This “barren rock,” as an envoy of Queen Victoria once called it, transformed into one of the world’s first truly global cities, a place where international finance has thrived as its people created a cultural identity all their own. Even the territory’s current political system is bound by a negotiated settlement, called “one country, two systems,” that, despite all odds and an inelegant moniker, seemed to work.
But this week, Hong Kong discovered the limits to the middle ground that it has carved out to nourish one of the most prosperous and dynamic cities on earth: between East and West, between rice and bread, between a liberal and an authoritarian order.
The territory’s fate is once again being decided in faraway halls of power, as Beijing moves forward with plans to strip some of the autonomy the territory was supposed to enjoy for 50 years after Britain returned it to China in 1997.
The death knell for Hong Kong has been sounded many times since that handover. But the proposed national security legislation could have crushing implications for a place so dedicated to the international language of commerce that the local form of English is stripped of embellishment. Can, no can?
Too often these days, the answer is no can.
The new national security laws, outlined at the annual session of China’s legislature on Friday, will likely curtail some of the civil liberties that differentiate Hong Kong from the rest of the country. And they take aim at the mass protest movement that showed the world last year the extent to which people were willing to go to protect their hybrid home.
“At the end of the day, we have to accept that we answer to one country,” said Nicholas Ho, the 33-year-old scion of a Hong Kong tycoon family. “And that country is more and more powerful.”
With tensions between the United States and China growing, some have characterized the fight for Hong Kong’s future as a skirmish in a more fundamental clash of civilizations. Beijing considers its intervention in Hong Kong a necessary move for maintaining the country’s sovereignty, while Washington considers it a full-frontal attack on the city’s autonomy.
In both worldviews, Hong Kong again is caught in the middle.
Either the territory is poised for a return to protest politics — the sort of running street battles that shattered the city’s reputation as an orderly center of international finance — or the latest national security diktats from Beijing will only serve to drive away the commerce and capital Hong Kong needs to flourish.
And both outcomes are possible.
“This is a peaceful rehearsal for the collapse of the whole system,” said Chan Kwong-yan, a Hong Kong street artist and rapper known as M.C. Yan. “The world has got to watch what happens here.”
For a place that excelled in fusion before it was fashionable, the possibility that its people cannot reach a compromise strikes at the very notion of what it means to be from Hong Kong.
Douglas Young started a home décor and fashion brand called G.O.D. that plays with Western notions of orientalism and celebrates totems of Hong Kong life: puns that mix Cantonese and English, breakfasts of macaroni soup, kung fu films that deliver a kick to Hollywood.
He is, he admits, a typical Hong Kong mishmash. Even with his posh English accent, impeccable manners and boarding school pedigree, he is, at 54, old enough to remember what life was like under the British, when Hong Kong Chinese couldn’t easily enter certain clubs.
But Mr. Young also rattles off the democratic touchstones that he says make Hong Kong special: rule of law, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. These are the civil liberties that some fear are at risk under Beijing’s proposed national security legislation.
“I’m worried that Hong Kong people are becoming second-class citizens in our own city again,” Mr. Young said. “Is our fate to always feel colonized?”
Since British gunships secured its rocky outcroppings nearly 180 years ago in the opium wars, Hong Kong has evolved into something unique: an enclave bound by Western ideals yet populated by Chinese people who speak a language, Cantonese, that is believed to be more ancient than the one used across mainland China.
Last year, more than 90 percent of young people here said they considered themselves to be from Hong Kong, not China, according to a University of Hong Kong poll, the highest number since the survey began more than a decade ago.
“I am 100 percent Hong Kong, 0 percent China,” said Mickey Leung, an 18-year-old member of a youth democracy movement who grew up in a gritty suburb 15 minutes from the border. Her grandmother lives on the mainland.
Ms. Leung said she was politicized by civics lessons that Beijing wants excised from the curriculum for fear that they have poisoned the city’s youth.
“I’m young,” Ms. Leung said. “I will fight to the end to keep Hong Kong special.”
As proud as they are of their Hong Kong identity, people here don’t always know what to call themselves. In English, some say Hong Kongers, others Hong Kongese. Still others use the unwieldy, if factual, term Hong Kong people.
Whatever they are called, many share in a rejection of China that embodies Beijing’s soft-power failure, an inability to capture the hearts of a populace that should have been naturally sympathetic to it. The British had stinted on political reform in Hong Kong until the twilight of their rule. Meanwhile, the Communist Party transformed China’s backward, agrarian society into the world’s second largest economy. Hong Kong profited.
In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, Hong Kong fielded its own team, as befitted a city governed under the “one country, two systems” model. But the five stars of the Chinese flag flew proudly in the city. Hong Kong residents who had fled for safe harbor in countries like Canada or Australia returned.
More than a decade on, the disappointments have accumulated.
Just as under colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong can neither choose their own leader nor fully shape how their government is run. Promised political reforms never materialized. Booksellers critical of the Chinese leadership were snatched from the streets of Hong Kong and ended up in China.
The catalyst for last year’s mass protests, a now-revoked extradition bill, underlined Beijing’s ability to, at any moment, threaten Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Starting last June, an acute sense of anxiety about the future brought millions of peaceful marchers to the streets. Fury at the police — for deploying rubber bullets and tear gas against holiday shoppers and students alike — fueled each subsequent rally, even as unease grew over front-line agitators unleashing Molotov cocktails.
“This movement isn’t about young or old,” said Kelvin Lam, a former banker turned pro-democracy politician. “It’s about ensuring that Hong Kong preserves what makes it Hong Kong. Otherwise we’re finished.”
Disillusionment with Beijing has spread to some unlikely detractors.
Cathy Yau was raised by a single mother in one of those tiny flats that, Tetris-like, form the cramped architecture of Hong Kong. She attended a school with a pro-China curriculum and worked for 11 years as a police officer. Last summer, as the protests blazed, she quit the force.
“I could not face a job where we were ordered to use tear gas on normal people, like they were criminals,” she said. “That’s against the core values of Hong Kong.”
In November, Ms. Yau, 36, ran for district council and beat the pro-establishment incumbent. While the position holds little power, the electorate’s overwhelming support for pro-democratic candidates reflected the angry mood in Hong Kong.
The pressure has continued to intensify. In January, China replaced its top representative in the city with a senior official known for his harsh stance on security. Some of Hong Kong’s most august pro-democracy figures were arrested last month. The latest salvo, the national security legislation, does not surprise Ms. Yau.
“This is the Communist Party,” she said. “This is what will happen eventually. The only question is when.”
“I grew up raising the Chinese flag in school every day, but I feel nothing,” she added. “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m just Hong Kong.”
Voting With Their Feet
The generation that built Hong Kong from the middle of the last century, powering its workshops and raising its skyscrapers, was never rooted in the territory.
Many residents came here fleeing unrest in China, most notably after the 1949 Communist revolution. The inflow continued even after 1997, when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time. Since the handover to Chinese rule, more than a million Chinese from the mainland have moved to Hong Kong to enjoy its commitment to commerce, rule of law and education.
Even if fortunes were made in the city, a refugee mentality still defined the city’s elite. Most anyone who’s anyone in Hong Kong has a foreign passport, just in case.
But many of their children, especially those who have come of age since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, feel differently. This is home, not Canada, not Australia, and certainly not China.
Besides, for the one in five people in Hong Kong who live below the poverty line, there is no escape hatch to another country. They cannot purchase foreign citizenship.
For them, protecting Hong Kong is a matter of defending the only future they have, a future that is looking increasingly bleak.
Even before the coronavirus closed borders, Hong Kong’s economy had entered a recession, as mainland tourists stayed away because of the protests.
Hong Kong now needs China far more than the other way around. At the time of the handover, the enclave’s economy was nearly 20 percent the size of China’s. Today, it’s less than 3 percent, even if much of China’s foreign direct investment still flows through Hong Kong.
And, increasingly, Hong Kong looks like it will give its greatest treasures not to the people who sweated in its factories, but to a new ruling class.
Just as the British once occupied the city’s top ranks, mainland Chinese are now sliding into privileged positions, making some natives feel like outcasts in their own home.
Law Ka-chung, born and bred in Hong Kong as the son of a janitor, rose to a position as the chief economist for Bank of Communications, a state-owned Chinese bank.
But as civil unrest roiled Hong Kong’s financial district last year, Mr. Law said he was let go after circulating an article deemed supportive of the protest movement. Bank of Communications did not respond to a request for comment.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Hong Kong’s population shrank at the end of last year, with locals and expatriates alike fleeing the city. As the pandemic and political fears simmer, it’s unlikely that the city will receive a new influx this year.
Mr. Law said he, too, wants to leave.
“I’m a small potato at a small bank, but what happened to me represents the conflict between two ideologies: communism and capitalism,” Mr. Law said. “We used to say that Hong Kong was lucky to be between East and West. Now some people say, ‘It’s maybe cursed.’”
Elaine Yu contributed reporting.