July 1, 1997 was the start of a great opportunity. Here was a reasonably prosperous, Chinese-majority territory freed from colonial rule, however benign.
At the time we appeared to enjoy immense opportunities. We were certainly more international than Taiwan, and we had free speech, a diverse press and tradition of liberalism which made a striking contrast to, say, Singapore, which has been tightly ruled by a single party.
For a while it seemed all was well. Hong Kong survived the Asian financial crisis better than most. Many Hongkongers who had previously left for Canada, Australia, etc., in the years of fear after the Tiananmen bloodbath returned.
But within the local power clique, cronyism, anxiety to play yesman to Beijing, and the desire to be in Beijing’s pocket soon started to corrupt Hong Kong.
That in turn has led to fear, anxiety and resentment, especially on the part of the local young, and which helped to prompt the Umbrella Movement.
Mutual distrust between Hongkongers and Beijing is now profoundly deep. While Taiwan continued to have free and fair elections, changes of government, and enhancement of the rule of law, Hong Kong’s progress in bringing real democracy, in making a reality of the phrase “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” came practically to a halt. Much to its disadvantage, Hong Kong was being ruled by a business and bureaucratic elite which had roots in the colonial system and grew ever stronger after 1997.
Such “old batteries,” as they’re called here, are those who advanced by cosying up to the Brits and have now become key figures in the Beijing loyalist camp.
And a lazy, ineffectual Hong Kong administration unable to upset entrenched systems was content that Hong Kong should (possibly) just be better than other cities in China. Vast revenues from land were squandered on mega projects of dubious utility, while the needs of an ageing population got scant attention from a basically unaccountable bureaucracy.
Worse still, the rise in officially sponsored Chinese chauvinism over the last three years or so has begun to undermine one of Hong Kong’s pillars – multinationalism and racial diversity.
The “blood patriotism” now being preached is a racist insult to the hundreds of thousands of non-ethnic Chinese for whom Hong Kong is, and always has been, home. While Singapore has been welcoming migrants of many ethnicities to build its economy and its international links, Hong Kong is being pushed into an ethnic corner. That will only hasten the day the Hong Kong identity ceases to be recognised.
The suppression of Hong Kong’s autonomy and diversity is what I call Beijing’s attempt to “mainlandise” Hong Kong. Hongkongers must continue with our fight for true democracy: one man one vote without any candidacy vetting by Beijing, and our fight against mainlandisation. We stand firm, and tall.