
China, meanwhile, was still a nominally communist dictatorship. Wouldn’t Hong Kong’s freedoms prove irresistible to mainland Chinese?
But Chris Patten, the last governor, knew better. “History is littered with the carcasses of decapitated geese,” he remarked.
In authoritarian states, politics always trumps economics, and control counts for more than success.
The Beijing government, despite having agreed to a fifty-year period of “one country, two systems,” appears to be bearing down hard on Hong Kong. Its status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) seems less and less of a political safeguard.
In turn, many of the 7.4 million islanders have begun to speak of a distinct Hong Kong identity, as though it had some sort of previous existence.
But that’s not true. Hong Kong was a colony with no pre-colonial past, a purely British invention and creation, following China’s defeat in the Opium Wars.
Nonetheless, they persist, as a way of trying to preserve their political liberties.They link the awakening cultural identity of Hong Kong to the freedoms, civil liberties, rule of law, and democratic practices that are enshrined in its Basic Law, which was drafted in 1984.
They champion local identity and values against a perceived “mainlandization” of Hong Kong, defending its autonomy against socio-economic integration with China.
A survey by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Program found only three per cent of residents ages 18 to 29 identified as “Chinese,” while two-thirds now give “Hong Konger” as their identity.
Many look longingly to another island, Singapore, a Chinese-dominated part of a former British colony that had successfully established its independence as a city-state from Britain’s successor, Malaysia.
But the Muslim Malays of that country were glad to see the Christian and Confucian Chinese go; Beijing, on the other hand, considers the Hong Kong Chinese simply part of the Han-majority state, one that was intent on regaining territories lost to European powers, and the Japanese, during its centuries of weakness and humiliation.
Hong Kong does chafe under China’s increased pressure. There have been mass protests since the autumn of 2014, when the so-called Umbrella Movement captured international attention by occupying sections of the city for weeks, in opposition to the growing influence of Beijing.
The movement distinguished local culture, language, and experiences from the culture of the mainland Chinese. Most people speak Cantonese, while the official dialect on the mainland is Mandarin.
In March, a new chief executive for the territory, Carrie Lam, was chosen by a selection committee dominated by allies of Beijing. They also have a majority in the legislature because half the 70 seats are selected by interest groups mostly loyal to the mainland government.
But the other half is elected, and lawmakers who favor greater democracy have won a majority of those seats.
In recent months two young elected members of the Hong Kong legislature, Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung, have been refused permission by Beijing to take their seats because they appealed to a separate Hong Kong identity and called for a greater degree of autonomy if not outright independence for Hong Kong.
Yet the Chinese economic and political juggernaut has, if anything, gained strength. Mainland companies are challenging the local capitalists. Last year, more than half of all companies listed on Hong Kong’s two stock exchanges were entities from the mainland.
For residents who have watched Beijing increasingly interfere in Hong Kong’s political affairs, the activities of mainland companies seem like an ominous sign.
During local legislative elections last fall, major Chinese state-owned enterprises pressured their employees in Hong Kong to vote for pro-Beijing candidates.
Actually, China doesn’t need Hong Kong as much as it used to. Its twentieth century role as the entrepot, or connector, between China and the West has long since vanished, as foreign firms are able to base offices in China and sell directly to Chinese consumers.