I wrote this before Janus posted his blog, but my internet was too slow and I had to save it until today.
When the United Kingdom and China were negotiating the retrocession, or betrayal as some argue, of Hong Kong to China some British diplomats argued that the Chinese can get very nasty if they don’t get their way. With time against them and holding only a very weak hand, the British government did the best it could for Britain’s last major colony. At least in theory, Hong Kong would control most of its own affairs and have a separate status for at least 50 years. If China pleased, it could continue as it was far beyond that. Formalities concluded, flags exchanged and anything not unduly difficult to remove removed, Hong Kong once again became Chinese territory.
Despite the ceremonies and the official line, this was not an event happily accepted. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers left Hong Kong, establishing bridgeheads in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. If things became too bad in Hong Kong something could always be arranged elsewhere. Again, despite what some aspects in China and even Hong Kong itself argue, the vast majority of those who left were not criminals. Rather, they were people who with good reason did not trust the integrity of Beijing.
Since then, life has continued in Hong Kong much as before. Some of the more irrational fears, that China would immediately integrate Hong Kong into the mainland and giving it status little different than Shanghai or Tianjin have been proven to be unfounded. Outwardly life in Hong Kong has changed little since 1997. People still drive on the correct side of the road, Hong Kong dollars still circulate, the press is far freer than on the mainland and there are actually contrary (!) opinions printed. Passports remain distinct, the English language is still official, and Cantonese is still spoken and proper Chinese characters are still used. Hong Kong is still an open city and, unlike the mainland, Westerners do not need a visa to visit.
Yet, things have been off in Hong Kong. While not directly breaking the terms of the Sino-British agreement on the retrocession of Hong Kong, the Chinese have still acted in poor faith. Indirect pressure has been placed on the press. No one has been arrested and political protests are usually permitted, but anyone writing something too critical of Beijing has her/his financial interests indirectly threatened. If that is too obvious, key advertisers have their finances indirectly threatened. The education system is still distinct, but efforts were made to try to harmonise the content with that of the mainland in tone if not text. In a direct attack on Cantonese pride, proposals were even drafted to emphasise Mandarin over Cantonese. Cantonese speakers frequently say that they prefer speaking English over Mandarin because the tone structure is so different that non-tonal English is easier for them to master. Mainlanders frequently buy the best properties, or any property for that matter driving up the cost of housing to such an extent that formerly middle-class Hong Kongers have become impoverished. Mainland women also have formed a habit of taking a short holiday in the territory to give birth, this circumventing Chinese family planning laws. Through force of numbers, this frequently overwhelms Hong Kong hospitals.
I knew last year that something was going to give eventually. In just two years the atmosphere had changed dramatically. I never felt uncomfortable there. No one showed me any animosity and most people were very helpful. Yet, there was a tension in the air – as if something had to give. Despite the city being as beautiful as ever; I was relieved when I passed through Taiwanese passport control. In the last few days something finally has given. In fact, much of the city has come to a complete halt. Tear gas is being used against demonstrators; brutality has been exhibited by members of the police force as well as protestors. This isn’t just casual invective any more. It breaks my heart to see this happening in a city that I have come to truly love.