Hongkongers making history
Anglo-Chinese writer Han Suyin once wrote that Hong Kong was “a pimple on China’s bottom.” Lately, that small sore has erupted into a painful ulcer that has infected the territory lying below southern China.
Living in Hong Kong during the time of Britain’s handover of the territory to China on July 1, 1997, I witnessed that historic event when mixed feelings of uncertainty and dread were palpable in the city’s local as well as foreign inhabitants. There was a drizzle at the time, which threatened to become heavy. As a friend and I mingled with the crowds on the Central waterfront during that historic moment, one agreed with observers who said the heavens were crying.
China’s lease allowing Britain to occupy the territory has a long history behind it that included trade and opium wars, which compromised China’s sovereignty and economic power for almost a century. Administering the area for 156 years, the colonials may have reaped more benefits for themselves, but they also introduced liberal notions among the populace.
Prior to 1997, there were murmurings among some quarters that it wasn’t imperative for the UK to divest itself of what had once been an area of barren rocks which they’d turned into a prosperous enclave. But then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not wanting the issue to roil future relations with China, went ahead with the handover. As concessions for those who feared a full-fledged communist ideology imposed on the territory, Hong Kong was termed a “special administrative region,” with a high degree of autonomy for its inhabitants and a “one country, two systems” form of government for the next 50 years.
Chinese refugees who’d sought exile in the territory had labored, under benevolent British rule, to turn it into a capitalistic-style place. It is the only home their children know where they enjoy the basic freedoms that mainland Chinese do not have. Quite a number who feared having to lose those freedoms under Communism migrated to Western countries before 1997.
The recent protests over the past few weeks, which have brought that financial hub to a standstill, has its origin in a crime committed earlier in Taiwan by 19-year-old Hongkonger Chan Tong-kai. He and his 20-year-old girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing went there for a holiday, but things turned badly awry. During an argument, the pregnant Poon taunted her boyfriend about not being the father of her child, so enraging him that he strangled her to death and stuffed her body in a suitcase, which he left by a Taipei train station.
When Taiwanese prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Chan, complications arose. The Beijing government considers Taiwan part of its territory, and Hong Kong, being a semiautonomous region, does not have an extradition treaty with Taiwan. So the Hong Kong government proposed legislation that would allow the city to send criminal suspects to China. The plan was announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, backed by her superiors in Beijing. The plan immediately provoked one of Hong Kong’s largest protests since the one after the Tiananmen massacres in 1989. In 2014, another revolt called the “Umbrella Movement” involved civil disobedience, which blocked some city streets for a spell. The protest then was over China’s refusal to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage.
The present fracas has succeeded in revitalizing the territory’s beleaguered prodemocracy opposition. This time, an estimated million people, out of a city of some 7.4 million, took to the streets to show their outrage over the extradition plan. The demonstrations were such that Lam was forced to withdraw the bill, but that did not satisfy the protesters who demanded she step down.
At first, the demonstrations centered on certain districts of the city, but they quickly grew larger. With police wielding batons and using tear gas, the protesters armed themselves with improvised missiles, bottles, traffic cones, steel traffic barriers, even umbrellas. When the rioting mobs overran the airport, considered one of the busiest in the world, luggage trolleys and steel fences were used against the police. This prompted the authorities to place the airport on lockdown, resulting in most incoming and outgoing flights being suspended and passengers becoming stranded. That was like a death rattle for Hong Kong as a global financial center.
Over the years, when I got to know Hongkongers to whom I taught the complexities of the English language, it was easy to sympathize with their “We are Hongkongers not Chinese” slogan. One recent poster at the airport proclaimed “Hong Kong is not China.”
As China grapples with separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, they will refuse to further lose face by allowing Hong Kong to assert its independence. Already, the tanks are massing on the Shenzhen border, but whether Beijing will risk shedding the blood of their compatriots is imponderable.
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Isabel Escoda left Hong Kong in 2015 after having lived and worked there for almost 40 years.