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Hong Kong Isn’t China: After 20 Years Hong Kong is Ready for Democracy


When I moved back to Hong Kong, I was taken aback by how many people asked, “What is it like to live in China?”

Well-meaning friends and acquaintances would send me articles about life in China, food in China, about learning Mandarin. After submitting an essay with “Hong Kong” in the title, to an American publication, I was upset when “Hong Kong” was replaced by “China” in the headline.

This is when it really hit me: to many Americans, “Hong Kong” and “China” are interchangeable.

But to me, to my family, to most Hong Kongers, Hong Kong and China are not the same. It doesn’t matter if Hong Kong was handed back to China 20 years ago this year, for most of those who live or have lived in the Special Administrative region that is Hong Kong, they are “Hong Kongers first, instead of Chinese.”

For many non-Chinese people I know in America, this can be hard to process.

China is China isn’t it?

While I’ve always understood that the mainstream American cultural consciousness doesn’t always take heed of Hong Kong politics and culture, I can’t help but have a knee-jerk-“How do you not know this?” reaction when otherwise aware, educated acquaintances lump Hong Kong (and Taiwan and Macau) into the general idea of “China”.

Didn’t everybody watch the Union Jack lower, the flags of China and Hong Kong rise in 1997?

Doesn’t everybody know the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin?

Living in a country that sounds the battle cry of “Democracy!” so often, don’t Americans know when another place is fighting for such?

The answers to these questions were more often than not, “no”, “no”, “Well…not always”, respectively.

And to some extent I get it, I really do. Despite being “Asia’s world city”, outside of the world of business or food, Hong Kong doesn’t directly touch the lives of average Americans.

But in a time when so many Americans feel uncertain about our country’s  future – our freedom of speech, our trust in the government, our freedom to choose – Hong Kong and its worries may not seem so foreign.

At the heart of Hong Kong’s concern’s are its fight for true democracy.

To be clear, Hong Kong operates under China’s “one country, two systems” principle or the Basic Law. It is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) which allows it an independent capitalist economy, its own legislative and legal system, specific Hong Kong currency, and freedoms unavailable to those living in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But just because you are a Hong Kong Permanent Resident, does not necessarily mean you are a citizen of the PRC.

For example, I was born in Hong Kong to Hong Kong-born, Chinese parents. Because I was born before 1997, while Hong Kong was still a British territory, I was and still am a Hong Kong Permanent Resident. Up until I was 13 I had a British Hong Kong Passport as well as an American passport. Now I hold a US passport and a Hong Kong Permanent Resident identification card. I am a permanent resident of Hong Kong, and a citizen of the US, but I’m not a citizen of the PRC.

A person can get a Hong Kong SAR passport, but they must be a citizen of China as well as hold a Hong Kong Permanent Resident I.D. card.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this can be understandably confusing.

Before the handover at midnight on June 30, 1997, Hong Kong had been under British rule for 156 years. While polls say that more than half of Hong Kongers would prefer to go back to Britain as opposed to Chinese rule in 30 years (when the 50 years of independence promised by China is over), British Hong Kong was not perfect.

While Hong Kong did become an economic giant, and the western “gateway” to China under British Crown rule – all things that created the way of life many Hong Kongers now prize – being under British control often put local Chinese under the shadow the “expat”.

Being more western or British in manner and dress was prized during the colonial era, with ingrained remnants of such still part of Hong Kong culture today. Speaking English was required to get ahead in business and society. As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, my mother remembers being turned away from certain Hong Kong establishments because her family did not speak “proper” English, of simply because they were Chinese. My father, who grew up bilingual, Eurasian, and able to pass for a gweilo or white guy, had a very different view of elite British Hong Kong. He was embraced by it.

Since the late 19th century, English has had a hold on Hong Kong. Though Cantonese was and is the language predominantly spoken by Hong Kong Chinese locals, it is entirely possible to live in Hong Kong, even grow up in Hong Kong, and only speak English. That is part of the legacy of British rule.

Another aspect of British rule was the treatment of Hong Kong Chinese as citizens of a lower status. In the early to mid 20th century, Chinese were barred from living in certain parts of Hong Kong. Chinese (Eurasians included) were generally not allowed to live in the elite neighborhood high above Hong Kong Island called the Peak, nor were they allowed to stay in, or even enter some luxury hotels or establishments. Additionally those with Chinese blood were not allowed to be interred at the Colonial Cemetery (now Hong Kong Cemetery) in Happy Valley.

In the business district of Central, “Chinese-style” architecture was banned during the early part of the 20th century.

Walking through present-day Central as well as the bars and restaurants of Central’s Mid-Levels and SoHo, it’s no stretch to see the British expat influence. Even now, the majority of shops, pubs, and restaurants cater to an exclusively English-speaking clientele, as well as the large number of westerners who call the expensive flats in the area home.

Despite years of western and Chinese culture melding or existing side-by-side, there is still some tension between east and west. My family stills speaks of a lingering expectation amongst some older Hong Kongers that they must treat white expats with deference. There are times when locals hear my American accented Cantonese and accuse me “putting on airs” or being stuck-up.

After years of being under British rule, with the democratization of Hong Kong only beginning in 1984 and never being fully realized before 1997, Hong Kong wants to stand on its own.

Ironically, Hong Kong’s fight for democracy advanced further after being handed back to China than it did under Britain. But that does not mean that Hong Kong enjoys a true democracy.

Beijing makes it clear that it grants Hong Kong its freedoms, that Hong Kong is being given its autonomy for 50 years, but that Hong Kong has no right to it.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong has been rallying for true democracy for the last 20 years. While Hong Kong does hold elections to elect members of the Legislative Council, as well as the chief executive, the head of the Hong Kong SAR, it is far from true universal suffrage and has been called “selection, not an election” by pro-democracy camp.

This is because of Beijing’s control of Hong Kong elections. Though people vote on officials, the election committee is stacked with pro-Beijing supporters. Essentially, Hong Kongers vote, but not enough of the population is represented to overtake Beijing loyalists. In the last election that brought in new Chief Executive Carrie Lam, only “0.03% of Hong Kong’s registered voters were able to cast a ballot”.

Though Lam’s greatest opponent, John Tsang, won overwhelmingly in polls amongst the people of Hong Kong, he was never expected to win. It’s no secret that Beijing chooses officials for Hong Kong who best serve their interests.

Said pro-democracy legislator Nathan Law, after Lam’s victory was announced, “Lam’s victory despite her lack of representation and popular support reflects the Chinese Communist party’s complete control over Hong Kong’s electoral process and its serious intrusion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

Though Beijing and President Xi Jinping continue to say they support “one country, two systems”  there was a note of warning in the president’s recent speech to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the handover.

In his speech he reinforced the importance of Hong Kong’s upholding of Chinese sovereignty, while also affirming that the current system will not change no matter how much Hong Kong protests. Protesting and pro-democracy marches have become a yearly event during the handover commemoration festivities.

The future of Hong Kong independence and democracy seemed even more dubious when Lam took her oath of office then delivered her address in Mandarin. With Cantonese as the language of Hong Kong and Mandarin being the language of Beijing and the PRC, the choice of language was seemed a none too subtle nod to who is in charge.

So if there is any lingering confusion, no, Hong Kong is not China. Though it may be controlled by China, Hong Kong might more accurately be described as a place caught between worlds. After decades of being spoken for, Hong Kong is fighting to finally have its own voice heard.

Photo: Louise Hung


Louise Hung

A Chinese-American writer living in New York, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.