Chinese leader Xi Jinping hailed the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return from a British colony to Chinese rule last week with a call to strengthen national unity and bring the once freewheeling city more fully under Beijing's control.
Amid tight security on his first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began, Mr. Xi declared a "new phase" for Hong Kong. To align the port city with mainland China, he stressed, Hong Kong's officials must show greater political allegiance - not only to the country, but also to the Communist Party leadership and socialist system. Hong Kong's government "must be in the hands of patriots" who are "assessed on both ability and political integrity before they are recruited," Mr. Xi said in an address marking the handover anniversary on July 1.
But Mr. Xi's push to solidify China's grip on Hong Kong is sharply curtailing the unique diversity and freedom that Hong Kong has enjoyed as a cosmopolitan metropolis of 7 million people on Chinese soil, where until recent years, free speech, a free press, and political protest flourished - including mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. In the days since Mr. Xi's visit, China's central bank deepened its ties to Hong Kong's monetary authority - part of a plan to integrate the financial hub with the mainland economy to boost overall development. At the same time, a group of Hong Kong therapists went on trial for publishing a set of children's books that allegedly contain anti-Beijing sentiment.
"Hong Kong has gone from being such a free city to such a tightly controlled system," says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of "Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink" and history professor at University of California, Irvine. "This is part of a larger story of forced assimilation, the energy that's put particularly on the physical edges of the People's Republic of China to sort of rein in forms of diversity."
For Mr. Xi, China must prioritize sovereignty and national security in Hong Kong and elsewhere as it rises from a "century of humiliation," starting with the 1839-1842 Opium War, that saw foreign powers wrest territory and occupy the country.
Under a national security law imposed on Hong Kong two years ago, political dissent has been silenced, with hundreds of activists and opposition politicians jailed or exiled, pro-democracy media outlets shuttered, and protests banned.
"Fear is now the main emotional driver used by the regime to maintain this kind of unity and stability," says Kenneth Chan, associate professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University. "In a nutshell, Hong Kong must fully integrate with the mainland on all fronts."
An alternate route
Hong Kong didn't have to turn out this way, China analysts say.
In the 1980s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping conceived a pragmatic formula for reintegrating Hong Kong known as "one country, two systems," under which the former colony would enjoy "a high level of autonomy" with its basic freedoms, an independent judiciary, and capitalist system unchanged for at least 50 years. Mr. Deng's plan was designed to accommodate cultural, ideological, and institutional differences between Hong Kong and the mainland, says Dr. Chan.
In a 1987 speech, Mr. Deng left open the possibility of eventual general elections in Hong Kong, and said that after the 1997 handover "we shall still allow people in Hong Kong to attack the Chinese Communist Party and China verbally."
Yet since coming to power in 2012, Mr. Xi has recast the policy, putting the priority squarely on "one country."
Mr. Xi "emphasizes 'one country,' socialism, and Communist Party rule - and only under that principle can you have 'two systems,'" says Chen Daoyin, a political scientist and former associate professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Moreover, Mr. Xi has more narrowly interpreted "two systems" to refer only to the economy, meaning Hong Kong can preserve capitalism. Last week, he advanced for Hong Kong the same implicit political bargain as on the mainland: accept party rule in return for economic prosperity.
Indeed, Beijing's crackdown on civil society and dissent in Hong Kong marks in many ways an extension of Mr. Xi's sweeping moves to bolster the party's power across China, experts say.
"What I see is domestic politics now being more rigorously enforced in Hong Kong," including Mr. Xi's "emphasis on unity and ideological conformity," says Timothy Cheek, a history professor and expert in modern China at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.
The price of change
In a Hong Kong courtroom this week, five local speech therapists faced trial on sedition charges for publishing children's books about a village of sheep threatened by wolves.
Prosecutors in the national security case say the defendants, jailed without bail for a year, wrote the books to incite separatism and hatred toward mainland China, according to the South China Morning Post. The therapists deny the charges.
Hong Kong residents say the parade of such trials amid an ongoing crackdown is stifling the city's creative character. "The once diverse and vibrant cultural scene of the city has suffered … [from] the ill-defined but arbitrarily extendable red lines and no-go areas, all done in the name of national security and patriotism," says Dr. Chan.
"Widespread disillusionment in Hong Kong … is the price of the changes," he says.
The crackdown has led growing numbers of people to depart Hong Kong, with more than 130,000 people exiting this year, and a similar number applying for British visas. To a degree, Hong Kong's unique identity is thriving in the diaspora, Dr. Wasserstrom says.
In mainland China as well as Hong Kong, analysts say, the suppression of dissenting voices may keep people quiet, but ultimately won't change their views. "Forty years of reform and opening created pluralism," says Dr. Cheek. "The uniformity that is required by Xi Jinping's ideological approach is just anathema."
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