China Watching

2019-07-17 Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi

Messages from Hong Kong

The ever tighter control by Beijing over the former British colony is causing growing concern among not only activists, but also the economic-financial elite

It has been called the last battle of Hong Kong. Two million demonstrators out of a total of seven million inhabitants, practically one out of three, took to the streets to oppose the approval of a law that would permit extradition to China for crimes punished with a minimum of seven years in prison. They won: the discussion in the legislature was postponed to some future date. But the war to maintain “HongKongitude” didn’t just start, and won’t end anytime soon. In reality, the last word is scheduled for 2047, when the former British colony will definitively lose all of the autonomy it was guaranteed in 1984 by the agreement between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. Hong Kong was to return to the People’s Republic, but gradually, according to a formula that became universally known as “one country, two systems.” It provided for a sort of mini-constitution to guarantee freedom of expression and due process, but above all a multi-party system with universal suffrage. This promise was never kept: the elections are free, but the candidates must be approved by Beijing.

The relationship with the mother country is difficult. Here, Sun Yat-sen, the man responsible for the birth of the Chinese Republic, went to university to study medicine, and in the 1890s he fought against the colonial occupation. This is where the secret societies were born that led to the end of the Empire in 1911. And this is where the Communists hid before they made it to power, and then the bourgeoisie that fled the fury of the Cultural Revolution, and dissidents in general. A land of freedom that from some points of continental China can even be reached by swimming. In 1978, still under British control, the entrepreneurs of Hong Kong invested in China and the market was opened. It was their money that essentially transformed it into the factory of the world; to the point that when the colony was returned to the former Middle Kingdom in 1997, it was said that Hong Kong capitalism would change Communist China more than the influence of Beijing would be felt in the former British colony. But that’s not how it has gone.

Especially since Xi Jinping rose to the top of that complex political pyramid in which the State and the Party overlap, those who thought Hong Kong would remain an enclave immune from the all-absorbing control of the “Northern Capital” had to change their minds. In 2012 the students had already begun to protest because the central government had imposed the study of history books at school that depicted the Chinese Communist Party and the political model it built in a positive light. In 2014, the so-called umbrella movement that blocked the city for 79 days protested against the decision of the Chinese government according to which the population would be able to choose its own leader, but only voting from a list of names decided on by the central government. Nine of the most dedicated activists ended up in prison, but for the first time, two young declaredly pro-independence politicians entered the mini-Parliament. Then there was the case of the five booksellers, who mysteriously disappeared right before the printing of a book on the premarital affairs of the Chinese president, who then reappeared some time later in Chinese territory and were charged with other crimes. The same fate was reserved for Chinese businessmen trapped in the network of anti-corruption campaigns and illegally removed from the territory of the former British colony. Lastly, only in terms of time, came the immense demonstrations of the last month.

This time the worries were not expressed only by the youth and some hardened dreamers, dissidents and activists. The entire business and financial world is involved. Some important international holding companies stated their intention to leave the territory due to the “social contradictions and political instability,” local businessmen who became tycoons by being among the first to invest in the territory of the People’s Republic became worried because precisely due to the birth of the special economic zones, those operations were never fully transparent and without kickbacks and attempts at corruption. Managers of important U.S. companies who have stopped visiting continental China for fear of political reprisals, are warning that if the extradition law passes, they will also stop flying to Hong Kong. The city’s economic-financial elite is starting to feel endangered, to the point that nearby Singapore is already preparing to welcome them. And this city can’t afford it, at least not for now. It’s no coincidence that the local government was forced to back down, and Beijing has tried to explain the latest protests with alleged American interference. The day that two million people took the streets in Hong Kong, Chinese state television reported only about forty demonstrators in front of the U.S. Consulate. More than “one country, two systems,” it’s now “one country, two narratives.” It’s too bad that Beijing will never be able to accept this.

(Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi is a Journalist. In 2011-2017 she lived in Bejing and she was the Managing Editor of China Files. She is currently based in Milan, where she works for the publishing group News3.0)


Hong Kong