As midnight struck on June 30, 1997, and Hong Kong transitioned from British to Chinese rule, pro-democracy then-Hong Kong lawmaker Lee Wing-tat (李永達) stood with colleagues on the balcony of the territory’s Legislative Council, holding a defiant protest.
Hong Kong is to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover tomorrow, and the halfway point of “one country, two systems” — the governance model agreed by the UK and China under which the territory would keep some autonomy and freedoms.
That model was set to last 50 years, but even in its first hours, battle lines that would define Hong Kong’s politics for the next two decades were drawn.
Furious at outgoing Hong Kong governor Chris Patten’s last-gasp attempts at democratization, China had announced that any legislator who had openly supported the measures would be thrown out.
So the minute the handover became effective, Lee and many of his colleagues became seatless, but remained within the legislature to protest their expulsion. Other opposition figures went to the handover ceremony to show goodwill, but returned to join the rally later.
“This is a moment when all Chinese people should feel proud,” then-Hong Kong lawmaker Martin Lee (李柱銘), founder of the territory’s Democratic Party, said in a speech at the time. “We hope Hong Kong and China can progress together.”
Lee Wing-tat had more mixed feelings.
“We were no longer that optimistic and I no longer believed we would have full-fledged democracy,” he told reporters.
Twenty-five years later, there are no opposition lawmakers left in the legislature at all.
Many have been arrested under a National Security Law Beijing imposed in 2020 or disqualified from standing for office under new “patriots-only” electoral rules. Others have fled — including Lee Wing-tat, who now lives in Britain.
Like many, Lee Wing-tat was hopeful in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration laid the path to ending more than 150 years of British colonial rule.
“One country, two systems” promised a high degree of autonomy, independent judicial power, and that the territory’s leader would be appointed by Beijing on the basis of local elections or consultations.
Then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) “said a lot about things like ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong,’ which was rather compelling,” Lee Wing-tat said.
However China’s deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, which saw Beijing send in tanks to crush a democracy movement, shattered his faith in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In the years after the handover, mistrust between Beijing and Hong Kongers like Lee Wing-tat only escalated.
The pro-democracy camp saw the leadership in Beijing as ruthless authoritarians set on denying Hong Kongers their promised rights, while the CCP increasingly saw Hong Kongers’ demands as a challenge to China’s sovereignty.
There were successful mass protests in 2003 and 2012 that led to Hong Kong government reshuffles, but campaigns to let Hong Kongers pick their own leaders, including the 2014 “Umbrella movement,” came to nothing.
Tensions finally exploded in the huge, sometimes violent protests of 2019, to which China responded with a comprehensive crackdown that has transformed the once outspoken territory.
Critics, including Patten, accuse the CCP of betraying its promises to Hong Kong.
“China has ripped up the joint declaration, and is vengefully and comprehensively trying to remove the freedoms of Hong Kong because it regards them as a threat, not to the security of China, but to the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to hang on to power,” Patten said last week.
However, former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) said the crackdown over the past three years was “not overkill.”
“You can’t say: ‘We want to have a high degree of autonomy and you stand aside’ — that will be de facto independence of Hong Kong,” he told reporters.
Leung, whose administration faced down the “Umbrella movement,” blamed years of social and political unrest on people being misled by political figures and misunderstanding Hong Kong’s mini constitution.
He also said that hostile “external forces” might have been involved, but declined to be specific.
Echoing Beijing, Leung described “one country, two systems” as a success and said the arrangement might continue beyond its 50-year term, calling July 1, 2047 “a nonevent.”
Many Hong Kongers remain unconvinced. Public confidence in “one country, two systems” hit a historic low in the middle of 2020, polls carried out by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute showed.
Some, like Herman Yiu (姚鈞豪), a former member of Hong Kong’s Tai Po District Council who was born in the year of the handover, have lost all hope of ever being able to make change within the system.
“Being born in 1997 ... it felt like my fate was connected to Hong Kong’s fate,” Yiu said. “I wanted to participate to make Hong Kong better.”
As a fresh graduate, Yiu was part of a pro-democracy landslide at one-person-one-vote district council elections in 2019.
His career was short-lived, though — in June last year he became one of the many politicians disqualified from office.
“I think now the emphasis of one country, two systems is on ‘one country,’” Yiu said. “I feel helpless, for Hong Kong and myself.”
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