Opinion | Hong Kong was not supposed to look like this

Pro-democracy protesters are arrested by police during a clash at a demonstration in October 2019 in Hong Kong.  (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters are arrested by police during a clash at a demonstration in October 2019 in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
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Hong Kong was not supposed to look like this, 25 years after the end of British colonial rule and midway through China’s promised 50 years of autonomy and personal freedoms.

There are now more than 1,000 political prisoners languishing in Hong Kong’s jails, among them activists, students, journalists and lawyers. Dozens have been jailed for a year or longer without bail in the legal limbo of “pretrial detention.” Some 47 opposition politicians face possible life in prison because they participated in a primary election, considered subversive in the new Hong Kong.

Civil society has been decimated, with more than 50 activist groups shuttered by the government or pressured to close. Campus student unions have been dissolved. The giant Confederation of Trade Unions, with at least 70 affiliated unions, disbanded in October. One of the largest affiliates, the 100,000-member Professional Teachers Union, closed down after being branded a “malignant tumor” in China’s state-run media. Popular media outlets have been shut or voluntarily closed, their online archives scrubbed clean.

International groups have not been spared. Organizations advocating for democracy, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, have been accused of fomenting unrest. Human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have shuttered their local offices.

Statues commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre have been removed. Books deemed too politically sensitive have been pulled from shelves in public libraries and bookstores. High school textbooks are being rewritten to emphasize protecting China’s national security and insist that Hong Kong was not actually a British colony. Hong Kong police officers have been taught to goose-step mainland-style during drills and parades, and children must participate in mandatory morning rituals raising the Chinese flag.

Now, career police officer John Lee Ka-chiu – dubbed Iron Man in the local media for his supposed toughness – has been appointed Hong Kong’s next chief executive. The United States has imposed sanctions on Lee “for being involved in coercing, arresting, detaining, or imprisoning individuals under the authority of the National Security Law.”

In 1997, many people here assumed that after 25 years, mainland China would look more like Hong Kong – more liberal and far less anchored by archaic-sounding Communist Party ideology. As China grew richer and more globally connected, the thinking went, the country would become more democratic and open to the world.

What happened instead has been the opposite. In 2022, Hong Kong looks more like China – repressive, intolerant of dissent, suspicious of foreigners and bent on indoctrinating the entire population with an enforced loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and its whitewashed view of history.

Local officials now claim to see ubiquitous “foreign forces” seeking to overthrow the government behind all recent incidents of unrest. According to this paranoid worldview, the massive 2019 street protests against an unpopular extradition bill were all plots orchestrated by foreigners who manipulated or paid naive locals to march against the government.

Britain never brought full democracy. But Hong Kongers did vote when given the chance and a choice, for the local Legislative Council and smaller neighborhood-based district councils.

Nearly 60 percent turned out for competitive Legislative Council elections in 2016, and more than 73 percent turned out in November 2019, in the wake of massive anti-government protests, to hand pro-democracy parties a landslide sweep of the district councils. Then 47 opposition politicians and activists were detained, and Beijing retooled the election system to ensure a pliant “patriotic” Legislative Council with no opposition. Turnout plummeted to about 30 percent, with many of those who bothered to show up spoiled casting or blank ballots.

Now Hong Kongers are voting with their feet. Hong Kong has seen a net outflow of some 157,000 people in the first quarter of the year, leading to fretting about a “brain drain” of accountants, engineers and IT professionals. So many young families have left that top elementary and high schools – where it was once difficult to find a place – are now struggling to fill thousands of vacancies.

Can Hong Kong survive as a more tightly controlled, authoritarian version of its former self? There is evidence it can.

The city’s location still makes it the most central hub for anyone doing business with China and a convenient connector between the Chinese mainland and Southeast Asia. That role has taken a hit during the pandemic, as the city has instituted some of the world’s most stringent anti-virus measures, but most expect it to resume once covid-19 restrictions are eased.

Unlike the mainland, Hong Kong has an internationally exchangeable currency pegged to the US dollar. And while the national security law has weaponized the legal system against dissent, the parallel court system that handles routine commercial and contract law cases and business disputes continues to be highly respected.

China can always send in replacements for the people leaving in droves, a pressure valve for the growing number of mainland university graduates facing a bleak employment market.

Hong Kong will indeed survive by changing and adapting, as it always has. It will likely even prosper. It just might not be recognizable to anyone who knew it, and loved it, before.

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