06/27/2017, 18.36
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Hong Kong’s 20 years tested by Xi Jinping's visit

by Bernardo Cervellera

The president and his wife arrive tomorrow for several ceremonies behind two-tonne barriers and heavy security screens. Deng had promised "one country, two systems," but in recent years the people of Hong Kong have had to fight for democracy and against security laws. Many statements coming from Beijing highlight the mainland’s blind supremacy. Dissatisfied, many young people are tempted by "independence".

Rome (AsiaNews) – Everything is ready in the former British colony to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the homeland (huiguo).

Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan will arrive tomorrow at Hong Kong International Airport and will proceed to their hotel right away. In the evening, they will be guests of Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, at a gala dinner in their honour.

On Thursday, the president will review the local garrison of the People’s Liberation Army at Yuen Long. In the afternoon, he will attend a series of events at the Wan Chai Convention Centre.

On 1 July, at the Convention Centre, Xi will preside the swearing in ceremony of the new chief executive, Carrie Lam (pictured 1 with Xi), and her cabinet. He will then leave the autonomous region after visiting some infrastructure projects under construction linking Hong Kong to the mainland.

Most of the ongoing activities in the city are related to security, which is very high. More than 10,000 policemen will be deployed in the downtown area, where anniversary ceremonies will be held.

Heavy screens and two-tonne barriers will shield the areas the president and his wife will visit from rash actions and demonstrations.

Even the Grand Hyatt, the hotel where the presidential couple will stay along with their entourage is surrounded by barriers. All rooms have been booked for the president and no guest, other than his wife and entourage, will be allowed in the building.

Xi and his wife will have very few opportunities to meet Hong Kongers in person. Only guests and friends of China are invited to the official ceremonies.

The separation between president and friends and the rest of the population symbolises the ambiguity of the 20th anniversary.

Some in Hong Kong are still moved by the territory’s return to the homeland, cleansing the offence of the opium wars of almost 200 years ago. Others are increasingly worried that Hong Kong will just end up as one of the mainland’s many cities, dominated by the same dictatorship, subjected to the same controls and losing its liberal lifestyle.

This ambiguity has prevailed since the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping forced Great Britain to return Hong Kong. On that occasion, he came up with the notion of ‘one country, two systems’ to indicate how Hong Kong would be governed, preserving a western lifestyle, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.

But the early enthusiasm was followed by terror, especially after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Thus, before July 1997, at least 60,000 people left Hong Kong doing everything to get a foreign passport for the United States, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain.

They feared that the territory would be invaded by Chinese troops and tanks, crushing civil and economic liberties. This did not happen. The economy survived the Asian crises of 1997 as well as the crisis of 2008 thanks to mainland help.

However nowadays, Hong Kong is less and less attractive as a "bridge" to mainland China since cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen offer good financial, manufacturing and port services and facilities.

At the same time, China has always been afraid – and sometimes scared – that Hong Kong’s freedom might "pollute" the homeland. For this reason, Beijing has done everything in the past 20 years to limit, isolate and suffocate the impulses of the former British colony.

With respect to freedom of speech and expression, Hong Kongers have always had to fight against the attempt by the local government - pushed by Beijing - to implement security legislation that would give police special powers to stop demonstrations, arrest people, and censor publications.

Indeed, on 1st July 2003, the people of Hong Kong expressed their rejection of Article 23 of the Basic Law in a mass rally that attracted more than half a million people in horridly hot weather, forcing the government to drop the law.

Still China's influence has not stopped. In 2004, the government adopted a law that gave it control over independent schools. Schools continue to be continuously under pressure to teach Chinese national history praising its great successes, but saying nothing about its problems and failures. Calls for “patriotic” lessons also continue.

Above all, China's influence is heavily felt in the interpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, drafted by Beijing and London. The discriminating point is democracy, an element that the British did not even consider.

The Basic Law says that talks could start "after 2007" to implement full democracy, with the aim of directly electing Hong Kong’s chief executive and having all members of its Legislative Council (LegCo) fully elected by universal suffrage (currently only half of the legislators are elected).

Since then, Beijing has claimed the right to interpret the principle, postponing talks after 2007, then after 2017, eventually excluding full-fledged democracy in 2014.

Young people are those most affected by such blind supremacy as they see their professional future threatened (more and more mainlanders and Party graduates work in Hong Kong) and their political fate restricted.

Young people in fact led mass pro-democracy demonstrations, known as Occupy Central (pictured 2). Some even got themselves elected to the Hong Kong LegCo with pro-autonomy and even pro-independence parties. Indeed, separatism is the countermovement to Beijing's heavy-handedness in Hong Kong affairs.

More recently, some mainland officials have not only claimed that Beijing has the exclusive right to interpret the Basic Law, but have also questioned the independence of the judiciary. For many, Beijing is using the separatist bogeyman to silence Hong Kong.

The abduction of Hong Kong publishers or businessmen critical of Beijing's rule or ready to expose the corruption of Chinese leaders is part of the mainland’s meddling.

Deng Xiaoping had promised that nothing would change in Hong Kong for 50 years, and that it could retain its liberties and lifestyle until 2047. However, for some analysts, Hong Kong’s end has come more than 30 years earlier than the father of China’s modernisation had suggested.

Now Xi Jinping's visit has to show if "one country, two systems" still has a future. To do this, he must find the way to win over Hong Kong's youth.

Yesterday, some of them covered the Golden Bauhinia statue, Hong Kong’s iconic symbol, with black cloth. The statue was erected 20 years ago not far from where the ceremonies with Xi will be held (pictured 3).

The police immediately removed the black cloth, but it will take a lot more than this to give Hong Kong’s troubled youth some sign of hope.

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