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China’s remaking of Hong Kong

The former British colony marks the 25th anniversary under Chinese rule amid celebrations and suppression

Prayer meetings are one of the few public gatherings, not sponsored by the government, that are still allowed on July 1. WORLD photo

China’s remaking of Hong Kong

Red banners commemorating Hong Kong’s 1997 return from British to Chinese rule lined the streets of the city of 7.4 million on Friday. The banners, together with red Chinese and Hong Kong flags, whipped fiercely in the rainy gusts of a typhoon that swept across the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived on a high-speed train to join the 25th anniversary festivities that culminated in Friday’s inauguration of Hong Kong’s sixth chief executive.

Inside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai, Xi swore in John Lee, a pro-Beijing former police officer, as the city’s top leader for the next five years. A flag-raising ceremony took place in Golden Bauhinia Square under an overcast sky as the Hong Kong police goose-stepped, having switched from the British march to the Chinese style.

Twenty-five years since Hong Kong transitioned from a British colony to a special administrative region of China, the Chinese Communist Party has accelerated the remaking of the former British colony in its image. Xi lauded the success of “one country, two systems,” but critics—including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and EU foreign policy spokeswoman Nabila Massrali—have called China out for reneging on its promise to allow Hong Kong to keep much of its autonomy and for breaking an international treaty.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration stipulated Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy in the 50 years following the handover to China, during which it could preserve its unique economic system and way of life.

But changes in Hong Kong have proven otherwise. Authorities imposed unprecedented media restrictions for Friday’s ceremonies in Wan Chai. Citing pandemic precaution, they barred at least 10 local and international media organizations—such as Hong Kong Free Press, Voice of America, Radio France Internationale, and Getty Images—from covering the events. They rejected more reporters from other outlets for security reasons following background checks. Critics see this as the latest blow to Hong Kong’s already deteriorating press freedom.

New high school textbooks are also attempting to whitewash Hong Kong’s past. They claim Hong Kong was not a British colony because Beijing did not recognize the unequal treaties that ceded the city to Britain, local media reported last month. Instead, Britain only exercised colonial rule over the city. These books also adopt the regime’s narrative that the 2019 pro-democracy protests were instigated by foreign forces as they threatened national security.

In recent years, authorities have banned pro-democracy rallies, imposed electoral reforms, jailed activists, and criminalized dissent by imposing the national security law on Hong Kong in 2020. The annual July 1 march that used to draw tens of thousands of Hong Kongers to protest against the government and demand universal suffrage now lives only in citizens’ memory.

Losing the broad freedoms and semi-democratic elections they once enjoyed, Hong Kongers watch their home become a place where almost 200 people have been arrested under the national security law that can punish violators with up to life imprisonment. There are now more than 1,000 political prisoners in Hong Kong, according to the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.

Officials are also employing tactics against Hong Kong pro-democracy activists that are resembling those against dissidents in the mainland. Chan Po-ying, chairwoman of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), said the national security police warned several members of her group not to take to the streets on Friday. Officers searched their homes and placed them under surveillance, she said. The LSD is one of the few pro-democracy organizations that have not already disbanded since the national security law enactment. It held a three-person march in May against Hong Kong’s chief executive election and staged another small demonstration in June to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre anniversary.

LSD member Avery Ng posted on Facebook that he is under house arrest. Still, he resorted to protesting via a Facebook livestream on Thursday and Friday. During his broadcasts that lasted several hours, Ng used a filter that laid prison bars over his image and displayed a banner that read “de facto confinement in progress.”

In the absence of rallies, prayer meetings remain one of the few ways citizens can still assemble around politically sensitive issues. Among the 100 or so participants at Friday’s annual July 1 prayer meeting at Holy Cross Church was Tang, who gave his last name only. He was attending the service in Sai Wan Ho organized by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic diocese for the first time. The event’s theme message was “where God’s Spirit is, there freedom is.”

In his 30s, Tang admits to feeling “a little helpless” on this handover anniversary. Uncertain how much freedom Hong Kong still offers given China’s growing control, Tang can relate with the abducted Israelites of the Old Testament who lost their home and identity. At the same time, he hopes to find comfort from his Christian faith to face these “dark times.”

In her 66 years of living through Hong Kong’s ups and downs, Sarah, who gave her first name only, doesn’t trust China because it lacks rule of law. “All we can do is pray,” said this Catholic, feeling powerless to change Hong Kong’s present situation.

Both Tang and Sarah wore black—the color associated with 2019’s pro-democracy protests—as did many other participants. One woman wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a yellow umbrella, a symbol of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement that demanded universal suffrage.

Tang and Sarah also remarked on the exodus of Hong Kongers. The turnout of this year’s prayer meeting was less than half of last year’s. Recent developments in the city have sent waves of citizens emigrating to the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore.

While praying for world peace, the pandemic, and the church of Hong Kong, the congregants also prayed for Hong Kong’s new chief executive and his cabinet. “May the Holy God be among them,” one speaker said, “to allow them to not only be fair and just when exercising power and implementing policies, but also to have God’s mercy and love ... leading society on the path of inclusion and harmony.”

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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