A brief summary of Hong Kong, its woes, and why the city's youth have it all wrong
Hong Kong continues to be debilitated by riots as the city’s youth ramp up their activities in the last week of school holidays. But how did it all begin? Why are the city’s youth so angry? And was Hong Kong ever democratic under British rule?
Today, I’ll try to sum it all up, and give my own opinions, in a brief and concise way.
How did it all begin?
This current bout of demonstrations began about three months ago after the city government refused to remove a bill that would allow for the extradition of suspects to other countries and regions where they are accused of committing crimes. The bill was first drafted after a 19-year-old Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, brutally murdered his pregnant girlfriend in a Taipei hotel room. He fled back to Hong Kong and, despite admitting to the murder, was not charged and could not be extradited to Taiwan to face trial.
Some Hong Kongers were angered that the bill also proposed sending suspects to the Chinese mainland to face trial. Hong Kong government then amended the proposal to include only crimes that would face seven years or more of prison time in the city, but that didn’t help. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, agreed to withdraw the bill for now, but protesters demanded it be killed for good.
Was British Hong Kong democratic?
No. Hong Kong has never had universal suffrage, despite going through various phases demanding more say under 140-plus years of British rule. Way back in 1856, then-Governor Bowring put forward a suggestion for limited democracy on the island, but it was flatly rejected by London who basically said that Chinese were "uncivilized."
This went on for decades, with various attempts and strikes by Hong Kongers wanting more say in governance ignored. Ironically, it took well into the 1990s, just a few years before the planned handover of Hong Kong back to China, for London to suddenly express an interest in more democracy on the colony. Then Governor Chris Patten said: "People in Hong Kong are perfectly capable of taking a greater share in managing their own affairs in a way that is responsible, mature, restrained, sensible." This was almost a 180-degree turn in policy. Ironic.
Can Hong Kongers vote now?
Yes. The first sign of real democracy came in 1998, a year after Hong Kong returned to China, when locals could vote for the Legislative Council.
Why is Hong Kong so prosperous?
Many of Hong Kong’s youth feel that their city is somehow special, or that their prosperity comes from being associated with Britain for so long. In reality, the city didn’t really become an economic powerhouse until China began to open up in 1978, allowing it to play the role of quasi-gateway to China. As China continued to open up and reform, Hong Kong’s prosperity grew and grew, especially after China joined the WTO in 2001.
Hong Kong was able to attract such huge levels of foreign investment because companies were interested in the huge market to the north, not because of the city of Hong Kong in its own right, per se.
But now Hong Kong’s role as gateway to China is diminishing. When the city returned to China in 1997 it was worth a staggering 18 percent of China’s GDP, but that number has fallen to just 3 percent. Neighboring Shenzhen, which was in many ways modelled of Hong Kong, has exceeded the island financially and technologically.
As Chinese mainland cities like Shanghai continue to open up to the international market more and more, investors no longer need a stepping stone like Hong Kong.
Why are Hong Kong youth so angry?
Hong Kong youth feel they are losing opportunities and are worried about their futures. Hong Kong’s economic power is falling rapidly, and its once unique position has dissipated. But one of the biggest problems has to be Hong Kong’s property situation. It is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own homes, with prices skyrocketing to amongst the highest in the world. For all intents and purposes, Hong Kong is being held to ransom by property developers and billionaires who want to squeeze as much from the limited space as possible.
What should Hong Kong do now?
In my opinion, Hong Kong and its people should embrace their close connections with the Chinese mainland and the amazing opportunities being part of such a huge and ever-expanding economy could bring. The city’s youth seem obsessed with idolizing Britain and America, two powers that are geographically and fundamentally irrelevant to the island’s future.
The “one country, two systems” policy is extremely generous and workable, allowing the city to hold on to some of its freedoms while, at the same time, ensuring safety and security as an intimate part of one of the world’s superpowers.
Hong Kong is currently facing its biggest challenge in recent times, and how the current situation plays out could directly affect the city’s fortunes for the years to come.