Posted:  June 20, 2012


Anniversaries are occasions for stock-taking and the exercise can hardly be avoided as Hong Kong completes its 15th year under Chinese rule. If all goes according to plan, President Hu Jintao [胡錦濤] will arrive from Beijing in time for the July First anniversary celebrations and officiate at the swearing in of Hong Kong’s controversial new leader, Leung Chun-ying [梁振英]. Leung will be the third local Chief Executive to hold office since the last British governor, Christopher Patten, sailed away on June 30, 1997. It is sure to be a grand occasion but stock-taking will not be easy. Inventories depend on how much was sold and how much stock remains. Report cards for 15 years after the transfer from colonial to Chinese authority depend as much on subjective (partisan) expectations as objective balance sheets and if this month’s build-up is any indication, the July First anniversary will likely be as tumultuous as it is grand.


No one on either side of the mainland-Hong Kong divide, whatever their partisan political inclinations, knew for sure what to expect. In terms of hopes and fears, 1997 was the best and worst of times and everyone remained on guard as the new era began. The worst economic predictions about “the death of Hong Kong,” soon took on a whole new meaning that had nothing to do with the new sovereign. On the contrary, China escaped the worst effects of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and Beijing helped Hong Kong weather the economic downturn in many ways.

Worst fears also did not materialize for those more concerned about politics than economics. Despite Beijing’s open animosity, leading democracy fighters Martin Lee [李柱銘] and Szeto Wah [司徒華] were never sent to jail for anything and they soon forgot their worries about being barred from reentry if they traveled abroad. But it was a result they had worked to achieve. Throughout the preparatory 1980s and 1990s, whenever rights and freedoms seemed at risk, each challenge was met with protest and resistance. One example was the candlelight vigil that had been held each year since 1990, to remember those killed during Beijing’s June 3-4, 1989 crackdown against democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

The then Chief Executive-designate, Tung Chee-hwa [董建華], tried his best. In a televised address to the city on June 2, 1997, he said it was time to “lay down the baggage” of June Fourth. In response, public attendance at the vigil was upwards of 50,000, the highest turnout in five years (Ming Pao, June 5, 2012; Hong Kong Standard, June 5, 1997). Thereafter, nothing more was heard of his administration’s plans to close the Victoria Park venue in 1998 “for renovations.” The commemoration, banned everywhere else in China, is always held in the same location and has remained an annual event despite Beijing’s pressure to end it.

Worst fears did not always dominate pre-1997 perspectives, of course, but the highest of hopes also did not materialize for either side. On occasion, after a good day or at farewell dinner parties, liberals (as today’s pan-democrats liked to call themselves) would proclaim to rounds of applause that there was nothing to fear because China would be joining Hong Kong rather than vice versa. They toasted themselves as bridge-builders across the 1997 divide, helping to create a new democratic China.

On other occasions liberals had to listen to conservative hopes and aspirations. This might happen after an especially tough day at the bargaining table with Beijing representatives and Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive-elect who was then a close collaborator in the work of dismantling all Governor Patten’s democratic reforms. When asked the purpose of legislative designs like proportional representation and small-circle constituencies, conservatives were sometimes candid enough to reveal their aim. The idea was to marginalize democrats by depriving them of their new-won 1990s electoral majorities and the public recognition that came with them. Professor Lau Siu-kai [劉兆佳], who also collaborated closely in the dismantling work, predicted that Beijing would just ignore its democratic critics and try to drive them into “political irrelevance” (Hong Kong Standard, Feb. 26, 27, 1996).

Ultimately, Hong Kong’s “way of life” did remain unchanged, just as Chinese leaders and Article 5 of its new Basic Law constitution promised. But one side’s highest hopes stoked the other’s worst fears, all revolving around the central question of China’s political reform agenda. We can never have democracy in Hong Kong until China itself has democracy, said activist politicians. In response, Beijing dusted off its deepest oldest Cold War fears about Hong Kong as a nest of spies and base of subversion bent on overthrowing China’s communist-led government. Pre-1997 tensions rooted in these two assumptions have continued ever since over every issue, big and small, that concerns Hong Kong’s political freedoms and way of life.


Professor Lau’s prediction seemed to be coming true throughout the first five years after 1997. With no economic training or experience of their own, democracy activists and politicians were derided by friend and foe alike as “one trick ponies.” They had no choice but defer to their big business critics and to Beijing for guidance while Hong Kong tried to navigate its way through the economic downturn. These were also the years when the Democratic Party began losing its most energetic “Young Turk” members, although their departure seemed to do nothing either for the party’s prospects or the movement it once led.  The pony seemed to be so demoralized that it forgot even the one trick it had once mastered.

Political street life was as lackluster as the Legislative Council’s dead-end debates, and Szeto Wah began complaining that his Democratic Party candidates lacked sufficient resources to compete with the services their opponents were laying on for District Council constituents. The party had realized, he said, that their pre-1997 goal of democratizing China was unrealistic.  Without precedents or institutional memories to guide them, democrats were having trouble enough keeping their goals alive in Hong Kong itself.

After 1997, Prof. Lau headed the Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit think tank and he is only now retiring from his post as official government pollster. His habit of predicting what his superiors wanted to hear nevertheless ended abruptly on July 1, 2003, and he has kept a low profile ever since. A few days before, based on CPU polling, Lau told journalists that only about 30,000 people would turn out for a protest march against the government’s attempt to push through its national security legislation as mandated by the Basic Law’s Article 23. Instead, at least half-a-million angry residents marched across town on a sweltering summer holiday and Prof. Lau has never been allowed to forget it.  Hong Kong’s democracy movement rediscovered its original purpose in protecting Hong Kong from the dangers of mainland-style rule that had suddenly taken on immediate relevance.

Beijing was startled to discover the depth of opposition it had been led to believe did not exist and pushed back against the renewed momentum.  In 2009, one of Beijing’s “Hong Kong experts” provided a rare concise account of Beijing’s response. Prior to July 1, 2003, wrote Professor CHENG Jie [ 程傑 ], Beijing had viewed Hong Kong as “politically-subdued territory” due to its long acceptance of British colonial rule. The “surprisingly broad-based resentments” demonstrated on July 1, 2003, directed both against the Hong Kong and central governments, led Beijing to replace its “laissez faire” approach with a “new policy.” This emphasized “engagement and involvement, and the central government’s authority over a subsidiary territory.” She called it a “watershed” for both sides.*

Since then, Beijing’s interventions have been conspicuous by their presence including a highly publicized political study campaign conducted by Beijing’s Basic Law “guardians” in early 2004; new rules that mandated Beijing’s prior approval for all political reform initiatives; explicit affirmation that Beijing’s right to appoint all leading Hong Kong government officials was substantive not symbolic; and direct participation by Central Liaison Office mainland personnel in local political debates. Policies and projects for cross-border economic and social integration have also accelerated. But to what effect?


If July 1, 2003 was a watershed moment, what to make of this year’s June Fourth candlelight vigil commemorating the 23rd anniversary of Beijing’s crackdown against its own home grown democracy movement? There was no special reason for the huge turnout this year. Organizers (the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China) put the figure at 180,000; police claimed 85,000. But Victoria Park’s six soccer pitches, which hold 80-85,000, were already packed before starting time at 8 p.m. An hour later crowds were still pouring into the adjacent park area where loudspeakers had been set up to accommodate the overflow.  Adding further to its significance, Hong Kong’s successor generations had obviously taken over the event.  Old-timers like Martin Lee were lost in a sea of younger faces.   Organizers also estimated that about one-tenth of the participants were mainlanders … probably more if the northern accents scattered throughout the crowd were any indication.

Unlike the July First marches that target primarily the Hong Kong government, June Fourth has always been a direct challenge to Beijing. The “subversive” slogans have remained the same throughout including the provocative “end one-party dictatorship.” Such overflow crowds have appeared only in 1990 for the first anniversary and 2009 for the twentieth, plus 2010 to honor the event’s terminally ill mainstay, Szeto Hua, and then in 2011 to mourn his passing. But this year there was no special reason … except for a growing sense of public disquiet fueled by several incidents associated with repressive mainland rule, its increasingly apparent intrusions here, and many indications that the Chief Executive-elect will be working more openly with Beijing than either of his predecessors. Specifically, there is a fear that his administration will restrict Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression including especially the ability to articulate dissenting views on the street and in the media.

As for the recent mainland incidents, Hong Kong activists regularly monitor and report on the work of their cross-border counterparts so blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s [ 陳光誠 ] dramatic leap from his Shandong village to New York City in April and May received widespread publicity here.  So did the surprise approval by Hong Kong immigration authorities of a visitor’s visa for 1989-era student activist FANG Zheng [方政 ]. Better-known 1989 dissidents are usually denied entry but Fang has kept a low profile since migrating to the U.S. in 2009. Severely disabled after losing both legs to one of the People’s Liberation Army tanks that cleared Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989, his highly-publicized attendance as an honored guest at the June Fourth vigil was a vivid reminder of the events that Beijing still refuses to acknowledge much less disavow.

Local anger continued to grow after an even more tragic case came to light a few days later, this one from Shaoyang city in Hunan province.  Dissident Li Wangyang [李旺陽] was largely unknown here until his June 2 interview with a Hong Kong cable TV station. He was found dead in his Shaoyang hospital ward on June 6.  Li had been an ordinary worker in 1989 and was among many others who joined students and intellectuals trying to articulate the wide range of grievances that fueled China’s 1989 protests.  Imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary crimes,” the old pre-reform name for subversive activities, he did not do easy time.  Li emerged from prison 10 years later partially blind, deaf, and toothless but still defiant.  He began petitioning local authorities to pay for his medical expenses, was imprisoned for another decade, and released last year while remaining under the usual security surveillance that increased around the June Fourth anniversary. Unable to care for himself, he was hospitalized and found tied to a window grating allegedly a suicide by hanging although both of his feet were resting on the floor.

Photographs of the implausible death scene, transmitted from Shaoyang by his family and friends, filled Hong Kong newspapers within hours and sparked an instantaneous backlash. The Hong Kong Alliance and the Civil Human Rights Front (a coalition of activist groups that has sponsored the annual July First protest marches since 2003) organized an impromptu march on Sunday June 10.  Thousands (organizers: 25,000; police: 5,400) besieged Beijing’s Liaison Office here demanding to know the truth about Li’s death. They suspect he was killed by his minders as punishment for the June 2 interview he had managed to give without their knowledge.

Obviously, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has not faded away and neither has Beijing’s way of governing. If anything, the two are reinforcing each other. Still firm in the spirit of its June Fourth 1989 response, the People’s Liberation Army (Hong Kong garrison) is planning a ceremonial parachute jump directly into Victoria Park as part of the official July First anniversary celebrations (China Daily, June 13). A challenge to the central government’s authority must be met with the reassertion of that authority, as forcefully as possible, regardless of the cost. Yet the relationship is also clearly interactive, working both ways and evolving at its own pace.

Hong Kong’s pan-democrats may be losing out at the ballot box but their feet-on-the-ground are too many to ignore and far from being irrelevant.  For its part, Beijing may be presiding over the same form of one-party rule, but it cannot completely contain Hong Kong’s “bridging” function, which is having an impact after all.  Hong Kongers are interacting with their mainland counterparts on at least one dimension — opening closed lines of political information — that is even more important than elections because without it they become rubber-stamp formalities.  Li Wangyang’s friends hastened to post images of the suicide scene on the internet for all to see before public security closed in.  And presumably not all the photographs mainlanders took of themselves posing in front of Hong Kong’s “subversive” June Fourth protest slogans will be lost in cyberspace.

Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying is undergoing the same two-way squeeze. He says he aims to intensify social and economic cross-border integration as a means of boosting Hong Kong’s economic growth. This has naturally heightened fears about pressure for more political integration that is sure to follow. But another of his campaign promises was public outreach and he is being hounded at every stop to talk about June Fourth, human rights, and the Li Wangyang case.  Before he was allowed to begin speaking at one event the organizers forced him to observe one minute’s silence in Li’s memory.

Leung has consistently declined comment on all sensitive political subjects but he finally spoke out on the one that worries everyone most, namely, their own right to do so.  During a June 18  TV interview, he pledged in so many words not to interfere with Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression in any of its multiple forms.  Whether this will be enough to defuse tensions and reduce the protest march turnout on July First remains to be seen … as does the impact of the PLA’s defiant parachute jump into Victoria Park.

*CHENG Jie, “The Story of a New Policy,” Hong Kong Journal, July 1, 2009 ( ).

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