'It's a dark time': Fears Hong Kong is losing its freedom as China tightens grip on city

Peter Yeung

When Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it was agreed that the city would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy” for at least the next 50 years. Chris Patten, its 28th and last British governor, shed a tear on that rainy day in June over the “extraordinary” former colony. The Prince of Wales, with more than a hint of drama, promised the city “we shall not forget you”.

For years the principle of “one country, two systems” has served Hong Kong well, as it continues to prosper as one of the world’s major financial and business centres, and retaining its own civil liberties, free press, judiciary and distinct culture – a stark contrast from the mainland’s authoritarian single-party communist rule.

But a turning point may be here. In the space of a month a respected Financial Times journalist effectively had his visa revoked after hosting a talk involving a pro-independence speaker and mainland police begun to operate in the city for the first time ever under the auspices of a new high-speed rail station. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong National Party – which argued for the city’s separation from the mainland – has been banned. This chain of events has led some commentators to proclaim the “death of Hong Kong”.

It is a stark shift in circumstances since 2014’s Umbrella Riots, when thousands of protesters filled the streets to successfully fight against Beijing’s attempts to provide only vetted candidates for elections. Joshua Wong, de facto leader of the protests and secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosisto, is worried. “It’s a dark time,” he says. “It’s a serious time to reevaluate the Hong Kong human rights condition. Carrie Lam [Hong Kong’s chief executive] is just a puppet head for Beijing, serving the interests of the Chinese government. Under these tactics, they are gradually eroding the autonomy and uniqueness of the city.”

In a recent meeting with Hong Kong media executives in Beijing, according to Bloomberg, one Chinese official is reported to have said he hoped the media would “prevent external forces from turning the city into a base for interfering with the mainland”.

Sonny Lu, a political commentator and professor at Hong Kong University, believes the Chinese government has hardened its approach as part of an ideological battle. “After the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which was an expression of the values of liberal localism, we’ve seen a trend of the dominance of conservative nationalism,” he says. “Pro-Beijing groups argue that freedom of speech has a limit. The idea of ‘one country, two systems’ is undergoing real struggle. It is not good, that’s crystal clear.”

A view from the Hong Kong side of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge (Reuters)

Hong Kong’s role as the gatekeeper to the “world’s factory” may also be under threat. Some say that a new £12bn bridge linking Hong Kong to the mainland city of Zhuhai and the gambling enclave of Macau – set to open next week – will further spread resources away from Hong Kong and into China’s vaunted Greater Bay Area. The 34-mile crossing will cut travel times between Kong Kong and Zhuhai to around 40 minutes.

Others point to a record number of mainland residents in Hong Kong and attempts to prioritise teaching Mandarin over Cantonese as signs of forced integration.

International businesses are extremely concerned, especially in the context of China’s trade war with the US. “The city thrives on a free flow of information, and the end of free speech will be the end of Hong Kong as an international financial hub,” said Mark Clifford, executive director of the Asia Business Council. Philip Dykes, chairman of the Bar Association and resident since 1985, added that recent events were “very damaging” to business and said the government seemed to be “implementing directives from Beijing rather than acting on their own initiative”.

The Chinese government, however, points to economic success. “Everyone can see that Hong Kong’s society and economy has achieved progress,” said Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesman. Meanwhile, a recent editorial in the state newspaper China Daily played down the concerns. “What they really want is not an answer but to create the illusion that freedom of speech and the press in Hong Kong is dwindling,” it said.

Hong Kongers remain resilient. Students at Polytechnic University this month went on hunger strike against attempts to control the curriculum and thousands took to the streets last weekend protesting a controversial housing project. But they are facing greater challenges.

“The brazen nature of the government’s tactics goes beyond anything seen in recent memory,” says Joyce Chiang of Amnesty International Hong Kong. “The result is that freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong are under threat as never before.”