By Dr. Reza Parchizadeh
The Hong Kong of Western Imaginaire is a Neo-Orientalist escapeland of densely populated alleyways and streets amidst cramped high-rise structures that are buried under flickering fluorescent tubes, neon lights and colorful Cantonese ideograms; and of rusty British double-deckers crisscrossing the sleepless city and its lush vicinity; and of dangerously low-flying planes that are briefly glimpsed over the Walled City of Kowloon before they disappear beyond the next skyscraper. Add to the pastiche the feisty kung fu statements of Bruce Lee, boisterous stunts of Jackie Chan, highly stylized gun fu fights of John Woo’s heroic cops and triad masters, and Wong Kar-wai’s melancholic allegories of love, loss, and nostalgia. This intentionally timeless and translucent cultural construct, however, stands in stark contrast to the decidedly political existentialism of Hong Kong’s present.
During the past two decades, Hong Kong has turned into an arena for some of the most dramatic battles between democracy and authoritarianism anywhere around the world. In 2005 tens of thousands took to the streets to call for universal suffrage and direct elections instead of political appointments by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These protests were rekindled five years later. When Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislative assembly was about to pass laws restricting the scope of elections in 2014, what followed was the so-called colorful Umbrella Revolution. The last swell of protests in Hong Kong started in 2019 in reaction to the proposed Fugitive Offenders’ bill, which would have provided for the extradition of all kinds of “undesirable elements” to China. Regardless of the Coronavirus outbreak in the past couple of months, this round of protests has continued on and off to this day.
Now the question is, why has the largely apolitical Hong Kong of Western Imaginary turned into a patently political hotspot? Here a little bit of a history lesson is in order. In mid-19th Century, as a result of the so-called colonial Opium Wars, Hong Kong island and its dependent territories were leased to Great Britain by a declining Qing Dynasty for a period of over 100 years. Up until the end of WWII Hong Kong was only a fishing village and a colonial outpost, acting as a foothold for British trade in the Far East. The process of modernization started in the 1950s, during which Hong Kong was developed into a bustling metropolis. The civic developments and social reforms of the 1970s laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s rise to global heights of economic prosperity, social welfare, and cultural flourishing in the last decades of the 20th Century.
At the same time, in the early 1980s, after many wars and revolutions and under very different global political circumstances, negotiations started for the return of Hong Kong to the Communist China. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 set the handover for the midnight of July 1, 1997, when the United Kingdom eventually ended the administration of the colony and returned its control to the Communist Party of China. From then on Hong Kong became a “special administrative region.” What CCP proposed for administering Hong Kong was a mercurial monstrosity called “One Country, Two Systems.” Under this system, China would be in charge of Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and defense, but the territory would retain a considerable degree of internal civil and international financial freedom for 50 years after the handover, until Hong Kong’s transitional period of reintegration is complete in 2047. However, in practice the Mainland has demonstrated extreme impatience with the process as well as a burning desire to bring Hong Kong back to the Communist fold in the shortest amount of time.
Soon after the handover talks became public, the Hongkongers who could leave the country got out. Hundreds of thousands opted for mass migration instead of staying and awaiting an uncertain future. The years after 1984 witnessed larger waves of emigration from Hong Kong to the four corners the globe, with Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States as the more popular destinations for settlement. CCP’s brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 only deepened the Hongkongers’ pessimism towards the handover and led to a tidal wave of emigration from the territory. To this day Hong Kong keeps the memory of the victims of the mainland massacre alive by holding annual candlelight vigils. It is estimated that between 1984 and 1997 nearly one million people, many of them of intellectual, technological, and financial consequence, emigrated from Hong Kong. The brain drain has been justified by CCP’s aggressive actions since the handover.
Most recently, it looks like the Chinese Communist Party has determined to prematurely brush aside the puppet local government and the rubber stamp legislative council of Hong Kong. In reaction to ongoing protests by Hongkongers for preservation of the territory’s civils rights and political freedoms, Beijing has introduced overwhelming security legislation intended to totally curtail “foreign influence” from Hong Kong. China has openly accused the United States of being the prime mover behind the “unrest” in Hong Kong. As such, the security measure has been designed to target the Hong Kong protesters and democracy activists by accusing them of being spies and agents of influence of “foreign enemies.” This means that from now on CCP is not going to even pay lip service to the idea of one country, two systems; and this means the death knell for Hong Kong as we know it.
As the shadow of 2047 grows, so does Hong Kong’s anxiety about its eventual loss of identity and rights at the hand of the Red Leviathan. China is an Orwellian surveillance state par excellence with a stated agenda of social engineering on a massive scale where history, memory and identity are constantly rewritten to accommodate the party’s ideology and expediency. CCP also runs a wide-ranging behavioristic “social credit” system where people are rewarded for toeing the party line and punished for crossing it. These all run counter to Hong Kong’s venerable tradition of individualism and spirit of entrepreneurialism. As a result, Hong Kong is in a state of perpetual apprehension over its identity and status in view of CCP’s seemingly inevitable takeover. The prospect of the future looks bleak for liberal values. Indeed, Hong Kong lives on borrowed time. That is why Hongkongers would rather freeze the march of time and permanently stay in their precarious present, pretty much like Wong Kar-wai’s trapped souls in the unchanging future-world of 2046.
Hong Kong has survived and prospered at the political, cultural, and financial crossroad of the orient and the occident for over a hundred years. The elitist British colonial rule that developed Hong Kong into the Oriental stuff of dreams that it used to be eventually gave way to an increasingly inclusive popular rule of law and a great degree of self-determination for the territory that, under favorable circumstances, can still turn into a fully-fledged democracy. Now, Hong Kong does not want to lose that prospect forever: when the music stops, Hong Kong wants to find a seat in the free world. As such, the voice of the democracy activists and freedom fighters of Hong Kong should not be allowed to be extinguished by CCP’s massive propaganda apparatus and brutal military machine, for every free soul that falls to tyranny is a blow to freedom anywhere in the world.
Dr. Reza Parchizadeh is a political theorist and cultural expert. He holds a PhD with distinction from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). His research interests in the Far East include British Imperialism; patterns of modernization and Westernization; and history, culture and cinema of China, Japan, and Hong Kong. You can follow him on Twitter and Academia.