The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s Xi ushers in the end of global Hong Kong

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A few years after the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China, officials in the former colony unveiled an ambitious new branding strategy. Post-colonial Hong Kong would be “Asia’s world city” — a preeminent entrepôt for global trade, a key staging ground for foreign investment into the emerging Chinese superpower, a cosmopolis of people from virtually every continent, and a de facto city-state with its own currency, immigration protocols, legal system and far greater civil freedoms than the mainland.

For the first decade of the new century, that branding seemed more or less accurate. Hong Kong boomed alongside China’s surging economy. Major U.S. and Western banks expanded their footprints in a city still governed by British common law and enmeshed in international financial markets. In 2008, Time magazine declared with a cover story (targeted, at the time, to an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland) the advent of “Nylonkong.” It argued that New York City, London and Hong Kong had become international triplets, and were jointly the engines driving an optimistic age, making “today’s global economy a phenomenon that has increased the life chances of countless millions.”

The story thereafter has not been nearly as cheery. Financial crises and recessions rocked the West. Among the American and European public, the very concept of globalization turned suspect. And while the mantra of Hong Kong and China coexisting as “one country, two systems” endured, it became steadily clear this was not a status quo that suited Beijing.

As Hong Kong marks the 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese control on Friday, an emphatically different vision of the city has taken shape. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the city Thursday and heralded Hong Kong “risen from the ashes,” a gesture to the ordeals of the pandemic as well as months of protests that rocked the city in the years prior. The latter was met by a pervasive campaign of repression from Beijing and a new national security law rubber-stamped by Hong Kong’s pliant legislature. Ever since the bill was enacted two years ago today, the city has seen a deeply chilling effect on dissent and political life.

25 years of China's slow takeover of Hong Kong in pictures

Hong Kong was once cast as a liberal precursor to what China could become. Under Xi, it’s a cautionary tale of authoritarian entrenchment. “Gone are former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s pithy pre-1997 promises that Hong Kong’s ‘horses will still be raced and dances will be danced’ after the handover,” noted our colleagues. “Replacing them are Xi’s views, as stated at the 20th handover anniversary, that ‘one country’ forms the deep roots of a system of governance ‘advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity.’ ”

National unity, in Xi’s formulation, means the death knell for many Hong Kongers’ long-standing democratic aspirations. Legislators loyal to the mainland now almost entirely hold sway over Hong Kong’s local assembly. Dissidents have been thrown into jail and criminalized as foreign agents and terrorists. Critical journalists and once-leading media outlets have been suppressed. For years, Hong Kong was the site of mass demonstrations every June 4 in commemoration of the 1989 massacres at Tiananmen Square. Those vigils are now banned.

Hong Kong in 2022 is far from what it was supposed to be in 2001, when local authorities proclaimed its “world city” aspirations. Chinese companies, not U.S. banks, are the ascendant players in its financial sector. Myriad international businesses have chosen in recent years to quit Hong Kong as a regional hub of operations, opting for the safer, more stable politics to be found in cities like Seoul and Singapore.

While 130,000 people left Hong Kong this year alone, a steady stream of well-educated, well-heeled mainlanders fills the void. More Hong Kong work visas were handed out to mainlanders than foreigners last year — the first time that’s happened since records of these permits were collected. Rather than touting Hong Kong’s world-leading cosmopolitanism, Beijing officials now cast it as part of a regional megapolis in the Pearl River Delta, tethered to more-populous cities across the border like Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Xi’s strict covid policies prompt rumblings of discontent in China

To the Chinese leadership, Hong Kong should know its place. The waning of the city’s global brand comes alongside China’s increasing assertiveness and confidence on the world stage. “Beijing has been suspicious of foreigners meddling in Hong Kong affairs and this xenophobia became more pronounced under Xi,” Ho-Fung Hung, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Today’s WorldView. “[Chinese Communist Party] leaders today really believe that the West is in decline and China is becoming the center of the world.”

The city remains a popular offshore destination for Chinese investment, but Beijing’s consolidation of political control over the city has already had downstream effects. Hung pointed to the National Security Law and a recent proposal to ban the public from accessing data in Hong Kong’s Companies Registry — a move which, he believes, has prompted apprehension among the international business community over transparency in the financial sector. “The foundation of Hong Kong’s institutional strength as an international, offshore financial hub of China has generally been eroding,” Hung said.

Eric Lai, a fellow at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, told Today’s WorldView that there’s an irony at the heart of China’s crackdown: “Hong Kong’s success as an economic and financial hub depends on values that Xi Jinping disapproves of.”

For Beijing, though, the tighter controls are likely worth the price. Chinese officials also believe that the relaxation of pandemic-era controls will help jump-start Hong Kong’s tourism sector and the city’s economy will soon be humming again.

But for many Hong Kongers, something fundamental has been lost. “Acceptance of a Beijing-designed future may be hardest among the generation born around the handover, who expected greater democratic freedoms and were introduced to local politics through protests against impositions from Beijing,” our colleagues wrote.

Beyond the tens of thousands who have already left, at least 123,400 Hong Kongers have applied for a British migration scheme afforded to the residents of the former British colony. Other countries in the Commonwealth, including Canada and Australia, made it easier for Hong Kongers to emigrate.

“Hong Kong has lost its own people, when you see that this place is no longer its former self, the place we recognize growing up, and when all we could see it would get worse, then there’s no more room for us to stay,” Adrianna, a Hong Kong emigre in Vancouver, told Asia Nikkei Review.

“How is it,” she added, “that we, the people who love Hong Kong, are forced to leave and become refugees?”