We may now be watching a famous world city go through such a demise, a loss of status that feels both sudden and long in the making.
For decades, Hong Kong styled itself as Asia’s preeminent metropolis, a bustling former British colony at the center of the continent’s trade and logistics networks and the main international gateway to the booming Chinese market. Expats waltzed into Hong Kong as if it was an analogue of London or New York City. Local Hong Kongers exercised civil liberties unthinkable on the other side of the border with the mainland.
But those freedoms seemed to come under constant threat since Britain handed over Hong Kong to China’s authoritarian regime in 1997. Moves, large and small, by local authorities and their masters in Beijing to curtail Hong Kong’s special liberties sparked repeated rounds of protests, including the wave of demonstrations that paralyzed the city last year. And then, in one fell swoop, China dropped the hammer.
In what the Economist dubbed “one of the biggest assaults on a liberal society since the Second World War,” China implemented a sweeping, new national security law for Hong Kong on midnight Tuesday. “Overnight, Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents were put under the same speech restrictions as the mainland, with possible life imprisonment for those deemed guilty of subversion — a standard charge used to jail political dissidents and human rights activists in China,” my colleagues reported.
To many observers, the law marks the definitive end to an era. It’s the latest and perhaps most emphatic demonstration of the draconian grip of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has shrunk the space for civil society throughout China, steadily squeezed political dissent in Hong Kong and erected a dystopia of mass detention camps for persecuted ethnic minorities in the far-western region of Xinjiang.
“Hong Kong is a great world city, not a remote area like Xinjiang. But the government of Xi Jinping is now clearly determined to bring it into line,” wrote the editorial board of the Financial Times. “The formula of ‘one country, two systems’ applied to Hong Kong since 1997 and sanctified in international agreements seems in effect to be over — a point underlined by the way the national security legislation was written and imposed from Beijing, without any participation by the Hong Kong government or legislature.”
Thousands of Hong Kongers still took to the streets in a show of defiance this week. Hundreds were arrested. The fear is that the breadth of the new law — which apparently also extends to people living outside of China’s legal jurisdiction — could break the popular will to stand against Beijing.
This week’s events can be interpreted as “a bloodless version” of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Steve Tsang, a historian of Hong Kong at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told the Atlantic. “People tend to focus on the killing [at Tiananmen], but the killing was an instrument,” he said. “The objective was to intimidate and terrify the people so that people don’t even think about [protesting] again.”
Not long ago, Hong Kong was seen as the city that would prefigure a more liberal, prosperous future for China. Now, its protesters are the canaries in the coal mine, left to voice the final cries of a society whose democratic aspirations are withering on the vine. Rather than seeing a metropolis of the future, analysts point to Hungary in 1956 or Prague in 1968.
Chinese officials seem unmoved by the torrent of Western criticism and sanctions coming their way. “The era when the Chinese cared what others thought and looked up to others is in the past, never to return,” Zhang Xiaoming, the executive director of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, told reporters.
Nor do they seem much bothered by the news this week that a host of foreign governments — including Australia, Taiwan, the United States and, most importantly, Britain — are considering fast-tracking permits for potentially millions of Hong Kong refugees seeking to quit their home city. That exodus may take place alongside a flight of Western capital and business — especially if the United States decides to scrap its special trade relationship with the territory, as President Trump has pledged to do.
Hong Kong’s diminishment may be worth the cost for Beijing, which can count on global business regardless and attract investors to gleaming megacities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai. But it may also serve the interests of the more radical set of Hong Kong’s protesters, who see the impossible odds of confronting the leviathan in Beijing yet still want to intensify the showdown. “If we burn, you burn with us,” a catchphrase from the Hunger Games series, has become a popular refrain.
“The choice is between dying quietly without the world noticing, or dying with dignity with the world noticing, and at the same time creating the chance of causing some damage to the people who kill Hong Kong,” Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University, told Quartz.
“Hong Kong’s people have continually shown an ability to defy impossible odds and create beauty even in the harshest settings,” wrote Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.” But he laments the creeping nihilism of the times.
“I am filled with sadness,” he wrote, “and find it hard to see anything but darkness ahead for the city.”