Just a decade ago, most Hong Kong residents would say the return to Chinese rule did not bring many changes, but since then, rising tensions with Běijīng have begun to dominate Hong Kong politics and public sentiment, putting the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ experiment in question. A city that was known for its political antipathy during the 150 years of British rule has become highly politicised.
The State of Play
Hong Kong has witnessed much political strife since the turn of the decade. Critics of the government have focused on a long list of increasingly intractable issues, from slow democratic reform and the perceived collusion between the government and big businesses, to stifling property prices and the perceived drain on public resources by mainland migrants.
Since the Běijīng-stamped appointment of Carrie Lam to Hong Kong's top post in 2017, there has been little change and a sense of political foreboding lingers in the air. The combination of divisive party politics and the lack of a democratic mandate has caused many to condemn the government as weak, and hopelessly so when faced with vested interests as strong as the largest developers.
In 2018 Hong Kong was named the least affordable housing market in the world for the eighth consecutive year, showing just how depressingly expensive it has become to live in the city. The property market is flush with cash from mainland speculators and Hong Kong has more billionaires than most countries, but many more struggle to meet basic levels of subsistence; some live in spaces no bigger than 10 sq m. Despite reasonable economic growth in the past few years, Hong Kong’s economy has become increasingly reliant on the financial sector and the spending power of mainland tourists.
In Běijīng's Shadow
Once savvy and confident, many Hong Kongers are worried about what they see as the government's attempt at homogenisation. From his seat in Běijīng, President Xi Jinping has stepped up interventions in Hong Kong affairs. What is most feared is a premature erosion of the autonomy negotiated for the SAR. The opening in 2018 of the new Kowloon West cross-border rail terminus, partially governed by mainland laws despite being well inside Hong Kong turf, has only served to heighten these concerns of encroachment.
The seemingly headlong rush for the Chinese tourist dollar, with the attendant proliferation of luxury stores and galleries, has bred discontent among critics. Resulting rent hikes across the board are fuelling inflation and forcing traditional shops out of business – many point to Hollywood Rd, where stalwart small antiques dealers are shutting their doors, changing the face of this heritage streetscape.
Cultural differences between Hong Kongers and mainland migrants, and the influx of tariff-dodging parallel traders to border towns are other sources of conflict. Interestingly, one saving grace is that China may not be quite as enthralled with Hong Kong as it once was, because the SAR's importance to the Chinese economy is waning. At the time of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong accounted for almost 20% of China's GDP; today it is less than 3%.
Yet despite the general mood of anxiety, all is not doom and gloom. If anything, these challenges are strengthening the identity of Hong Kong's local community and bringing into greater focus the core values it holds dear (namely, the rule of law and civil liberties).
Rebellion & Rebound
Hong Kong's youth are increasingly becoming involved in politics as many believe that the baby-boomer generation in power does not represent their interests. They're also coming to the forefront of resistance. In September 2014, protesters – many of them students – took to the streets to speak out against planned reforms to the local electoral system which they claimed would limit the potential for universal suffrage. The protests grew into a thousands-strong pro-democracy campaign known variously as Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement. The protests lasted for three months and saw semi-permanent tent villages overtake several main arteries in Hong Kong, and sometimes-violent clashes with police. Since then, several student leaders have launched a new political party.
At Lunar New Year 2016, a government crackdown on unlicensed hawkers turned violent as riot police clashed with protesters in an incident that came to be known as the Fishball Riot. Traditionally authorities have turned a blind eye to street-food vendors during the territory's most important festival.
Since then, local defiance has wavered. The annual 1 July protest march, organised by the Civil Human Rights Front every year since the handover in 1997, hit a three-year low on the 21st anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China in 2018. Local activists are worried that apathy is beginning to set in. New chief executive Carrie Lam has made it clear that she feels the best way to preserve Hong Kong's distinct systems is to succumb to the city's 'one country' future.
On the flip side, part of the city’s growing assertion of its identity is an increasing drive to preserve its heritage. Many Hong Kongers bristle at any perceived threat to the use of Cantonese or traditional Chinese characters, or to the wellbeing of country parks and old neighbourhoods. Collectives have flowered to document the social history of storied neighbourhoods caught in the tide of urban redevelopment. The perennial tussle for space has also seen the growth of alternative cultural venues and farms. As always, there’s more than meets the eye in this pulsating metropolis, which has time and again shown an extraordinary ability to rebound, adapt and excel.