By Michael Tsai
Once a British colony off the coast of southern China, Hong Kong has evolved from a painful reminder of imperial China’s failed conflicts with the West to the pride of China today. Named as one of the four “Asian tigers,” Hong Kong has become one of the most important centers of the global finance industry. The UN Human Development Index, whose rankings are based on education, life expectancy and standard of living, ranks the island territory within the top 15 in the world, ahead of even many Western European nations. Culturally, there are Western influences with a distinctive Chinese taste. In some ways, Hong Kong embodies the image that the People’s Republic of China tries to create: modern, progressive, economically influential, borrowing the best practices from the West while maintaining its own political and cultural sovereignty, and most importantly, keeping the people satisfied.
However, despite the five percent annual real GDP growth and a GDP per capita higher than that of the United States, are the people of Hong Kong really basking in their own successes as a political entity? Evidence claims otherwise. While traveling through Hong Kong for the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the PRC by the British on July 1, 2012, I noticed that the customary fireworks across the iconic Victoria Harbor, while especially impressive, did not distract the local Cantonese from what the grandeur really stood for. Leading up to the fireworks, subtle advertisement was posted throughout the subway system, reminding people that the fireworks were sponsored by the national government and the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC). The customary protests around that time of year were especially fierce as the 15th anniversary of the handover coincided with President Hu Jintao’s visit and the swearing in of new local chief executive CY Leung. Demonstrations arose again two months later in September in a dispute over the revision of Hong Kong’s general education curriculum. Beijing attempted to introduce courses on “Moral and National Education” into the curriculum. The outraged Cantonese claimed it was brainwashing – after all, although the courses, while created with the intention to “cultivate students’ positive values and attitudes,” touched on issues of local corruption within China, they completely left out the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Hong Kong citizens are already sensitive when Beijing tries to implement any type of new policy, but the prospect of educating the youth with such a skewed version of reality was simply unacceptable to the public.
Economically, the Special Administrative Region seems to be set for a bright future, but increasing social pressure threatens to plunge Hong Kong into a “dystopian future.” Hong Kong today finds itself in a special situation where, like in the rest of China, the CPC maintains its authority, but unlike in the rest of China, its informational channels are unrestricted. Therefore, people are able to seek out their own information and question authority, but they have little power to effect real change. Hong Kong still has not seen universal suffrage. Its government is headed by a chief executive elected by a 1200-member election committee, comprised of influential members of society and special interest groups.
The positive side of this is that the Basic Law of Hong Kong agreed to by the CPC, which prescribes the system of government in place today and ensures certain individual liberties, will be in place at least until 2047. However, after the Basic Law expires, Beijing will almost certainly look to assert more direct control over Hong Kong, provided that China’s political situation largely remains as it is today. While this may seem like a large time frame to push through reform, Hong Kong cannot wait much longer. Aside from noted exceptions such as Singapore, there have not been many successful cases of a non-democratic states that place no restriction on freedom of speech, thought, and demonstration. Without a channel to transform the people’s voices into concrete change, Hong Kong’s civil society is diseased. Social pressure will only lead to increasing unrest, which could threaten the stability of the political system and the safety of Hong Kong’s citizens in the long run.
“Big protests arise in Hong Kong over Chinese ‘national education.’” The Los Angeles Times, 05 Sep 2012. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
“Hong Kong abandons mandatory classes seen as pro-Beijing.” CNN, 10 Sep 2012. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
“Hong Kong protest over school ‘brainwashing’ by China.” The Telegraph, 03 Sept 2012. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
Photo by No Lands Too Foreign