“Along with the rise of Xi Jinping, and the desire of Hong Kongers for democracy, the Central Government has already started bringing authoritarian governance to Hong Kong,” a Standing Committee Member of Demosistō, the pro-democracy party, told me. He is referring to the political changes in Hong Kong’s governance due to the impending merger with China in the next couple of decades. Like many, he is concerned that a way of life and cultural identity is under threat by the looming superpower touching Hong Kong’s northern border.
Twenty-one years have passed since Hong Kong became a part of China — an event recently celebrated by the territory for its two-decade anniversary in 2017. Hong Kong since then has spent years constructing its identity in a post-colonial era. In under 30 years, Hong Kong will go through another identity crisis as it veers into a second dramatic cultural shift. Some think that the shift is already in motion.
On December 19, 1984, in the Great Hall of the People located in Beijing, Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration to peacefully hand over the territory of Hong Kong to China. The territory had been under British control since 1842 after the Qing government ceded it following the opium war, an imperialist fueled conflict between England and China. Because a different government gave Hong Kong to Britain, the original agreement was feared to be void and needed to be re-established by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the negotiations with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, Margaret Thatcher made the unfortunate decision to talk about China’s national sovereignty — an already sensitive topic — and insisted on China to upkeep its agreements between nations. China had previously leased the New Territories, a plot of land far larger than Hong Kong island, to Britain for 99 years, ending in 1997, and thus had the upper hand. Devastated, Britain realized that talks for renewal were now off the table, forcing a handover at the time the lease ended.
“The most dangerous belief that is being preached is that democracy protects us against communism”
— Mrs. Selina Chow Liang Shuk-Yee, O.B.E, J.P. during 1986 LegCo Council meeting
Right before midnight on June 30, 1997, to the tune of God Save The Queen, the British flag slowly descended. The British anthem was somber, and in this case, was more attuned to a funeral service than any kind of celebration. Comparatively, March of the Volunteers, the PRC’s national anthem was upbeat and jovial. All the while, Prince Charles frequently looked down, visibly perturbed, while the British flag was folded up and the Chinese flag was raised. The clock struck 12, officially ending British authority over Hong Kong. To protect the democracy that was set up under British rule, under the new declaration, China cannot implement its socialist system in Hong Kong for 50 years, and Hong Kong’s “previous capitalist system and life-style shall remain unchanged.” Before the handover, Christopher Patten, the appointed Governor of Hong Kong in 1992, pushed for further democratization of the territory with the intention to make it difficult for China to modify unless it was aggressively uprooted.
The “one country, two systems” policy has been in place since then. Whether the PRC has respected the policy has remained questionable since the Umbrella Movement broke out in 2014. Activists, headed by Demosistō, caused disruptions across the city in protest of China swaying Hong Kong’s political system, which they believed went against the Sino-British Declaration. In November 2016, China exercised its authority to ban Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, both advocates for Hong Kong’s independence, from serving in the local legislature. More recently, the pro-Beijing camp took 2 of the 4 seats during the 2018 legislative election, making the merger between China and Hong Kong more evident as 2047 comes closer.
The UK, in their latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, expressed growing concern about the “extent of freedom of speech in Hong Kong, particularly in the context of the discussion of independence.” The 2018 report additionally stated worries over the Hong Kong Electoral Affairs Commission’s decision to deny Angus Chow, from the pro-democracy party, Demosistō, participation in the Legislative Council elections. The Hong Kong Bar Association also commented on Angus Chow:
“The Hong Kong Bar Association is also concerned about the disqualification of a candidate to stand for election on the basis of his or her association with a political party or the holding of certain political beliefs… This regrettably is equivalent to the introduction of a political screening process for any prospective candidate, and there is no fair, open, certain and clear procedure to regulate this process; nor any timely remedy against an adverse decision of the Returning Officer, resulting in an indefinite duration of disqualification of the persons concerned.”
“The most dangerous belief that is being preached is that democracy protects us against communism,” Mrs. Selina Chow mentioned during a 1986 Hong Kong Legislative Council meeting. She worries that pitching Hong Kong against China will have detrimental effects over the autonomy promised through the Joint Declaration. Looking at the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong since the Umbrella Movement has proven a lot of the Council’s reservations over the handover. Even then, the “Chinese Communist Party is in practice above the law” and there is little security that China will uphold the agreement to abstain from Hong Kong politics.
A Growing Concern for A New Generation
I was able to get an interview with a Standing Committee Member of Demosistō, a participant in the Umbrella Movement. His views on the new political atmosphere in Hong Kong share a similarity to the statements from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Hong Kong Bar Association. I asked about his thoughts on the banning of Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, and whether he was concerned that Hong Kong citizens have a lack of voice in their own country. He told me that the PRC’s goal “was to scare citizens and demotivate them from social activism and participation through disqualifications of lawmakers and candidates in addition to political prosecutions.” He added that the “Central Government [PRC] has absolutely been ignoring the pleas of our citizens. An example to illustrate this would be the absence of Hong Kong citizens during the negotiations over the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, resulting in Hong Kong people not having control or any say over their own place’s future and sovereignty.” This is true; China demanded bilateral negotiations between itself and Britain, with only the Hong Kong governor, Sir Edward Youde, to be present during them.
“Linguistic culture in itself embraces a place’s history and values, replacing Cantonese with Mandarin would be a move to encourage the new generation of Hong Kongers to forget this history and these values”
— Standing Committee Member of Demosistō
Demosistō has been cataloging changes in student’s textbooks called the Red Book Database. The Standing Committee Member told me that “we discovered that textbooks rarely mentioned any negative news and views concerning China, and content relating to tragedies like the Tiananmen Massacre was greatly reduced, while content promoting the ‘benefits’ of one-party dictatorship and the Chinese Communist Party was increased.”
In 2002, the Education Bureau of Hong Kong introduced a controversial new curriculum for primary 1–6 students called the National Education. The curriculum has since been shelved, but pieces of it still linger in its 2017 Secondary Education Curriculum Guide. Booklet 6A, titled Moral and Civic Education: Towards Values Education, under part 6A.3.1 Cultivating Positive Values and Attitudes, says that “Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China… improving students’ understanding of the country, the Basic Law, the concept of ‘one country, two systems’, as well as strengthening their sense of national identity.”
On the subject of teaching Mandarin in schools, the Standing Committee Member told me that “linguistic culture in itself embraces a place’s history and values, replacing Cantonese with Mandarin would be a move to encourage the new generation of Hong Kongers to forget this history and these values. Linguistic reform has always had a special symbolic significance in China, such as the request for Guangdong Province’s TV stations to stop producing programmes in Cantonese as a sign of a ‘unified’ country.”
He is referring to the 2014 switch from Cantonese to Putonghua (Mandarin) as the main broadcasting language for Guangdong TV, the only authorized station in mainland China to broadcast in Cantonese. This change sparked a massive backlash four years earlier in 2010, where over 1,000 protesters met in the center of Guangzhou against the proposal to change the language. With China failing to gain the support of the millennial and gen-z population, there has been a push to rebrand China’s image with the youth, effectively erasing the border between the two cultures well before the merger.
Views from Local Students
I sought out what local students thought of the Hong Kong-Chinese merger. All of these students’ names will be anonymous due to the sensitive subject matter. A recent college graduate said that he is “reluctant, but resigned… We want democracy, the PRC is not likely to give it to anyone.” He later added that “a lot of people immigrated to Hong Kong to escape from the Communist Party of China (CCP) in the first place. Including my dad’s family, who owned land and were well off, which meant they were targets for the CCP.” Many people from China, especially businesspeople, fled to Hong Kong after the establishment of the PRC in 1949, further defining Hong Kong both as a refuge for laissez-faire capitalism and from Communist China.
Another student looking for residency abroad states that the main reason for his efforts revolves around the Hong Kong-China merger. “If Hong Kong is merged and sadly it is already happening, I can’t live in a place like this no more.” Quite a few students share this sentiment, as merging brings a slew of restrictive regulations and policies. The Internet is a target for such concern because the merger could affect businesses and schools that revolve around an open and free Internet; this is a major concern of another Hong Kong student, who, once the territory has merged, intends on “getting the f — — out.” Chinese citizens can still bypass The “Great Firewall”, a term used to describe China’s extensive censorship of the Internet, by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which allows full uncensored access to sites like Facebook and Google. A VPN allowed me to conduct my own interviews with people located in China.
Increased Influence from Over the Border
Since the beginning of 2019, there has been a spike in anger and unease over a proposal to implement the Chinese National Anthem Law in Annex III of Basic Law; this law threatens citizens with jail time and a heavy fine of $50,000 HKD for disrespecting the Chinese anthem, March of the Volunteers. On October 1, 2017, the National Anthem Law came into effect in China; only a month later, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) wanted to apply it to Annex III of Basic Law. The proposed change was immediately considered. In March 2018, the Legislative Council Panel on Constitutional Affairs in Hong Kong (LegCo) discussed the nature of drafting the new bill. The “one country, two systems” policy allows for Hong Kong to ignore nationally mandated laws and is at the discretion of the local government to implement them. The bill only deepened a growing rift between Hong Kong and China with no sign of healing any time soon. Unsurprisingly, only a few days after my interview with Demosistō, the political group staged a guerrilla protest and stormed the government headquarters with a black banner proclaiming “freedom not to sing praises”. The ambiguity of the law concerns secondary schools over its enforcement, and sports venues, since the announcement in 2017, have only garnished booing during the anthem.
Only a year after the Umbrella Movement in 2014, China was again accused of breaching Hong Kong Basic Law. Between the customs of Hong Kong and mainland China, Lam Wing-Kee, the manager of Causeway Bay Books, was taken into Chinese custody for selling and trafficking banned books in mainland China. He is one of the 5 people who disappeared in 2015 related to the bookstore, one which regularly sold books critical of the Chinese government. Mighty Current, a publishing company who owns Causeway Bay Books, had its business and general manager kidnapped and brought into China for interrogation and confessions. Gui Minhai from Mighty Current was charged with driving under the influence, an almost laughable explanation for the reason for his arrest and “confession”. After criticism, he was later accused of leaking state secrets. In total, they are accused to have sold over 4,000 banned books from Hong Kong into the mainland. The bookstore is no longer there, but, to my surprise, one of their signs still hangs above its alleyway-type entrance, winding upwards to its first-floor domain, where an adult toy store took its place. The bookstore owner’s disappearance has failed to discourage some people from selling controversial literature, as right outside the entrance, a merchant sells swaths of tabloidesque content critical of Xi Jinping.
Abductions aside, books in Hong Kong have already become censored through extensive vetting by Sino United Publishing, a local publishing conglomerate. The publishing company was purchased in 2015 by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (LOCPG), a representative of the PRC, and now owns the majority of bookstores in Hong Kong.
In 2016, a controversy surrounding a local news company hit the South China Morning Post (SCMP) after it was purchased by Alibaba, the Chinese multinational conglomerate. The integrity of one of the only English newspapers in Hong Kong, and one that I am an avid reader of has since been put under question. They still report on subjects taboo in mainland China, but ties to an influential e-commerce giant like Alibaba still casts doubt over the publication.
The Extradition Bill and the Issue of Free Speech
Hong Kong’s Press Freedom Index from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been plummeting over the past few years, dropping to 73rd, below Mongolia and Tunisia. This drop is due to an increased influence from Beijing, which out of the 180 countries surveyed, China ranks 177, two rankings from North Korea. Further jeopardizing that ranking is a new controversial extradition proposal, making it easier to send fugitives or suspects across jurisdictions like Mainland China.
The loophole in the Hong Kong legal system was thrust into the spotlight this year when nineteen-year-old Chan Tong-kai murdered his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan and eluded legal recourse after returning to Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, Christopher Patten claimed it was not a loophole, and said that “of course the Hong Kong and UK governments intended to exclude China… To pretend that this was a ‘loophole’ is self-evidently untrue and absurd.” The event expedited the proposal to fix the perceived loophole that would bring justice for the young girl’s murder. LegCo emphasized this concern in a legislative council brief: “Fugitives from the Mainland, Macau and Taiwan may make use of this loophole to evade legal responsibility or seek refuge in Hong Kong.” On the surface, it would seem odd that a proposal intended on bringing justice to a murder overseas would be met with such fierce opposition.
In 2001, Hong Kong thought of expanding its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance to apply to Mainland China. Even then, the proposal noted that Hong Kong has a right to refuse handovers if the “offence in question is political in nature; where the request for surrender appears to be made for the purpose of punishing the person on account of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion.” The point made in the proposal from 2001 addresses a crucial issue on political beliefs, revealing a sinister underbelly to reducing restrictions between jurisdictions with vastly different legal systems.
This new proposal is scaring journalists, bloggers, and political activists who might have opinions conflicting with Chinese beliefs. The Hong Kong Journalists Association in a Facebook post said that “we oppose the proposed amendments to the law that will allow the transfer of ‘fugitives’ from Hong Kong to Mainland China on a case by case basis. It will not only threaten the safety of journalists but also have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” The statement was jointly signed by Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong Free Press, and 11 other Hong Kong-based unions, associations, and news outlets. Even some Hong Kongers have described these changes as 送中條例, translated to “deliver to China law”, a homonym for funerary rites.
As the proposal rushes through for a July decision, Lam Wing-Kee, the manager of Causeway Bay Books, fled to Taiwan. A few days later, tens of thousands of anti-extradition protesters took to the streets, and some called for Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to step down after she pushed for the July deadline. The organizers, including Demosistō, said that 130,000 people took part, while the police said only 22,800 participated at the march’s peak. I heard about the protest less than a week before it began, and I arrived shortly before the first formation in Causeway Bay around 1 pm, less than a block from the former Causeway Bay Books.
Joshua Wong made a public appearance at the protest’s formation despite the knowledge that nine of the Occupy Central leaders a day before were sentenced to 16 months of prison time after being on bail for 2 weeks. Joshua Wong a few weeks later will go to jail in contempt of court over the 2014 Umbrella Movement but was released shortly after. The small street corner quickly filled with banners referencing the murder in Taiwan saying that the transfer of Chan Tong-kai should be a one-time thing. Hoisted by two people, a wide banner with the faces of mostly pro-Beijing political figures says that no one is safe from the extradition law. I witnessed multiple protesters dressed as Mainland Chinese police officers inviting fellow protesters to get inside a mobile red cage and pretend to be whipped as a demonstration. Around 4:30 pm, the protest turned into a fully formed march, with people brandishing yellow umbrellas harkening back to the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The protest quickly became the largest Hong Kong has seen since then, but was followed by a historically large protest starting on June 9th with over a million people and is still continuing now with record numbers. The Extradition Bill has since been suspended and Carrie Lam has apologized, but protesters are not satisfied until it is withdrawn completely and Carrie Lam is removed from office.
The Issue of Taiwan
China’s actions towards Hong Kong feels comparable to the father/son model of Confucius, where he developed a paradigmatic relationship centered around a son obeying and respecting his father and a father serving as a teacher of morals and ethics. This dynamic influenced China’s own connection with neighboring Asian cultures during its Sinocentric worldview. From John Bryan Starr’s Understanding China, he best described the Chinese relationship based on the Confucian model: “[China] owed its neighbors the obligation of sharing its civilization by example, just as its neighbors owed it obedience and respect.” This can also apply to Taiwan, a neighboring territory that strives for independence from China, which continues to display its military prowess in the South-China Sea. Taiwan’s struggle shows the extent of China’s enforcement of the One-China Policy, as dramatically addressed in a speech this January, Xi Jinping said that Taiwan “must and will be united” with China. Fearing a comparable situation in Hong Kong, the question remains whether China will attempt to forcefully establish its dominance politically and militarily before it can merge.
Discussions on China’s national sovereignty continued into this year’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing. Premier Li Keqiang said that “we will resolutely oppose and deter separatist schemes or activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Li implied that Taiwan is currently not independent and that their separation would create “two Chinas”, defining their identity as strictly Chinese, not Taiwanese. The concept that Taiwan is a territory gone rogue, rather than a separate entity has been the case for decades. Even in a Chinese printed 1983 travel atlas of China I found in an antique bookstore in Sham Shui Po, already included Taiwan as a part of the mainland. In an interview just a few days later with SCMP, Cai Peihui, an NPC deputy for Taiwan said that China would not hesitate to “liberate” Taiwan if it declared independence. This statement was followed by another NPC deputy, Huang Zhixian, who said that all independent leaning parties in Taiwan are not qualified in reunification negotiations.
China’s handling of Hong Kong was supposed to define what “one country, two systems” means to Taiwan, but has only seeded distrust in the Taiwanese people. Despite what senior leaders in Beijing and Xi Jinping said, Taiwan was never an integral part of China and was only officially a part of the “motherland” between 1885–1895, and a few years after World War II. An open letter to Taiwan in 1979 highlights the sensitivity of national sovereignty as a topic to the PRC. The letter states that Taiwan “has always been an inalienable part of China since ancient times” and that the “reunification of our motherland is not only the common desire of all the people of China… but the common wish of all peace-loving peoples and countries world over”. Internally, China views itself as incomplete without Taiwan, a feeling that has not diminished since the end of World War II. This passive-aggressive letter was later followed by a Nine-Points document in 1981 calling for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan. In the document, Ye Jianying, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC defined a system remarkably like Hong Kong’s Sino-British Joint Declaration discussed a few years later. Not only did this clearly not take off, but the human rights and free speech violations surrounding the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989 overshadowed any promise of economic development, pushing both Hong Kong and Taiwan to further embed themselves into their democratic systems.
What the Merger Means for Religion
The term ‘sinicize’ was thrown around a lot in China’s second session of the National People’s Congress. Xu Xiaohong, of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), who manages state-run Protestant churches, wants to rid the “Western” influence in Churches, stating they should only be Chinese. Li Keqiang told the national legislature that “we must fully implement the [Communist] Party’s fundamental policy on religious affairs and uphold the Sinicization of religion in China.” Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang’s top Communist Party official said something similar in 2015, stating that he wants to “immerse religions in the Chinese culture… in order that religions can develop in a normal and healthy way.”
The term ‘sinicized theology’ encourages the integration of Chinese elements into major religions to establish ethnic unity. Ethnic unity is a tool to mitigate Western impressions on its citizens, which can, in the PRC’s eyes, compromise individuals and as a result compromise the security of China. The term was extensively mentioned in a White Paper released by the PRC on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC):
“Xinjiang, as one of the areas practicing regional autonomy for ethnic minorities in China, has fully implemented the ethnic and religious policies laid down by the central government, safeguarded the fundamental interests of the people of all ethnic groups, and formed, developed and consolidated a new type of relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among ethnic groups.”
To curve extremism and terrorism in China, over 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others in Xinjiang have been put in internment camps to denounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the Communist Party. The religious policies established in Xinjiang have been put under extreme international scrutiny, with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling for the United Nations to “bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang”. The lack of religious freedom in China is a worrisome prospect to Hong Kong, which has a wide variety of non-Taoism and Buddhist religions.
Hong Kong has become more religiously diversified in recent years; A study from the Legislative Council Secretariat shows that between 2017–2018 the Muslim population increased from 1.3% to 4.1%, and Christians, primarily Protestants and Roman Catholics also increased from 9.6% to 12.0%. Hong Kong’s two leading religions are Buddhism and Taoism, but Christianity, as of 2016 has a robust following of 884,000 people. In 2016 there was a total of 1,540 Christian worshipping locations and a staggering 256 Catholic schools and kindergartens in Hong Kong, the most of any religion in the territory. The thought that “Western” religions are perceived as a vessel to compromise the security of China is a frightening concept and will have a definite effect before and most certainly after the merger.
The New Colonizers of Hong Kong
China intends on connecting Hong Kong economically through the Greater Bay Area Project, which would link Hong Kong, Macau, and nine other Southern Chinese provinces sometimes referred to as the nine Pearl River Delta municipalities into a giant financial and tech hub. With the project outlining events from now to 2022 and 2035, it will unofficially erase the border between Hong Kong and the mainland. With similar rhetoric used to attract Taiwan to merge with China, the outline hopes to “enable compatriots in Hong Kong and Macao to share with the people in the motherland both the historic responsibility of national rejuvenation and the pride of a strong and prosperous motherland.” Efforts to connect Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong have already gone underway with the construction of sea bridges. The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge which opened in 2018, and a second bridge under construction from Zhongshan to Shenzhen would create a triangle that connects the major cities in the Pearl River Delta.
This is not the first time an infrastructure project of this scale was proposed; in 2016 it went under a slightly different name as the “9+2”, referring to the Pearl River Delta and the two territories of Macao and Hong Kong. On the surface, the potential for economic development is promising, but digging deeper exposes that the proposed project will not work under the current 3-government system. Complications over copyright and business protection is not an attractive prospect, with it being more enticing to simply ground business in mainland China than deal with legal complications.
The Greater Bay Area Project is one of the many ways China is attempting to merge Hong Kong. Repeatedly, the PRC has shown that they have no intention to preserve Hong Kong, only to establish it as another Chinese territory and to secure its national sovereignty. In Hong Kong, it is not a sudden transformation, but a slow bleed of local culture, evident in its policies, school systems, language, and China’s blatant disregard of the 1984 agreement. Hong Kong, as developed and educated as it is, has no military and when compared to China’s robust economy, military, and political influence, integration is inevitable. As an American, I cannot help but draw parallels to the United States’ own history of annexation of territories but seeing it from the perspective of the ones being dominated. No matter how you look at it, the future of Hong Kong is certain and is on a fast track to becoming another part of China.