Features | Politics | East Asia

Can Hong Kong Control Own Fate?

This month’s selection of a pro-Beijing chief executive sparked anger in Hong Kong. The city has a long and awkward history of being at the mercy of others.

By Anka Lee for

On April 1, exactly one week after a committee stuffed with pro-Beijing electors chose Leung Chun-ying to be the third post-colonial Chief Executive of Hong Kong, thousands of people took to the streets and vented their anger toward mainland China for meddling in the city’s affairs. Some even donned large replicas of Chinese tanks, presumably symbolizing the fear that Beijing had started cracking down on the former British colony. It seemed as though people took to the streets to express the worry that the city they had always known – free, vibrant, and open – was gradually slipping away. And they wanted to do something about it.

As the recent “election” shows, Hong Kong has a complicated relationship with the mainland. In its dealings with China, the city has constantly balanced between accommodation and suspicion, belongingness and resentment, worried if it could retain its distinctiveness or risked becoming just one of many Chinese cities. Yet, in a larger sense, none of this is new, and one can’t understand the dynamics being played out today simply by referencing the anger toward the “small circle” election or Beijing-friendly tycoons. Instead, it’s necessary to explore the experience of a city that, for most of its history, has routinely felt the pressure of living under someone else’s control.

A short tale from the Cold War will, perhaps, provide some color to this relationship:

Looking back before the “election,” emotions were already running high weeks before Leung won the leadership pick. Back in January, a Hong Konger started berating a mainland tourist for eating on one of the city’s subway trains. The local man noticed shreds of noodle bits falling on the floor, and proceeded to lecture the visitor for violating Hong Kong’s widely observed civility rules. All this was captured on video, and what ensued was a widely-circulated public rantby Kong Qingdong, a literature professor at China’s Peking University, calling Hong Kongers “running dogs” for treating their mainland brethrens with disrespect. Some Hong Kong activists, in turn, took out ads in papers, calling mainland tourists “locusts.”

In the midst of the escalating rhetoric, few outside of the city will remember that there was a time when Hong Kongers, living as colonial subjects in an undemocratic British territory facing a seething communist regime to the north, feared every day a Chinese invasion. Border clashes happened occasionally between the city and the mainland. In the summer of 1967, at the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a gun fight, involving revolutionary Red Guards, killed five Hong Kong police officers. And while political banners like “Down with American Imperialism” dotted the landscape on the Chinese side, the British side was described as:

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“a set of three, steel-link fences, topped with barbed wire. One hundred yards back from the fence are gun emplacements for Gurkha troops. Land Rovers filled with Scots Guards and the Black Watch drive by, along single-lane roads. British regiments are in full battle garb; weapons are on loaded and ready.”

As James Watson, an American ethnographer working in Hong Kong at the time, described, it was a place filled with Cold War intrigue, and in feel and significance the border there wasn’t all that much different from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

None of the border precautions, however, were able to stop Mao sympathizers living in Hong Kong from fomenting months of rioting that summer, unsettling a city already on edge. Around that time, Ming Pao (a Hong Kong magazine similar to the Atlantic Monthly), ran lengthy articles detailing how communist leaders living in Hong Kong had, for months, planned and trained to stir up trouble. Supposedly, leftist leaders had been meeting and working with mainland agents in neighboring Macau – then a Portuguese colony, also in turmoil – and learned to inflame anti-colonial feelings, which they had hoped to exploit in Hong Kong.

But the disturbances backfired on the communist leaders. The string of rioting and bombings had killed dozens, and public opinion landed strongly against the Mao sympathizers. The city’s authorities were lauded for the way they handled the unrest, and Queen Elizabeth II even granted the royal title to the Hong Kong police force. Still, reality had set in – the riots demonstrated the extent of China’s influence over Hong Kong, so what would happen after Britain’s lease expired in a generation’s time, in 1997? This was no comforting thought for anyone looking at China then, and even less so for Hong Kongers: their future would be decided by London and Beijing, without their consent.

Within a decade after such unrest, the two countries began discussions about the future of Hong Kong. An agreement was finally reached in 1984, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, stating that the city would revert to Chinese control, albeit as a “special administrative region” with its own set of laws, on July 1, 1997. Many Hong Kongers were unsure of what to make of it all. Some were livid. Emily Lau, who now sits on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and is often critical of Beijing’s policies, was a journalist at the time of the Sino-British agreement. She made her displeasure known to the prime minister at a press conference, asking: how does it feel to deliver the people of Hong Kong to the hands of a communist party?

Those who have lived in Hong Kong will know that the city is obsessed with countdowns, from the mundane (minutes to go before Christmas arrives) to the consequential (remaining days until China regains control) to the distant future not yet known (years until 2047, when Hong Kong’s status as a “special administrative region” expires).

Perhaps this is one way a people collectively cope when, knowing that at the end of the day, others – whether London or Beijing – are the ones who determine their city’s course. But counting down is also, in some senses, a way to articulate a sense of vigilance or demonstrate civic consciousness, as the young protestors are now doing in response to the latest decision from above. Given its history, it’s true that the city always seems to be slipping away. But at least there’s something that the people can do in response.

Anka Lee is an Asia security analyst and writer whose articles have been published in outlets including TIME and NBC News.