HONG KONG: As midnight struck on June 30, 1997 and Hong Kong transitioned from British to Chinese rule, pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Wing-tat stood with colleagues on the balcony of the city’s legislature, holding a defiant protest.
Hong Kong marked the 25th anniversary of the handover on Friday and the halfway point of One Country, Two Systems — the governance model agreed by Britain and China under which the city would keep some autonomy and freedoms.
That model was set to last 50 years. But even in its first hours, battle lines that would define Hong Kong’s politics for the next two decades were drawn.
Furious at outgoing British governor Chris Patten’s last-gasp attempts at democratisation, China had announced that any legislator who had openly supported the measures would be thrown out.
So the minute the handover became effective, Lee and many of his colleagues became seatless, but remained within the legislature to protest their expulsion.
Other opposition figures went to the handover ceremony to show goodwill, but returned to join the rally later.
“This is a moment when all Chinese people should feel proud,” Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, said in a speech at the time. “We hope Hong Kong and China can progress together.” Lee Wing-tat had more mixed feelings.
“We were no longer that optimistic and I no longer believed we would have full-fledged democracy,” he told AFP.
Twenty-five years later, there are no opposition lawmakers left in Hong Kong’s legislature at all.
Many have been arrested under a national security law Beijing imposed in 2020 or disqualified from standing for office under new “patriots only” electoral rules.
Others have fled — including Lee Wing-tat, who now lives in Britain.
Like many, Lee had been hopeful in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration laid the path to ending more than 150 years of British colonial rule.
One Country, Two Systems promised a high degree of autonomy, independent judicial power, and that the city’s leader would be appointed by Beijing on the basis of local elections or consultations.
“Deng (Xiaoping, China’s then leader) back then said a lot about things like ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’, which was rather compelling,” Lee said.
But China’s deadly 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which saw Beijing send in tanks to crush a democracy movement, shattered his faith in the ruling Communist Party (CCP).
In the years after the handover, mistrust between Beijing and Hong Kongers like Lee only escalated.
The pro-democracy camp saw Beijing as ruthless authoritarians set on denying Hong Kongers their promised rights. And the CCP increasingly saw their demands as a challenge to China’s sovereignty.
There were successful mass protests in 2003 and 2012 that led to government climbdowns.But campaigns to let Hong Kong pick its own leaders, including the 2014 Umbrella Movement, came to nothing.
Tensions finally exploded in the huge, sometimes violent protests of 2019, which China responded to with a comprehensive crackdown that has transformed the once outspoken city.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2022