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Reviews | Hong Kong wasn’t supposed to look like this

Pro-democracy protesters are detained by police during a clash during an October 2019 protest in Hong Kong.  (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters are detained by police during a clash during an October 2019 protest in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
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Hong Kong was not meant to look like this, 25 years after the end of British colonial rule and halfway through China’s promised 50 years of autonomy and individual freedoms.

There is now more than 1,000 political prisoners are languishing in Hong Kong prisons, including activists, students, journalists and lawyers. Dozens have been jailed for a year or more without bail in the legal limbo of “custody”. Some 47 opposition politicians risk life imprisonment for participating in a primary election, considered subversive in the new Hong Kong.

Civil society has been decimated, with more than 50 militant groups closed by the government or forced to close. Campus student unions have been dissolved. The giant Confederation of Trade Unions, which has at least 70 affiliated unions, dissolved in october. One of the largest affiliates, the Professional Teachers Union, which has 100,000 members, firm after being branded a “malignant tumor” in Chinese state media. Popular media have been closed or intentionally closedtheir online archives cleaned up.

International groups have not been spared. Organizations that defend democracy, such as National Democracy Fundhave been accused to stir up trouble. Human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch closed their local offices.

Statues commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre have been removed. Books deemed too politically sensitive have been removed from the shelves of public libraries and bookstores. Secondary school textbooks are rewritten to emphasize protecting China’s national security and insisting that Hong Kong was not actually a British colony. Hong Kong police have learned to goose step continental style during drills and parades, and children must participate in the mandatory matinee chinese flag raising rituals.

Now career police officer John Lee Ka-chiu – nicknamed Iron Man in the local media for his supposed tenacity – was named the next chief executive of Hong Kong. The United States has penalties imposed on Lee “for being involved in the coercion, arrest, detention or imprisonment of individuals under the authority of national security law”.

In 1997, many people here thought that after 25 years, mainland China would be more like Hong Kong – more liberal and far less steeped in archaic Communist Party ideology. As China became richer and more connected to the world, it was thought, the country would also become more democratic and open to the world.

What happened instead was the opposite. In 2022, Hong Kong looks more like China – repressive, intolerant of dissent, suspicious of foreigners and determined to indoctrinate the general population with a forced loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and its bleached view of the world. ‘story.

Local officials now claim to see omnipresent “foreign forces” seeking to overthrow the government behind all the recent incidents of unrest. According to this paranoid worldview, the 2019 massive street protests against an unpopular extradition bill were nothing but conspiracies orchestrated by foreigners who manipulated or paid naïve locals to march against the government.

Britain never brought full democracy. But Hong Kongers voted when given the opportunity and the choice, for the local Legislative Council and smaller district councils based in wards.

Almost 60 % contested competitive Legislative Council elections in 2016, and more than 73% visited in November 2019, following massive anti-government protests, to give pro-democracy parties a crushing sweep of district councils. Then 47 opposition politicians and activists were arrested and Beijing revamped the electoral system to ensure a docile “patriotic” Legislative Council without opposition. turn out dropped to about 30 percent, with many who bothered to show up casting invalid or blank ballots.

Now Hong Kongers vote with their feet. Hong Kong has seen a net outflow of some 157,000 people in the first quarter of the year, leading to concerns about a “brain drain” of accountants, engineers and computer scientists. So many young families have left that the best elementary and secondary schools – where it was once difficult to find a place – are now struggling to fill up thousands of vacancies.

Can Hong Kong survive as a more tightly controlled authoritarian version of its old self? There is evidence that it is possible.

The city’s location still makes it the most central hub for anyone doing business with China and a convenient link between the Chinese mainland and Southeast Asia. That role has taken a hit during the pandemic, as the city has instituted some of the toughest anti-virus measures in the world, but most expect it to resume once covid-19 restrictions ease.

Unlike the mainland, Hong Kong has an internationally exchangeable currency pegged to the US dollar. And while the National Security Act has armed the legal system against dissent, the parallel court system that handles routine business and contract law cases and commercial disputes continues to be highly respected.

China can still send replacements for people leaving en masse, a pressure valve for the mainland’s growing number of university graduates facing a sluggish job market.

Hong Kong will indeed survive by changing and adapting, as it always has. It will probably even thrive. He might just not be recognizable to anyone who knew and loved him before.