The proximate cause of the recent public protests in Hong Kong, which culminated on 16 June with an unprecedented 2 million people in the streets, was an ill-advised extradition bill to allow the transfer of criminal suspects to China—and which many fear would erode the legal firewall separating the semi-autonomous territory from the mainland.
The anger was further stoked by the apparent arrogance of the city’s unelected chief executive, Carrie Lam, in initially refusing to back down from the plan, and by the clear use of excessive force by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets against mostly young demonstrators on 12 June.
But the extradition bill was only the spark. The larger source of popular anger in Hong Kong is the growing sense that, just over two decades after the former British colony was handed over to Communist China, the territory’s distinct identity, its autonomy and its freedoms are slowly being eroded. Hong Kong, many locals fear, risks becoming ‘just another mainland city’.
That erosion of Hong Kong’s identity and autonomy has taken many forms. And it has been a deliberate long-term project by Beijing’s Communist leaders and their local allies.
Mandarin Chinese, the official language of mainland China, has overtaken English and many fear may soon overtake Cantonese, the distinct and colourful local Chinese dialect. Students at Hong Kong Baptist University last year staged a protest over a new requirement that all students pass a Mandarin language proficiency test in order to graduate. Mandarin is increasingly being spoken in hotels, restaurants, shops and university campuses as the number of mainland visitors, long-stayers and students has soared.
Locals also complain about that growing mainland tourist influx, which they feel is overwhelming local services and shops. They have asked, unsuccessfully, that the local authorities limit the numbers.
There has been a steady erosion of the physical distance and boundary between Hong Kong and the mainland. A new 55-kilometre bridge and tunnel system connects Hong Kong to Zhuhai, via Macau. A high-speed train has cut the travel time from Hong Kong to Guangzhou to just an hour. Another controversy erupted when the Beijing-appointed local government decided to allow mainland immigration authorities to set up a passport control station at the train’s terminus, deep inside Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula. Critics claimed the decision effectively shifted the land border south and gave China an official foothold inside the city.
In addition, there have been several often ham-handed attempts to try to instil a sense of Chinese patriotism and national pride in resistant Hong Kong youth. A proposed ‘patriotic education’ curriculum was mostly shelved after massive street protests by parents. The local government is now proposing new laws to criminalise disrespecting the Chinese flag and the national anthem. Those bills were prompted by local youth booing the anthem and making rude gestures during soccer matches between teams from Hong Kong and neighbouring Guangzhou.
Some young people at those matches unfurled British flags and chanted, in English, ‘We are not China! We are Hong Kong!’
In essence, since the 1997 handover, Chinese officials in Beijing have felt that Hong Kong, and especially its young people, were lingering under Western influence, were insufficiently patriotic and needed to be induced, or forced, to love the motherland. After the 2014 Occupy movement, which lasted 79 days and paralysed the city, they also felt that Hongkongers’ penchant to protest represented a direct threat that needed to be contained before it could filter across the border.
Hong Kong’s young people have responded to these efforts at more control by becoming increasingly hostile to the mainland and asserting a sense of separateness—called ‘localism’. Support for Hong Kong independence, once a fanciful idea, has steadily grown. In the election for the local legislature in 2016, a number of young ‘localists’ won seats, though they were later barred from taking office after deliberately botching their oaths and refusing to swear allegiance to China. Other ‘localists’ have been disqualified from running.
In a late 2018 poll by the University of Hong Kong, only 15% of respondents said they would identify themselves as ‘Chinese’, and the figure was just 3% for those aged between 18 and 29. Some 40% of respondents preferred the term ‘Hongkonger’.
At the 9 June protest march (which drew 1.3 million people, according to organisers) and the 16 June march a week later, which topped 2 million, some young people carried signs that read, ‘Hong Kong Is Not China Yet’.
Caught in the middle are the local Hong Kong leaders anointed by Beijing under a system designed to present a fig leaf of local autonomy. The chief executive is appointed by a carefully chosen ‘selection committee’ of 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing loyalists. But the real power rests with the Chinese government’s ‘Liaison Office’, whose top official has become increasingly visible and who regularly consults with local leaders on key decisions.
So Hong Kong’s local leaders, like Lam, are wrestling with a dichotomy—a local population increasingly asserting their separate identity and protective of their traditional freedom, versus a Chinese Communist leadership under President Xi Jinping intent on bringing Hong Kong more firmly under its control.
The hated extradition bill has been shelved, unlikely to be revived again anytime soon. Lam has emerged shaken and humbled, and has been forced to publicly apologise while also refusing protestors’ demands for her resignation.
The uproar, the rollback of her controversial bill, and her initial tone-deaf response—she at first seemed to refer to the protestors as spoiled children—have left her a badly weakened and unpopular leader. Many in Hong Kong are speculating that she won’t finish the remaining three years of her term, and almost certainly won’t be allowed a second.
Lam answers to China’s leaders in Beijing, not to the people of Hong Kong, and China is unlikely to let her resign anytime soon because to do so would be too humiliating a defeat at the hands of people power. She would become the fourth failed leader in a row; two of her predecessors couldn’t complete two terms because of protests, and the third went to prison for corruption.
The real problem is that any future Hong Kong leader is forced to serve two masters—China’s Communist rulers in Beijing, and the people of Hong Kong. They must try to implement China’s long-term integration agenda on a resentful and restive population that is willing to take to the streets to resist. That dichotomy leaves Hong Kong set for a turbulent and uncertain future.