In June 1989, a man stood in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but the tanks prevailed. Thousands were killed in the massacres in Beijing and beyond. On Sunday, nearly a million people in Hong Kong marched against an extradition treaty that would extend Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s pro-China chief executive, Carrie Lam, was eager to enact the law. Early on Wednesday, as the Hang Seng Index fell 1.2% and protesters gathered once again in thousands, she blinked. The proposed legislation has been postponed. It is still one country, two systems. But for how long?

Each year on 4 June, tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong gather at Victoria Park, where they stand, candles in hand, remembering the Tiananmen Square massacre.

This year’s protest marked its 30th anniversary. The poignancy and urgency were greater because of the spectre of the extradition law. Hong Kong’s largely procedural legislature was expected to rubber-stamp it despite opposition from foreign embassies, the business community and human rights experts. One in seven people living in Hong Kong had come out to protest. They were concerned because, while the law is meant to apply universally, it endangers anyone in Hong Kong that China wants to prosecute and that can mean businesspeople, political dissidents, booksellers and activists.

The legislature is pro-Beijing not because the voters prefer pro-Beijing candidates but because under Hong Kong laws, a committee pre-screens candidates to remove those who have “unconstitutional" views. Democracy is limited in Hong Kong, a compromise arrived at between Britain, of which Hong Kong was a colony till 1997, and China, which asserted its sovereignty over the territory. On 30 June, it will be 22 years since the handover. The clock has been ticking towards the halfway mark of the arbitrarily-decided 50-year limit during which China promised it would not alter Hong Kong’s basic freedoms under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that Margaret Thatcher, the then British prime minister, and Deng Xiaoping, then China’s supreme leader, signed in 1984. The international community wanted those guarantees to ensure the territory’s autonomy would be respected after 1997.

Chinese commitment was necessary because when Deng took over in 1978, China was emerging out of the horrors of Mao Zedong’s so-called Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, China was a communist state, which it still is, without a credible stock exchange—the Shanghai bourse was re-established only in 1990. Hong Kong’s free economy deserved protection. Unlike China, Hong Kong was pro-business, had low taxes and an open attitude to goods, services, people and ideas. Investment banks chose to do deals there, economists commented freely about the region, dissidents based themselves there and journalists reported openly about Asia in publications that didn’t have to worry about government censors. The joint declaration was meant to ensure “one country, two systems".

Tiananmen shattered many illusions, but the Chinese play the long game. Deng knew he could rely on the short memory of businesses, and companies returned to China in the early 1990s. By 1997, parts of China’s Guangdong province, in particular the city of Shenzhen, looked like Hong Kong’s mirror image.

I was a reporter in Singapore and Hong Kong during the 1990s, writing for Asia, Inc. and Far Eastern Economic Review, among the many publications operating from Hong Kong because it offered freedoms that other regional centres like Singapore or Bangkok did not. I was in Hong Kong the night of the handover. There were parties in posh apartments of expatriates at Mid-Levels and the Peak; the busy streets in Mong Kok were far quieter. Few of Hong Kong’s Cantonese-speaking Chinese residents were celebrating the territory’s return to China. Many expatriate “experts" in Hong Kong asserted that the Hong Kong Chinese don’t really want democracy, describing liberal politicians like Emily Lau and Martin Lee as deluded liberals. But as the annual Tiananmen commemorations and more pertinently the Umbrella Movement of 2014 showed, the people of Hong Kong do care for freedoms.

Things have changed since Xi Jinping’s rise in Beijing in 2012. Five Hong Kong booksellers who specialize in juicy, racy books about the lives of the Chinese elite disappeared in 2015, only to resurface in China, confessing to crimes. Experts say the confessions were tutored, a point one of the released booksellers has made. Nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement have been found guilty of causing “public nuisance", a colonial-era law that carries a long prison term. This May, Germany granted political asylum to two Hong Kong activists, a move that embarrassed the Hong Kong administration.

Xi wants to reinterpret the joint declaration. In 1984, China needed Hong Kong more. Beijing now thinks that the roles have reversed. The joint declaration’s co-signatory Britain is in a self-inflicted downward spiral that Brexit represents. Beijing believes nobody cares. But the people of Hong Kong do. They like being left alone, but they have never been lonelier. And so they march.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns here

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