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Hong Kong: city in resistance

by Julia Haes and Klaus Muehlhahn
Julia Haes, Founder of the China Institute for German Business, and Klaus Muehlhahn, Sinologist and President at Zeppelin University.

Just three days after the appointment of known hardliner John Lee as the new Chief Executive, Hong Kong police detained four well-known supporters of the 2019 democracy activists. In addition to prominent 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, they included lawyer and former opposition MP Margaret Ng, Kanto pop singer and Canadian citizen Denise Ho, and university professor Hui Po-keung.

John Lee was the only candidate in the election for Chief Executive and won 99.2 percent of the 1,428 votes cast. He had already worked in the police force of the British colonial administration since the 1970s and was most recently Secretary for Security before his election. Thus, the Hong Kong government’s handling of the 2019 protests also fell under his jurisdiction.

The arrest of the four high-profile democracy activists shows how nervous and fearful the Chinese government is. Beijing has always feared that protests and criticism could erupt again in the city and spread to the mainland. This would be the ultimate disaster for Beijing, especially in a crisis situation like the present one with the Covid chaos and a massive slump in the economy.

Beijing wants to avoid protests at all costs

Until ten years ago, Hong Kong was known primarily as a booming business metropolis. Many reports portrayed Hong Kong’s citizens primarily as economic players and entrepreneurs who were not interested in politics. To a certain extent, this is true, but our book also shows another side of the story.

The first protests already erupted in 1898, when the New Territories were leased to the United Kingdom for 99 years. Throughout the 20th century, too, the population repeatedly rebelled against British foreign rule and social injustice. Much of this history has simply been suppressed. The occupation of Hong Kong, as well as the darker aspects of British rule, would have made Britain look bad, so many accounts simply omitted this dimension. It is only in recent years that Hong Kong’s identity as a “city of protest” has truly emerged and gained global attention, first through the Umbrella Movement of 2014, but then, especially through the protests of 2019. Since then, the word “Hong Kong” has taken on a different meaning.

Hong Kong – once a dynamic press landscape

Even during British rule, these oppositions gave rise not only to a dynamic economic metropolis but also to a vibrant and creative civil society, which continued to thrive even after the city was returned to China in 1997. Since the political structures hardly allowed for genuine participation by the population, many issues were negotiated elsewhere. Hong Kongers discussed their concerns in universities, debate clubs, and bookstores, in public squares, and the press. The diversity and dynamism of the press landscape were remarkable, even by global standards. Nowhere were there so many small and large publishing houses, editorial offices, and online media in such a small area. For many years, the best China coverage came from Hong Kong.

This is not surprising, as the history of Hong Kong has been closely tied to Chinese history from the very beginning. Important events in China have always had a direct influence on Hong Kong. For example, Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries planned their uprisings from Hong Kong as early as 1900. After the Second World War, Hong Kong was the bridgehead of the West to fight communism and at the same time China’s only gateway to the world. Since Hong Kong’s founding, Chinese who had migrated from the mainland made up the majority of Hong Kong’s population. Some fled because of the political situation, others came as workers. They adjusted and at the same time helped shape a unique identity for Hong Kong. Through continued family and economic ties with the mainland, Hong Kong was an important helper and enabler for China into the 2010s. Conversely, Hong Kong’s economy benefited tremendously from China’s economic rise.

Xi Jinping’s inauguration is a turning point

The turning point came around 2013 when Xi Jinping became Chinese president. The Mainland government began to interfere more in Hong Kong. It was unhappy with the way the Hong Kong government was handling the citizens’ protests. In turn, the latter experienced a Hong Kong government that did not understand their problems – or was unwilling to address them. The situation continued to escalate, culminating in the protests of 2014 and 2019.

In response to the 2019 protests, the Mainland government took severe measures against the democracy movement and the city’s free media. The national security laws issued in June 2020 are very broad and deliberately vague. They prohibit sedition, subversion, collusion with foreign powers, and terrorism, but no clear definitions are provided for these activities. Since the law’s introduction, more than 180 individuals have been arrested for chanting protest slogans, clapping in court, and criticizing the government’s Covid response.

Many citizens of Hong Kong have left the city. In our conversations and interviews with the people of Hong Kong, we often encountered an immense feeling of despair. They are afraid that they will no longer be able to live in the city, and that their home will cease to exist in the form to which they are accustomed. The pace at which people are leaving Hong Kong has increased recently, due to both national security legislation and, more recently, the draconian zero-Covid policy. As many as 300,000 people could turn their backs on the city in the next few years. In many areas of the world, there has been real growth in Hong Kong exile communities. There is hope that outside the city, Hong Kong life and Hong Kong’s distinctive culture will continue and thrive.

With the continued suppression of civil liberties, the increasing persecution of government critics, and the general climate of fear, Hong Kong’s role as a city of innovation and creativity is in jeopardy. This is a huge problem for a city that based its existence on being not just an economic center of global significance, but also of free exchange and criticism. But it is equally a great loss for Mainland China, even if China does not want to admit it.

Julia Haes is Managing Director of the China Institute for German Business in Munich and CEO of Finiens. Both companies advise Chinese and German companies. In the podcast “China ungeschminkt” she talks with Klaus Muehlhahn and Anja Blanke about China-related topics.

Klaus Muehlhahn is a Professor of Sinology and President of Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Previously, he served as Vice President of the Free University of Berlin. Muehlhahn is considered a leading expert on China, and in 2009 he was awarded the John King Fairbank Prize by the American Historical Association. Last year, Muehlhahn’s book “Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping ” was published in the “Historical Library of the Gerda Henkel Foundation”.

Today, Monday, May 16th, their newest book “Hongkong: Umkämpfe Metropole. Von 1841 bis heute” (Hong Kong: A contested metropolis. From 1841 to present day), is released by Verlag Herder.


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