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Hong Kong Marks 10 Year Anniversary
Dark clouds hang over the festivities
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2007-07-01 10:29 (KST)   
This July 1st marks the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover (or return) from Britain to China and the government has unleashed a barrage of celebrations for the occasion. President Hu Jintao has made a special appearance, his first since assuming office, mounting a "charm offensive" with benevolent images embracing children and playing ping-pong. The People's Liberation Army even prepared a musical tribute called "Holy", including singing, dancing, and acrobatics. Local canto-pop stars have also united to record the government sponsored handover theme, "Just Because You Are Here", which includes the lyric:

Let the beautiful bauhinia
Blossom in the wind
Flying so strong and free,
Holding onto the fire of our dreams

The bauhinia is the symbol of Hong Kong and is emblazoned on its flag. Hard to imagine Avril Lavigne or the Arcade Fire teaming up to sing the praises of the maple leaf. Indeed, no one does propaganda-kitsch quite like the Chinese Communist Party. And no one buys into it quite like its own people. Then again, they don't have much choice. But Hong Kongers do and the song has been the subject of a satire by a local blogger called "Folk Guy".

Therein lies the problem - and some would say failure - of the "one country, two systems" model that has prevailed in Hong Kong over the past decade. Despite all the efforts to portray the city "flying so strong and free" a dark cloud hangs over the festivities and it's not just the city's notorious smog. Beijing is increasingly treating the territory as just another Chinese appendage.

"No longer Hong Kong People Ruling Hong Kong"

Back in 1997 there were hopes that the mainland could follow Hong Kong's lead in areas of human rights and democracy. Ten years on the opposite appears true - Hong Kong now fears Beijing is encroaching upon its freedoms. According to Martin Lee, founding Democratic Party chairman, "it's no longer Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong".

How much has Hong Kong changed? While the rest of China has been transformed over the past decade, Hong Kong has resisted. As it bounced from one calamity to another - the Asian financial crisis of 1999, SARS in 2003, Avian Flu in 2005 - the relentless calls for universal suffrage, Hong Kong-speak for democracy, have constantly echoed in the background like the refrain from a Greek chorus.

The Public Opinion Program (POP) at the University of Hong Kong recently conducted another of its regular surveys on democracy and found once again that a solid majority believes the conditions are now ripe for its implementation. But Hong Kongers' warmth for the mainland authorities remains cool. According to POP Director Robert Ting-Yiu Chung, "People's trust in the Central Government has dropped, followed by people's confidence in 'one country, two systems.'"

Despite Beijing's promises to uphold Hong Kong's autonomy, it has shrugged off public demands to consider a timetable for democracy. This has raised concerns Beijing is flouting the Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution, which guarantees the ultimate implementation of democracy.

Paul Harris, a lawyer and founding chairman of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, believes free speech has seriously deteriorated since the handover and self-censorship is on the rise. He has had first hand experience. His recent book, "The Right To Demonstrate" was almost prevented from being published a few weeks ago when the printer backed out at the last minute because it felt "the book's content was too sensitive".

Harris is probably right. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, close to 60 percent of journalists believe press freedoms have worsened since the handover. Joseph Chan, a Professor of Journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has spoken of a "spiral of silence" in reference to self-censorship among the local press. "Unfortunately that spiral is spinning down," he added.

Beijing has also applied direct pressure. In September last year Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong was sentenced in China for "spying", charges which he and his editors have vehemently denied.

An Alliance Of Vested Interests

While it is often said that Hong Kong epitomizes the meeting of East and West, that is no longer true. Like mainland China, it is governed by the ancient Chinese adage that "the poor should never fight with the rich and the rich should never upset the powerful". People tend to know their place and few dare to challenge the status quo. This serves the alliance of vested interests that rule Hong Kong - the millionaire tycoons, the entrenched bureaucrats and Beijing cadres.

These were on full display during the so-called "election" that took place in March for the territory's Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, himself a career bureaucrat. They were a sham - for a city of 7 million an Election Committee made up of only 800 people appointed by the central government in Beijing were permitted to vote for the person who would lead Hong Kong for the next five years.

While the outcome was never in doubt, a comedy of the absurd transpired that saw a "campaign" take place, including two very tightly controlled debates between Tsang and Alan Leong, the official "unofficial" opposition candidate ("unofficial" because he managed to secure his candidacy without the blessing of Beijing). Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that allows a campaign without an election.

Beneath Hong Kong's Glossy Exterior

According to Harris, the absence of a legitimately elected government is at the root of many of the territory's problems. On the same day the Hong Kong stock market reported record highs - June 18 - the government released some of its own startling figures concerning the widening income gap between the rich and poor. Hong Kong may have the most Rolls Royce's per capita in the world, but since 1997 the number of households surviving on just US $500 a month or less has increased from 9.9 to 11.7 percent. Those making more than US $5000 a month have increased by 2 percent.

Violence is also a concern. Despite government claims of being one of the safest cities in the world, it simmers beneath Hong Kong's glossy exterior. Cases of domestic violence have more than doubled this year and overall crime is also on the increase. In 2002 at the Luk Yu Tea House in the commercial heart of Hong Kong amid numerous boutiques and brand name stores, a local property tycoon had his head shot off in broad daylight. Just a few steps away on a Sunday afternoon last summer at the McDonald's around the corner, Democratic Party legislator Albert Ho was beaten by a gang of thugs wielding baseball bats while customers looked on.

Determined To Remain Unique

On the surface it appears Hong Kong has stagnated to become just another Chinese city like Shanghai or Guangzhou. But all is not lost. On closer inspection Hong Kongers are determined to remain unique. The single issue dividing Hong Kong from the mainland is still the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. While Beijing censors any reference to the "incident", Hong Kong remains the only place in all of China where open discussion is permitted.

This year was particularly noteworthy. A high profile politician, Ma Lik from the pro-Beijing DAB party, publicly denied a massacre had ever occurred. He then accused anyone who believed otherwise of lacking patriotism for China.

The comments backfired spectacularly and sparked condemnation from all sections of the community. Organizers of the annual candlelight vigil held at Victoria Park for those killed or missing during the massacre credited his comments for boosting attendance and awareness of their cause. This year saw the highest number (approx. 55,000) since 2004.

As well as the handover anniversary, July 1st also happens to be an annual day of protest. Every year since 1997 thousands have marched through the streets of Hong Kong demanding democracy and exercising their right to freely demonstrate. How long these two events are permitted to clash remains to be seen. Hong Kongers have grown accustomed to the contradictions enshrined in the "one country, two systems" policy. Ten years on it appears Beijing is as restless as ever.
The writer's site is AllDayBliss.com
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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