Hong Kong – A Wonderful City Being Ruined

Remember Hong Kong? It was the last major remaining part of the old British Empire until it was handed back to China in July 1997 – some 17 years ago – following the Sino-British Agreement a few years earlier. Under British control partially for hundreds of years and wholly for 99 years, Hong Kong flourished from a cluster of fishing and farming villages, into the factory of the world and then latterly into a global financial services hub.

I spent the last academic year studying at a local university in Hong Kong, and fell totally in love with a beautifully chaotic and vibrant city with unbelievably interesting and lovely people in a complex, rapidly changing society. Hong Kong has everything, both good and bad. Unfortunately, the most pressing ‘bad’ issue in Hong Kong is its current political situation, which is vastly deteriorating and threatening the city’s entire future both economically and socially. I don’t mean to sound extreme, but there are genuine fears that Hong Kong could deteriorate into civil war one day.

The Sino-British Agreement paved the way for Hong Kong to return to China under the ‘one country, two systems’ concept, whereby Hong Kong (and also Macau, which was handed over from Portugal to China a couple of years later) would become part of China but keep its own institutions, culture, language, freedoms and human rights. Central government in Beijing has promised the city the chance to directly elect its head of government – the Chief Executive – several times, firstly for 2012. However, that election returned the wildly unpopular CY Leung, elected via a closed nomination and selection committee made up of pro-China leaders, politicians and businessmen. Some have claimed that Leung is a Communist Party member, and his approval ratings amongst common society in Hong Kong are appallingly low.

Hong Kong did not get the universal suffrage it was promised in 2012. But China have absolutely promised that it will happen in 2017. However, it has been made clear that citizens of Hong Kong will only be able to select their Chief Executive from a pre-approved list of candidates, blocking any anti-China ‘pan-democrats’ from standing in the Chief Executive election and ultimately creating a sham of a democracy. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) is partly elected, with approximately half of the lawmakers freely elected, while the other half remains largely appointed. Unsurprisingly, just under half of the LegCo is made up of relatively radical anti-China democracy campaigners, with the slight majority are held by pro-Beijing loyalists similar to CY Leung.

A long-planned ‘act of civil disobedience’ called Occupy Central is due to take place at some point this summer. The organisers are attempting to overwhelm and occupy Hong Kong’s entire Central District and temporarily shut down the city’s financial institutions and corporations. Despite the economic and global reputation risks this could have, mass society believes that this is the final option for the city in order to finally get that true universal suffrage that it wants. Although Hong Kong is traditionally a law-abiding, non-violent city, other recent protests have become significantly more heated and there are risks of significant tension building during Occupy Central, and I sincerely hope that the city that I love does not reduce itself to widespread violence and riot this summer. However, police tactics have become far more brutal and hands-on recently, and there are even claims that a recent demonstration was infiltrated by plain clothed police officers who were inciting crowds to behave violently.

It’s not just a lack of universal suffrage which is angering Hong Kong. Press freedom is being slowly eroded too – media organisations are self censoring themselves in order to protect their business interests in the mainland. The number of mainland tourists and mainlanders gaining permanent residency in Hong Kong is creating an unprecedented clash of culture and language, to the point of racism on both sides. Hugely wealthy, largely disrespectful and distasteful migrants from the mainland are investing heavily in luxury property developments, and the latest plan for new town in the northern New Territories of Hong Kong is the current biggest issue in the city.

The Hong Kong Government proposes funding HKD$340million to build huge new towns in rural areas close to the mainland border, destroying hundreds of local village homes and replacing them with luxury property developments no doubt conceived for wealthy Guangdong based mainlanders wishing for a Hong Kong base. The paltry compensation package offered to the displaced residents is offensively small, and mass protests over the issue have included a storming of the LegCo Complex a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, last week pro-Beijing legislators forced through the proposals without a proper vote while pan-democrats were still protesting the issue and were not even sitting at the time of the vote as a result of their objections.

Last week, a major unofficial online ‘referendum’ on universal suffrage was conducted by Hong Kong University and supported by the Occupy Central movement, whereby 800,000 citizens voted for true universal suffrage in 2017. Every year since 1997, protestors have rallied in general anti-China protests on July 1st (the date of the handover). This year, the biggest protests Hong Kong has ever seen are likely to take place. There will inevitably be groups of (rather silly) Hong Kongers waving the colonial flag, too – something that happens regularly and does still slightly baffle me. Why a small but vocal section of society advocated a return to British rule is odd, considering Hong Kong’s nearest comparison in the world – Singapore – has been so successful as an independent state. But the message is clear – people would prefer anything over further integration with the mainland.

No official date has been set for Occupy Central, but it is likely that it could follow on directly from this years July 1st march. Although I am now living back in the UK, the saying that ‘You can leave Hong Kong, but Hong Kong never leaves you’ is true, and I truly hope my second home – the city and people I am truly in love with – can somehow achieve their goals without resorting to mass violence or damaging its financial reputation across the world.