Mornings in Hong Kong are like in no other city. For a city that heaves with a seemingly incessant energy, the start of every day presents a pause. Commuters have not yet flooded the subway system, the shopping malls are not yet open, the roads largely empty of traffic.
A delivery boy weaves his shaky bicycle across the tram lines, a basket of vegetables hanging off the handlebars. Elderly enthusiasts brandishing aluminium broad swords practise tai chi in a park. Down a side street, a taxi driver with a bucket and cloth scrubs down his gleaming red cab. Men linger with their newspapers over cups of tea and a breakfast of dim sum. Out on the harbour, a lone sampan crosses the sun-dappled water.
In a city in hyper-aware of time – of dates, and countdowns, and anniversaries – at this time of day, time itself seems to dissolve.
But if the return of sovereignty over Hong Kong to Mainland China on July 1, 1997, marked a new dawn, then 20 years later Hong Kong is facing a stifling tropical high noon. As Hong Kong marks the anniversary of the Handover, the general mood is dispirited, and much of the populace is in no mood for celebration.
When I first arrived in the city in 1999 to begin my legal career, Hong Kong was settling into its post-Handover way of life. The Asian financial crisis had dampened the celebrations – the Thai government floated the baht on the day after the Handover in 1997, triggering a crisis that engulfed most of Asia, and the Hong Kong stock and real estate markets plunged – but the sense was very much one of relief that things in Hong Kong had not really changed at all.
The horses still raced at Happy Valley, the expats still caroused in Lan Kwai Fong and the tourists still purchased watches and cameras in Tsim Sha Tsui. The annual vigil held on June 4 every year to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre went ahead as usual in 1998, the first time that the incident had been publicly commemorated on Chinese sovereign soil.
The city seemed to reflect back at me the optimism I felt as I rode the Star Ferry across the harbour, into the heart of the Central business district where the ageing boathands in their blue sailors’ uniforms caught the heavy ropes of the chugging green-and-white ferries with their gaffer hooks and slung them over the bollards of the pier.
I would emerge along with my fellow commuters out of the late modernist Star Ferry Terminal with its iconic Bauhaus clock tower, directly adjacent to my office building. Downstairs at the exchange, brokers in their red and gold vests would be filing into the trading-floor entrance, newspapers in one hand and lunchboxes in the other, to take their seats in time for the commencement of the day’s trading.
However, the calm belied a lingering anxiety. It was in my first bright year in Hong Kong that I also had my first experience of the city’s spirit of political protest. Early in 1999, the National People’s Congress, China’s national parliament, exercised its power to issue an interpretation of Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law.
While the power to interpret the law, and thereby override Hong Kong’s own courts and legislature, clearly lay in Beijing’s hands, Hong Kongers were surprised at how readily – and quickly – Beijing had chosen to exercise it. The legal profession organised a silent march in protest at this undermining of Hong Kong’s rule of law, and I joined hundreds of fellow lawyers, all dressed in black, marching in silence through the evening heat to the Court of Final Appeal. There was a sense of community in the crowd that day – a sense of a passion for this city that we shared – that, while otherwise rare in Hong Kong, I found again and again in the crowds of Hong Kong’s political protesters.
I experienced it again joining the annual June 4 vigils, held every year in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the 1989 Beijing crackdown. Exiting the Causeway Bay subway station, you would emerge onto a neon-lit shopping strip. On this night, unlike other nights, the street will be crammed not with shoppers but with politicians and activists, promoting their causes and soliciting donations from the crowds as people make their way towards the park. Among them, you will find stalls selling a uniquely Hong Kong combination of conscience and commerce: small plaster replicas of the Goddess of Democracy, the statue made famous during the Tiananmen protests.
Police shepherd the crowds towards the floodlit sports pitches at the southern side of the park, where the mood grows increasingly more sombre. The park fills as tens of thousands of demonstrators of all ages file in, their faces illuminated by flickering candles. The park, ringed with apartment and office towers, is a forest of candlelight.
The vigil is presided over by politicians representing the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. They give speeches and lead the crowd in singing patriotic songs from the Tiananmen era; I would learn to sing Bloodstained Glory, an old People’s Liberation Army patriotic song extolling the glories of sacrificing one’s life for the Motherland. It did double duty both as a Hong Kong protest song and also when doing client entertaining in karaoke bars on the Mainland. I never did figure out which side was playing it straight and which had the ironic twist.
The vigils have continued, even as the organisers have faced criticism that Hong Kongers would better spend their activist efforts on the problems they face at home, rather than trying to promote democracy on the Mainland. But according to Tonyee Chow, vice-president of the Alliance, the two issues are directly linked.
“Implicit in our call for Hong Kong people to support the struggle for democracy inside China is that the struggle is intimately linked to the future of Hong Kong,” Chow says. “Only by working together and supporting each other would we have any hope of ending one-party dictatorship over both Hong Kong and China.”
Hong Kong? I am not used to hearing Hong Kong described as a dictatorship. “Yes, Hong Kong too!” Chow exclaims. “Don’t tell me the Party is not the de facto dictator in Hong Kong, even with the gloss of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.”
Jubilation and anger
My next awakening experience of Hong Kong’s protest culture came on July 1, 2003, the public holiday that commemorates the Handover, protesting against proposed anti-subversion legislation that would have significantly undermined Hong Kong’s freedoms. As I passed the news stands that morning, I recall seeing the front page of the anti-establishment Apple Daily newspaper screaming in huge red characters: “Take to the streets! See you there!”
I joined the 500,000 plus people who answered the call.
The Hong Kong Observatory issued a “hot weather warning” that day; temperatures had climbed to 32 degrees by early afternoon when the march was due to commence. As protesters converged on Victoria Park, the subway operator MTR Corporation was forced to dispatch extra trains to cope with the large crowds. They gathered under the hot sun, dressed in black in symbolic mourning for Hong Kong, and carrying banners calling for the resignation of Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa.
Participants were young and old, from all walks of life. Parents carried young children on their shoulders. Prominent entertainers and media figures joined the march, as did groups representing various industries and professional bodies.
The mood of the crowd encompassed both jubilation and anger – anger at the government and the unpopular secretary for security Regina Ip, who had sponsored the legislation, and suggested that people would attend the rally simply because they had nothing better to do on a public holiday. Some chanted: “We march for freedom, not for fun” in riposte. But the crowd was also buoyed by the positive sense that people were united; there was, above all, an overwhelmingly optimistic spirit.
The march wound its way through the busiest districts of Hong Kong, from Victoria Park through the Causeway Bay shopping district to Wan Chai, to the government offices in Central. The crowd’s voices echoed down the canyon of office and apartment towers lining the narrow streets as they shouted: “Tung Chee-Hwa resign!”
Many waited hours for their turn to march. The crowd was so large that people were still arriving at Victoria Park to begin their march hours after the first protesters arrived in Central, and the last marchers did not arrive at their destination until 9 o’clock that night, more than six hours after the march began. The protest was successful. In its aftermath, the Article 23 legislation was withdrawn, Ip resigned, and Tung himself would resign a year later.
Large-scale protests have been held on July 1 every year since. It must surely rankle with Beijing that the anniversary of the Handover has become an annual opportunity to vent dissatisfaction with the government and voice demands for increased democracy, civil liberties and other political causes.
While the essence of the annual protest remains its pro-democracy, anti-government message, the ambit has widened to embrace all manner of political and social causes. A typical July 1 protest hosts street stalls promoting press freedom, academic freedom, religious freedom, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, seniors’ rights, housing equality, various environmental causes and the rights of animals, from the Lantau Island wild oxen to sharks who die to have their fins put on Hong Kong’s wedding banquet tables.
A caring community
I would experience this protest camaraderie most keenly, however, during the Umbrella Movement. In August 2014, Beijing announced that the long-promised “universal suffrage” for election of the territory’s leader would be limited to a choice among candidates pre-vetted by a Beijing loyalist-dominated nominating committee. This prompted the Umbrella Movement protests, in which thousands of protesters occupied streets in three key business districts across the territory for nearly three months.
The Umbrella Movement unfolded, literally, on my doorstep. My commute to my office in Central was transformed from a 20-minute trudge along heavily trafficked roads into a daily carnival. Every night, I would join the other curious office workers stopping by on the way home from work, picking my way between rows of brightly coloured tents on the occupied highway, browsing through the latest artwork or enjoying an ad hoc musical performance.
Crowds would gather to listen to student leaders standing on the makeshift speaker’s platform, a plank between a couple of step ladders, addressing the crowd through a PA system powered by a diesel generator.
Vast banners hung from footbridges splashed with black characters: “I want genuine universal suffrage!” “C.Y. Leung Resign!”
The protests prompted an outburst of creativity: the anonymous civic greenery of a roadside planter was replaced with a freshly planted organic vegetable garden; posters covered the walls of public and commercial buildings; slogans and sketches in chalk decorated the roads and footpaths and walls; and the protest sites overflowed with paintings, sculptures and installations. Meanwhile, over in the ever-expanding Homework Zone, students sat at improvised desks and worked late into the night, as volunteer tutors moved among them to offer help with homework.
The cliché of Hong Kong as a hectic, impersonal, high-pressured city was at a stroke undermined: here was a community full of generosity, kindness, selflessness. For every inconvenience – a rerouted bus, a cancelled tram – there were a multitude of unexpected new conveniences: free bottled water, public artwork, first aid and maths tutoring. And walking among it every evening, I felt truly part of a community, in the same way I had done during that hot evening among my fellow lawyers 15 years earlier.
When the protests ended, after 79 days, thousands turned out at the main Admiralty protest site for what was one last nostalgia-filled night. Visitors posed for photographs and collected keepsakes. Parents brought their children, with one parent commenting to me: “I want my children to see this, and remember it, so they know what Hong Kongers are capable of.”
In their immediate aftermath the Umbrella Movement protests were judged to have failed – Beijing refused to back down – but a number of young activists who rose to prominence during the protests were elected to Hong Kong’s legislature in late 2016, with the support of energised and politically aware young voters. Celebrations of their success were short-lived, however, when two of the legislators deliberately misread their oaths in a slight to the Mainland and Beijing intervened to disqualify them from their positions by issuing a further interpretation of the Basic Law.
An additional eight pan-democrat legislators are now facing similar disqualification proceedings which, if successful will significantly undermine faith in the city’s electoral system.
An unequal society
However it is not just politics that has people feeling dispirited. The economy and living standards in Hong Kong have remained near-stagnant since the Handover. Hong Kong’s GDP was 16 per cent of China’s in 1997. Today it is less than 3 per cent. Average monthly wages have only inched ahead over 20 years, going from $HK11,113 ($A1880) in 1997 to $HK15,451 ($A2614) at the end of 2016. (By comparison, Australian average wages more than doubled over the same period.) Inequality, meanwhile, has continued to grow, with the wealth gap hitting a record high in Hong Kong last year, making Hong Kong the world’s second most unequal city after only New York.
At the same time, property prices have spiralled, recently reaching the same levels last reached in the 1997 property market bubble, and making Hong Kong the world’s most unaffordable property market. This is despite various government cooling measures such as double stamp duty on non-local (primarily Mainland) buyers. In order to market their properties at an affordable level to entry-level buyers, developers are perversely building apartments of a comparable size to the prison cells at Stanley Prison where former Chief Executive Donald Tsang found himself earlier this year after being sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment for misconduct in public office.
Tsang is one of only three people to have held the position since the Handover. It was not a uniquely inauspicious end for Hong Kong leaders. The first, Tung Chee-Hwa, resigned before completing his term in the face of massive public protests. The latest, C.Y. Leung, concludes his first and only term on June 30 with a public approval rating of 38 per cent, a record low.
As in other places, it is the younger generation that has suffered the most from these economic trends. “Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a divided society,” says Kacey Wong, a Hong Kong artist and activist. Wong is a fixture on the Hong Kong protest scene, often combining his own custom-made props, artworks and performance art into his protests. “What we are seeing is actually generational polarisation, disguised as political polarisation.”
Those members of the older generation who are part of the establishment, with wealth, power, business linkages to the Mainland and a second passport if necessary, are quite happy with the status quo of what Wong describes as a “Chinese communist colony state”.
Those Mainland business linkages may be key to what Wong calls the “oversimplified sentiment of Chineseness” with which the older generation identifies. At the same time as Hong Kong has stagnated, the Mainland has boomed. As a result, Mainland influence in Hong Kong has grown significantly in recent years.
Mainland real estate developers have won the majority of recent Hong Kong government land auctions, willing to pay prices that make even seasoned Hong Kong developers blanch. International and local Hong Kong firms seeking prime Central office space are finding themselves priced out of the market by Mainland companies seeking to plant a flag in the city.
According to real estate firm JLL Research, Mainland companies have accounted for half of the take-up of Central real estate so far this year. “Mainland firms prefer top tier office buildings and are willing to pay a premium to secure it,” says Edward Noble, Director at JLL Hong Kong Markets. “Strong PRC demand, coupled with the growth in Central rents, has accelerated the trend of traditional MNC tenants relocating to other districts.”
This has included international financial institutions, hedge funds, and law firms, Noble says.
“Have you heard the news?” a colleague recently asked me. One of the big London-based international firms was leaving Central, decamping to expansive office space – at half the price – further down the Island, a move that was previously unthinkable.
Mainland financial institutions are taking leading roles on listings on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and in financing transactions – partly by accepting pricing or terms that Western banks consider uncommercial. And it has partly become a point of national pride: when China International Capital Corporation, China’s first home-grown investment bank went public last year they appointed only one United States investment bank to their syndicate of eleven underwriters. Chinese banks dominated.
When I began working in Hong Kong shortly after the Handover, a significant volume of commercial transactions were purely domestic, and the Hong Kong tycoons – Li Ka-Shing’s Hutchison and Cheung Kong, the Kwok brothers’ Sun Hung Kai – and old colonial conglomerates Jardines and Swires dominated the business landscape. Today, there is almost no commercial activity that is not touched by the Mainland, whether a Mainland entity is counter-party, shareholder or financier.
Increasing Mainland involvement in the economy has demanded Mandarin language skills and professionals who have a cultural familiarity with the Mainland. This has squeezed out not only the traditional “expats” of yore but also local Hong Kong graduates. At the recruiting fairs, where we gather to woo the brightest young graduates from law schools in Hong Kong, Australia and the United Kingdom, all conversations begin, and many end, with the same question: “How’s your Putonghua?” (The term for Mandarin in China.)
In particular, as the Mainland continues to crack down on corruption and capital flight, Hong Kong continues to be an attractive escape route. “That means more money and Mainland talent will come stomping into Hong Kong,” says artist Wong. “But it does not mean that money will go into the pockets of Hong Kongers.”
As a result, Mainland Chinese have become the “new expats”, as they take an increasing share of the jobs in investment banks, accountants and law firms, and other related professional service industries that have built up around Hong Kong’s financial services and trading hub economy. At the same time, local Hong Kong youth are increasingly talking about emigrating. That in itself may not come as a surprise. However, I was surprised to hear that their destination of choice was not Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom but another liberal democracy much closer to home. “They want to go to Taiwan,” explains Wong. “It is a place with familiar language and culture. These young people are seeking not just economic opportunity but cultural opportunity.”
It is the culture gap between Hong Kong and the Mainland that has made the increasing Mainland dominance in Hong Kong problematic. Hong Kong had traditionally sought to build its identity and distinguish itself as a place apart from the rest of China on the basis of wealth. Many in Hong Kong thought of their Mainland cousins as poor, unsophisticated bumpkins, a far cry from the urban sophisticates living in the bright lights of Hong Kong. However, that distinction has failed to hold and Hong Kongers have now found themselves reliant on those same Mainland cousins to support Hong Kong’s tourism and service industry-based economy.
Their resentment is often hard to hide. “In shops, I get the feeling that they treat me badly as soon as I start to speak Mandarin,” says Jasmine, who came from the Mainland to Hong Kong to pursue post-graduate studies after graduating from one of China’s top universities. “People may answer me when I ask for directions, but may roll their eyes at the same time.”
I have experienced it myself, using Mandarin to ask for directions in the deeper parts of Kowloon where English is less prevalent. I shamefully have not learned to speak Cantonese, but I know enough to understand the response: “I dunno! I’m not a Mainlander!”
In towns near the Shenzhen border, protesters have rallied against traders from the Mainland (portrayed as “locusts”) who were said to be flooding local shopping districts to make bulk purchases of medicines, milk powder and other products whose Mainland purveyors are viewed with mistrust. Protesters decried the fact that these traders were squeezing out small local businesses in the process.
In the district of Mong Kok, things became heated over the so-called “Dancing Aunties”: middle-aged Mainland Chinese women who gather on pedestrian streets to sing and dance to Chinese revolutionary music, blasted through loudspeakers at a disturbingly high volume.
It is perhaps slightly anti-social, largely harmless, but a red rag to the Hong Kong localist groups who gathered on a hot Hong Kong night to protest against what they called a “public nuisance”, waving the old British colonial Hong Kong flag and hurling insults. Pro-China groups soon gathered in support of the Dancing Aunties, waving Chinese national flags and singing the national anthem. As scuffles broke out, the police were called in to separate the two sides, and set up a cordon to create a safe zone for the aunties to continue their dance routines. It may have been the first Chinese revolutionary dancing evening that ended with the deployment of pepper spray.
With this encroachment of Mainland culture and their pride rooted in materialism undermined, there has emerged a deeper pride among Hong Kongers, based on the rule of law, civil liberties, rights and freedoms, and clean and accountable government. These values, referred to colloquially and in government slogans as “Hong Kong Core Values”, have become the answer to the question: “What does it mean to be a Hong Kong citizen?”
A matter of trust
Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms – just as much as the right to conduct business and make money under a capitalist system – are what Hong Kongers feel distinguishes their lives from the rest of the country to which they have been returned.
Hong Kong’s key competitive advantage vis-à-vis the rest of China is in the end a very simple one: trust. In Hong Kong, unlike in much of the rest of China, you trust that you will have a fair hearing before the courts, you trust that officials will not be on the take, you trust that government agencies will treat everyone fairly and impartially. More than that, you trust that your food is hygienic, you trust that the milk powder is safe for your children, you trust that the medicines sold in your pharmacies are not fake. Hong Kong needs to fight to maintain this trust, and it is doing so by collectively sustaining Hong Kong “core values”.
These values have seemed particularly precious as increasing Mainland influence now threatens to undermine them, and by extension Hong Kong identity itself. Beijing has been increasingly muscular in exercising its powers in Hong Kong in recent years. Particularly disturbing have been extra-judicial abductions from Hong Kong streets, both of publishers of books the contents of which Beijing finds subversive or simply embarrassing, and of mainland businessman Xiao Jianhua, for certain unspecified crimes.
It is clear that Beijing will no longer tolerate Hong Kong being used as a base for activities that seek to undermine the interests of the Party. The key question for Hong Kong’s future is: where will the line demarcating the Party’s interests be drawn? Obviously, it includes producing and distributing materials undermining the Party and its leaders. It seems, from the legislator disqualifications, that advocating or even discussing Hong Kong independence – which touches the very sensitive nerve of territorial integrity – also falls within this category of unacceptable activity.
In Beijing’s view, this also extends to self-determination, which is seen as a back door to independence. However, keep inching in this direction and you very quickly reach the point where criticising the (Mainland-anointed) Hong Kong government itself is considered yet another means of indirectly undermining Party interests, and therefore unacceptable.
At this point, Hong Kong’s much-vaunted rights and freedoms will exist on paper only. And then, only until 2047 – the year when Hong Kong’s constitutional guarantee of “fifty years without change” to the Hong Kong capitalist system and way of life ends. Under this view, 2047 might be a kind of sunset for Hong Kong as we know it, and the final step on the path to that much-maligned of destinations: “just another Chinese city”.
A ray of hope
It is this seemingly inevitable convergence with the Mainland that has many in Hong Kong pessimistic. Chow of the Alliance has an apocalyptic view. “I don’t think Hong Kong democracy has a chance unless the power of the Party is weakened in some way on their home soil; and it is likely that such a change would not happen without much societal upheaval or even bloodshed,” Chow says. “Hong Kong would simply not be spared when that kind of disturbance occurs just across the border. All we can do now is to be prepared to pick up the pieces, to build something good out of the ashes.”
But there is some reason to be optimistic. The Umbrella Movement and its aftermath have shown that Hong Kong’s youth are active, engaged and care deeply about their home and its future. At the same time, ongoing conflicts have made Hong Kong a contested space, and thus a more interesting space.
Hong Kong is shaking off the malaise of recent years, as young Hong Kongers engage with their city more than ever, with increased cultural activity, frequent street stalls and public activism extending into heritage and environmental issues.
“There has been a post-Umbrella renaissance, especially in Hong Kong’s poorer neighbourhoods,” says artist and activist Wong. He describes fellow artists opening pop-up stores selling arts and cultural products in Sham Shui Po, a working-class neighbourhood in Kowloon, “Not for commerce, but to spread culture, to promote the utopian state that all of us carry in our minds. It’s exciting!”
Hong Kong – paradoxically – now is a more lively and interesting city in which to live than at any stage in the past 20 years.
Hong Kong identity has also found a resurgence in an embrace of heritage and the environment. When the beloved Star Ferry pier was demolished in 2006 to make way for a new government land reclamation – the Bauhaus clock tower relegated to landfill and a new faux Victorian pastiche pier built a kilometre further out to sea – protesters turned out to mourn not only the destruction of a heritage building but the loss to Hong Kongers’ “collective memory”, the memory of thousands of journeys such as those I took in my first days in Hong Kong, across the glittering harbour mornings and into the heart of Central.
Anyone who has visited Hong Kong knows that Hong Kong thrives in the night. Rainbow-hued neon signs arch across the streets, lighting up the sky above bustling street markets. The cha chaan teng (teahouses) buzz well after midnight with youngsters scoffing down curried fish balls and milk tea. The mah-jong tiles of my neighbours rattle and clack until dawn. And as the late-night revellers stumble home, thinking it is still last night, those of us up early to enjoy the Hong Kong morning know that it is already a new day.
Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, published July 1 by Penguin, $9.99.
Article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 30 June 2017