06/30/2022, 10.25
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Hong Kong and the broken promises of 25 years ago

by Gianni Criveller *

Xi Jinping arrived in the former British colony to show that normalization has become a top priority. On July 1, 1997, Martin Lee and Margaret Ng from the balcony of Parliament were calling for freedom and democracy, while today they are reckoning with the consequences of the National Security Act. And Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a sad, depressed and fearful city.

Milan (AsiaNews) July 1, 1997 - July 1, 2022: Hong Kong 25 years later. The date of July 1, the day Hong Kong celebrates the 'return' to the motherland after 156 years of British colonialism, is this year loaded with ponderous significance. Twenty-five years is a period of time celebrated with joy in the lives of individuals, couples or communities. Not so for Hong Kong: this year's celebration is certainly pharaonic, but it does not involve the people. The visit-all centered on exceptional security measures-of Xi Jinping, Beijing's strongman, president of the People's Republic of China and secretary of the Communist Party, will only add to the somber atmosphere that pervades the city.

The management of the pandemic from Covid 19, increases the measures of distancing and isolation of guests coming down from Beijing. The Chinese leadership is quite drastic and even ruthless in imposing measures to stem the contagion, as seen in the tremendous lockdown imposed on the city of Shanghai in recent months. There is always the feeling that, at least in the case of Hong Kong, the drastic health measures are instrumental to the repressive political agenda. This trip to Hong Kong is Xi Jinping's first outside mainland China since the pandemic broke out in January 2020. Authoritarian leaders-obsessed with fear of getting sick-carefully avoid occasions that expose them to contagion. Yet for Xi, the normalization of Hong Kong has become a top priority, and his presence is intended to demonstrate this with unequivocal force and clarity.

The Chinese leader will formally inaugurate the term of John Lee, the new chief executive of Hong Kong's "Special Administrative Zone," who was chosen last May 8 in the most undemocratic of ways, namely by 99 percent of the members of the Election Committee. John Lee was a police officer until he became head of the security department in 2017.

It was under his orders that the police heavily suppressed the popular protests that began with the one million citizen march on June 9, 2019. It is certainly not a matter of satisfaction for us to know that the Chief Executive who will take power in Hong Kong claims to come from the Catholic world and that he allegedly acquired the principles that guide his political action in the Catholic school he attended. It seems to us that the Christian democratic leaders currently in prison, many of whom have explicitly described their social and political engagement as an application of gospel principles are far more faithful to the gospel.

These 25 years are a significant turning point for Hong Kong. When the treaty between China and Great Britain about the future of the colony was signed in 1984 and the long process of writing the Basic Law, or Hong Kong's mini-constitution, began, Deng Xiaoping himself had indicated that for fifty years Hong Kong would continue to maintain its 'special' way of life: "The horses will continue to run, the shares in the bank will continue to pay off, and the dancers will continue to dance." With that very famous phrase Deng Xiaoping, who at least showed he knew his way around Hong Kong, wanted to reassure the people of the city and the international community, about Hong Kong's financial, economic, social and political future. Deng put it in black and white by inventing the highly original "one country-two systems" formula. And Hong Kong's exception was to last fifty years. In the meantime, it was also applied to Macau (1999), and in perspective it was supposed to reassure Taiwan as well, convincing the island's people not to fear reunification with mainland China. Meanwhile, Hong Kong, according to promises made, would gradually develop democratic mechanisms to increase citizen participation in public affairs until universal suffrage was achieved.

Many have wondered why 50 years? There are various interpretations; I have been persuaded that the best explanation is that according to Deng it took China, which was on its way to modernization by leaps and bounds, 50 years to become similar to Hong Kong. So not Hong Kong like China, but its opposite, this at least in the intentions of Deng Xiaoping, the second Communist emperor after Mao Zedong.

Therefore it is undoubtedly a matter of great disappointment, bitterness and sorrow for people to be robbed of this promise of freedom and democracy without even having passed the 25-year mark. Hong Kong was never democratic, but it was a free and cosmopolitan city. Now it is not. It is a sad, depressed, fearful and uncertain city. Many people are leaving it for good. A large exodus had occurred even before 1997, when many citizens did not trust Beijing's promises after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was then an exodus of caution on the part of those who could afford it.

But there were also positive signs: the number of international residents increased considerably when it seemed that the "one country two systems" formula was successful, to the point that some expatriates returned. Today, however, this is not the case: expatriates are leaving a city where they no longer feel at home and safe. Even many Chinese citizens, while not wealthy, have already left or intend to leave the city. Perhaps they had democratic sympathies and that is enough to fear for themselves and their children. It is a sad exodus.

I remember July 1, 25 years ago: I was there in Hong Kong's central Statue Square, below the city's Parliament. At midnight, while in Wanchai, President Jiang Zemin and Prince Charles were sealing Hong Kong's return, Martin Lee took the floor from the Parliament balcony and delivered the famous "July 1 Declaration" calling for freedom and democracy. After him, advocate Margareth Ng took the floor. Both Democratic leaders were recently arrested and convicted: Margaret Ng is on bail; Martin Lee had his sentence 'suspended.'

Bishop Stephen Chow recently wrote that the lives of people and believers in Hong Kong "are becoming more and more like an existence between the cracks. We used to enjoy a lot of space and freedom of expression." But, the bishop continued, "God's light is found in all things, even in the cracks. The tougher the condition, the more resilient the life. In some cases the cracks may even widen." Bishop Stephen concludes his heartfelt appeal with an invitation that makes me think of some passages in the diary of Etty Hillesum, the young Dutch woman who was killed in Auschwitz without ever losing faith in God and in the beauty of life: "Accepting the changing reality in which we find ourselves living does not mean approving of it. Safeguarding our inner space to discern is essential and beneficial."

The Hong Kong affair is a story of promises and hopes betrayed. The arrest of Card Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of the diocese and 'conscience of Hong Kong' has painfully reminded us of this: an invisible line that was thought insurmountable has been crossed. Christians do not lose hope: they know well that opposition by power to the gospel and its message of freedom is not an exception, it is rather an outcome to be courageously prepared for. Blessed Paul Manna reminded us: "Governments have objectives contrary to that of Christians because they fear freedom, and the gospel is synonymous with freedom." Let us follow Bishop Chow's invitation and face what is happening in the beloved and wonderful Hong Kong by preserving our freedom, including through the exercise of inner life.

* PIME missionary and sinologist


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