Towards evening my soul was disquieted And I urged my carriage up to this ancient plateau, The setting sun has boundless beauty Only the yellow dusk is so near.
In his cable, the diplomat added, “the Chinese often couch political statements in poetic terms.” The former politician’s pessimism was pervasive in Hong Kong at the time, even if it was usually expressed in plainer language. “The common thread running through most discussions was the crisis of confidence, exacerbated by the events of June in Beijing,” Anderson wrote. “Even those who had been relatively confident about 1997 before the events of last spring found themselves fearful in the aftermath of Tiananmen.”
On Saturday, Hong Kong will mark the twentieth anniversary of the British handover of sovereignty. The trepidation that took hold after Tiananmen has never fully dissipated. But the worst fears haven’t come true, either. Shortly after midnight on July 1, 1997, after lowering the Union Jack at a ceremony in Hong Kong Harbor, British colonial administrators sailed away on the yacht Britannia, under a driving rain. The Chinese Army crossed the colonial border, and Beijing’s new viceroy, a Hong Kong tycoon handpicked by the Party, took over the colonial governor’s mansion. Then life went on: gin, horse races, mah-jongg, blazing neon over rain-slicked streets. For the first few years, Hong Kongers bracing for the worst were surprised by Beijing’s light touch. Hong Kong carried on as an Anglophone entrepôt, almost a city-state unto itself, with a separate currency, visa-free entry for most Westerners, three-pronged British electrical outlets, and an uncensored press and Internet.
To this day, Hong Kong remains the sole place on Chinese soil where citizens can march and speak and publish freely, and where discussions of the Tiananmen massacre can be full-throated rather than furtive. This past June 4th, protesters gathered in Victoria Park—still named for the British Queen—as they do every year, to memorialize those killed at Tiananmen. The authorities did not interfere with the demonstration. In the past two decades, Beijing has allowed dissent in Hong Kong, and has even let the territory’s citizens vote for several directly elected seats on a local legislature otherwise stacked with appointed loyalists. In 2014, when Beijing derailed a plan for local direct elections, it sparked the biggest protests in China since Tiananmen. And yet, even then, Beijing resisted an outright crackdown in Hong Kong, opting instead for a policy of bu tuoxie, bu liuxue—no compromise, but no bloodshed, either. This relative tolerance has always been aimed at maintaining global markets’ trust.
In 1984, a U.S. government intelligence contractor predicted that by 1997, “or soon thereafter,” Hong Kong would begin to “resemble the People’s Republic of China.” This prediction has been borne out, but the process has been one of convergence rather than conversion. Mainland Chinese cities have in the past three decades sprouted skyscrapers, shopping malls, and metro lines that resemble Hong Kong’s; often, these structures are built and managed by Hong Kong firms. Hong Kong’s middle-class life styles, its manufacturing-driven export industries, and its pop culture have all melded with the mainland’s. On their gleaming surfaces, Hong Kong and Shanghai look ever more alike.
Yet, lately, interference and intimidation have become more common. Phone calls from Beijing operatives to Hong Kong officials and journalists are now routine. Chinese security agents have disappeared dissidents from the city’s streets. In 2015, several men who published salacious books about the Party leadership were kidnapped, and later surfaced on the mainland’s state television, tearfully confessing to subversion. This spring, a Chinese tycoon wanted by mainland authorities vanished from a harbor-front hotel. Surveillance video showed him, apparently sedated, in a wheelchair, being whisked away by unknown men.
Other changes have been more subtle. Local newspapers, many owned by conglomerates with business interests in the mainland, have become less probing. Hong Kong’s once edgy and adventurous movie industry now produces blander films made for the Chinese market. And independent local prosecutors have paid unusual attention to indicting local protest leaders with vague charges of “conspiracy to commit public nuisance” and “incitement.” The territory’s British-influenced legal system, with its bewigged barristers, carries on, but judges have faced pressure to pledge their patriotism.
These pressures have spurred the growth of a robust local independence movement—something few could have predicted before the handover. Led by indigenous activists known as buntou paai, the movement is a blend of capitalist cosmopolitanism, local resentment, economic populism, and, most surprising, nostalgia for the days of the British Empire. British colonial flags, the ultimate insult to Beijing, now appear regularly at rallies in Hong Kong. The movement’s biggest supporters are young people, with no living memory of Tiananmen, who have lived their entire lives under the sovereignty of the People’s Republic and yet identify as “Hong Kongers” ahead of “Chinese.” On July 1st, while local grandees mark the anniversary of the handover, young activists will be leading what has become an annual protest march. For all the decades of effort by Chinese commissars and Western diplomats to define a future for Hong Kong, the place remains unnerved, uncertain.
On Monday, People’s Daily, a state newspaper in Beijing that is the Party’s self-declared “throat and tongue,” printed a front-page article announcing that President Xi Jinping would visit Hong Kong to mark the anniversary. Such visits are rare from Chinese leaders, who typically feign an arm’s length in administering the territory. The article adopted state media’s signature tone toward Hong Kong: florid family metaphors and condescension laced with menace. The writer gave a slight nod to rising unrest in the former colony; “after a century and a half adrift in the outside world under British rule, Hong Kong may, of course, feel shy or awkward when first returning home,” the writer allowed. Twenty years after its return to the People’s Republic, he noted, the city has not yet achieved “a handover of the human heart.”