How China changed Hong Kong: views from the city

As the 20th anniversary of the handover from the UK to China is marked, the Guardian talks to residents and officials about the shifts since 1997

Hong Kong is preparing to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of the territory from the UK to China. The moment will bring thousands on to the streets – some to celebrate and others to protest. Here the Guardian asks six Hong Kong residents about their memories of 1997 and their thoughts on the city’s future.

Yau Wai-ching, disqualified lawmaker

Hong Kong people have been forced to pay for a deceit.

Yau Wai-ching in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district.
Yau Wai-ching in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district. Photograph: Benjamin Haas/The Guardian

At midnight on 30 June 1997, I remember a heavy rain and my eyes nearly closing, almost falling asleep. But I didn’t. I was forced to concentrate on my parent’s old television screen, watching two flags: one was the flag of United Kingdom, the other was China’s. I tried to ask my mom about what was happening on that screen, but I could not understand, except for the one phrase that I learned that evening: handover.

Nothing changed the next day. In my world as a six-year-old I was waiting till September when I would become a primary 1 student. My parents said the handover meant nothing to them as they still had to work and pay taxes. Everything seemed to remain unchanged, exactly what the Chinese government promised to the Hong Kong people.

But then year by year, Cantonese began to be replaced by Mandarin, our constitutional laws made in the 1980s have been amended and “interpreted” by the Chinese government, and values among Hong Kongers changed after an influx of more than a million immigrants from China since 1997. Those mainlanders have come to dominate much of the social atmosphere. Locals are now always blamed as discriminating against those new immigrants if we ever expressed a different viewpoint and sometimes we are even slandered as fascists or racists.

In these past 20 years, Hong Kongers still believe in law and justice, fairness and democracy, but we no longer believe in the system and rules created by the Chinese government. Instead of becoming more like Hong Kong, the Chinese government will use any type of propaganda or immigration policy to make us more like them.

We have started to realise that the United Kingdom and China signed a treaty in 1984 that was supposed to protect Hong Kong, but it has turned out to be a deception and a joke. Since the handover all Hong Kong people have been forced to pay for that deceit.

Holden Chow, pro-establishment lawmaker

Hong Kong is part of China and we are Chinese: this is a fact and never in dispute.

Holden Chow at his office in Hong Kong’s legislative council.
Holden Chow at his office in Hong Kong’s legislative council. Photograph: Benjamin Haas/The Guardian

I was in UK back in 1997 doing my A-levels, and I returned to Hong Kong before 1 July to witness the handover ceremony. As a patriot, I was always happy to see the handover and the establishment of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. I believe the “one country, two systems” works well: Hong Kong indeed has been able to sustain prosperity and with the full support from central government, we even have survived global economic crisis.

It is reasonable for us to expect challenges and conflicts to arise in the course of implementing the “one country, two systems” principle. But what really matters is how do we resolve such conflicts. The opposition or the so-called pan-democrats probably prefer stirring up conflicts, or to simply blow everything out of proportion. Owing to the Occupy movement orchestrated by the opposition, Hong Kong has become heavily divided. The pan-democrats might clock up public support in the course of instigating upheaval in the city, but that is done at the expense of the city’s interests.

As a member of the pro-establishment camp, I reckon settling conflicts in an amicable way is a better choice than what the opposition has been doing.

The majority of Hong Kong people have never supported the notorious idea of Hong Kong independence. Hong Kong is part of China and we are Chinese: this is a fact and never in dispute.

The growth and development of China indeed offers opportunities to Hong Kong too. I trust “one country, two systems” is the best option for Hong Kong and for mainland China too, and the central government fully understands this. The opposition has always been falsely accusing that the city has totally lost our autonomy and rule of law, which is utterly untrue. A robust “one country, two systems” regime could be upheld only if the opposition stops attempting to ruin the trust between Hong Kong and central government, such as peddling separatism, or condoning the wrongful conduct in oath-taking saga.

Zhang Zhenping, dumpling stall owner

For all of Hong Kong’s faults, it’s still a more free place.

Zhang Zhenping, a dumpling stall owner originally from Tianjin, China, in her shop in Hong Kong.
Zhang Zhenping, a dumpling stall owner originally from Tianjin, China, in her shop in Hong Kong. Photograph: Benjamin Haas/The Guardian

When I first arrived in Hong Kong from China in the early 90s, there was intense energy. I came here to make money, and even though I do not have a lot of education or culture, I lived well and I could provide for my family making dumplings in a restaurant.

Hong Kong was a far more equal place 20 years ago and there was more economic growth for everyone. People like me at the bottom still got bonuses and although I worked hard, sweating in kitchens making hundreds of dumplings, wontons and buns every day, my money felt like it was worth more. Now I’m working even harder for less.

Since the handover life has become much harder for ordinary working people, prices for everything is going up and it has hit people like me the most. These changes don’t affect the rich, but I only make food, because I don’t have any culture and I can never be rich.

These days all the economic opportunities are in China; Hong Kong can’t compete. My old boss from the restaurant closed his business here and went back to Beijing. He said he could make more money there.

I chose to stay, so I opened a dumpling stall three years ago. It’s not much, but I’m my own boss – a little boss, but still a boss.

But despite all the hardship and bitterness, I feel better here. I go back to my hometown in China maybe once a year. People have money, but they have so much life pressures and are miserable.

I don’t want to go back to the mainland, I don’t like the politics there – at least here people can say what they want. For all of Hong Kong’s faults, it’s still a more free place.

Amy Cheung, artist

We seem to march towards unprecedented polarisation at every level of society.

Artist Amy Cheung at her home in Hong Kong.
Artist Amy Cheung at her home in Hong Kong. Photograph: Benjamin Haas/The Guardian

I was studying in London in 1997, a year that marked my identity enlightenment. In Britain, many people asked me once they knew that I came from Hong Kong: “How do you feel about Hong Kong being returned to China? Are you scared? Don’t you worry about your liberal way of life being crushed by the Communist China? Are they going to control your press, internet, restrict your freedom of speech, religion, travel, currency and the rule of law?”

Others speculated: “You must be so happy that Hong Kong now returns to the embrace of the Motherland, ending your shame of living as colonised subject. You can now stand tall with pride to acknowledge that you are sons and daughters of the dragon, with 5,000 years of civilisation, part of a great China – the Middle Kingdom.”

My face went blank. Cold sweat. I opened my mouth but my tongue vanished. My brain scanned through the large quantity of information that had been spoon-fed to me since I was born, all data, facts, names, workbooks, trainings for tests and exams that I excelled at to get to where I was. But I was so ignorant about the constituencies of my identity, cultural heritage; moral, ethical and national value; belief systems, duties, rights and all collateral issues related.

Was this intentional negligence a colonial education package? I still wonder. Twenty years ago, identity politics had failed to arrest either learners’ or educators’ attention, unlike today. I was thoroughly embarrassed by my inability to feel any emotion at that critical juncture of our history. I was not altogether indifferent, although it seems hard now to imagine that my generation grew up apolitical.

However, I did witness the “self-determination” discourse that took off steadily after 1997. An awareness of our political identity burst into our communal consciousness, from the momentum gathered around the anti-subversion law, anti-national education protest, the annual 1 July rally, umbrella revolution, and the endless paralysing fight between the pro-establishment and pan-democratic camp.

In 2017, I felt breathless to experience Hong Kong at such a high emotional altitude. Blood is easily boiled, grey zones get greyer, reconciliations are almost impossible. I don’t know how, but we seem to march self-destructively towards an unprecedented polarisation at every level of society.

Karl Mayer, businessman

Hong Kong people are survivors who stand up quickly after a fall.

Karl Mayer, a German businessman, in front of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.
Karl Mayer, a German businessman, in front of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Photograph: Benjamin Haas/The Guardian

For a fast-moving city like Hong Kong, change is inevitable. Still little had changed immediately after the handover to China and for the first years the only obvious change was the knowledge that now the Chinese army was stationed in Prince Edward building hoisting the Chinese flag in the middle of Hong Kong.

In the late 90s, Hong Kong still seemed to remain a free city running its own system and still flourishing from being considered the gateway to China. Even the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, at least tried to protect the interests of Hong Kong people and negotiate with the Chinese government on eye level. This, however, rapidly changed with the arrival of the new millennium and the gold-rush atmosphere in mainland China.

Hong Kong lost its role as gateway to China and international customers started to deal directly with the mainland. Hong Kong’s response was to quickly adapt by trying to establish the city as an entertainment, amusement, shopping and tourism hub and the concept worked out with masses of tourists flowing into Hong Kong every year especially from China.

Becoming part of China will remain the big topic over the next 30 years and the subtle efforts from Beijing to infiltrate Hong Kong with language, education and the election system will become more overt and direct and will affect also other areas such as finance, trade, taxes and politics. To communicate this to the HK people and the world in a positive way will be the most important role of the newly elected chief executive.

The stream of tourists will eventually ebb, especially from China who will start travelling to countries further abroad. Although they enjoy excellent food and views in Hong Kong, the city does not bring home fond memories of being treated respectfully, kind and politely.

Only having old and rich people in a city who only come in the winter to rest and enjoy the warmth and pleasantries of Hong Kong will turn the city into something like Monaco in Europe.

On the other hand I have to say that I experienced Hong Kong people as survivors who stand up quickly after a fall and adapt rapidly to new situations as they have shown after the handover.

Richard Margolis, former UK diplomat

China must keep its promises – but Hong Kong has to keep its side of the bargain as well.

Richard Margolis, a former UK diplomat who negotiated the terms of Hong Kong’s handover to China.
Richard Margolis, a former UK diplomat who negotiated the terms of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Photograph: Benjamin Haas/The Guardian

Twenty years after the handover, the key elements which make Hong Kong different from China are still present: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience and an independent judiciary. Will this continue, especially since Hong Kong’s importance to China has receded in the past 20 years? Answer: yes – but only if both Hong Kong and Beijing keep their sides of the bargain.

Before explaining this, a couple of basic notions which are often overlooked:

  • It is not and never has been a necessary condition for Hong Kong’s survival for China to be ruled by people who share the values that underpin Hong Kong.
  • All that is required of China’s leaders is that they perceive a balance of advantage to them in continuing to accept Hong Kong’s separateness.

That balance of advantage is less overwhelmingly obvious than it was 20 years ago, but still exists, in my view. And China’s leaders have huge challenges – excess industrial capacity, excess debt, slowing growth, rapidly ageing population – which means that their overwhelming preference is for Hong Kong to get on with its separate existence, do what it needs to do to adapt to a changing world, stay competitive and not bother Beijing.

But Hong Kong has had a tendency since the handover to ask for special deals, such as CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement). And Hong Kong business people acquired the habit of lobbying in Beijing in pursuit of their interests in Hong Kong. All of these activities seem to me against the spirit of the handover arrangements, which were: “You leave us alone and we won’t bother you.”

So my conclusion is that it is, of course, essential that China keep its promises – but Hong Kong has to keep its side of the bargain as well.


Benjamin Haas

The GuardianTramp

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