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Voices from Hong Kong

On the 20th Anniversary of the Hong Kong SAR


So which was it?

Were the heavens weeping over the return of the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China? Or were the sins of the British government being washed away? I heard both explanations for the torrential rain that fell on Hong Kong during the days surrounding July 1, 1997.

Just before midnight on June 30 the British flag and the flag of the Hong Kong British Dependent Territory were lowered ending more than 150 years of British rule over a tiny bit of land on the southern coast of China. Moments later the flag of China and the new Hong Kong SAR flag were raised and Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China governed by the “one country, two systems” principle with the promise that Hong Kong's capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years.

I had moved to Hong Kong in 1981, just three years before the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong was signed and 16 years before 1997. Those years were overshadowed by the uncertainties surrounding Hong Kong’s future. I continued to live in Hong Kong for another 16 years after the handover, seeing for myself the initial outworking of “one country, two systems.”

This year is the 20th anniversary of the handover. Much is being said about Hong Kong twenty years down the road from that historic moment. You’ll find links to some of those articles and videos below. But I decided to ask some of my HK friends who also lived through that time two questions:

  1. On July 1, 1997, were you hopeful or pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future? What was the biggest factor in how you felt that day?
  2. How do you feel now on the 20th anniversary of the SAR Establishment Day? If that feeling is different than how you felt in 1997, could you give one reason why?

My friends come from different generations, they work in a variety of professions, many are Christians but several are not. Two were not resident on the day of the handover but all had lived under British rule and still call Hong Kong home today. Here are their thoughts on Hong Kong then and now.

A Teacher

On July 1, 1997, we were in Toronto, having moved there in 1996. My husband wasn't optimistic about the future, but I didn't share his pessimism. I thought HK would be fine for a period of time. In fact, I didn’t have any special feelings on that particular day.

Now, once again living in HK, neither of us are optimistic as we are seeing changes in the attitude of the government and related organizations. We are not totally free to speak and to act. And there is increasing intervention in HK by China.

A PhD student studying overseas

To be honest, I was too young at that time and did not have any idea what would happen. What I knew was that we got a new public holiday—SAR Establishment Day. That was great! Just like a kid, right?

I am happy about the 20th anniversary of SAR Establishment Day. It shows we are still a special region in China, allowing us to have an independent culture and set of laws. However, the situation in HK is pretty complicated now. There are lots of conflicts between the people of HK and the people from China. I sincerely hope that the conflicts can be resolved soon.

A retired civil servant who served in the HK government from 1977 to 2012, now a university adjunct professor.

I was in HK during 1997 when the sovereignty of HK was changed. Most people, like me, had mixed feelings. On the one hand, we were happy and excited to witness this historic moment when HK was returned from the British colonial regime to China our motherland. On the other hand, we were not 100% sure how the new governance would work. But basically we were peaceful in mind, having been given the assurance of the "one country, two systems" principle which was designed to allow HK's continued capitalism, autonomy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press, etc. After the handover, life went on; we hardly noticed any changes in the governance of HK, except that the discriminative, colonial British government was gone and HK was governed by HKpeople.

Now that 20 years have lapsed, nothing in the governance style has changed. Our lives have not changed, except we have aged! The "one country, two systems" is working well. I don't see interference from the mainland government. Yes, recently there were confrontations staged by political activists, shouting that we have no democracy, no freedom . . . Some students took to the streets claiming they were suppressed and had hard lives. But after causing trouble and protesting, they adjourned to nice restaurants, some even to nice hotels for buffet meals. Today, we enjoy the same life, if not better, than the pre-1997 time. Religion, press, and speech are freer than before. Anyone or any of the newspapers can criticize or even swear at the Chief Executive without sanction. Indeed, there is more dissatisfaction in the society, because people like to complain and claim they are deprived when in fact they should work hard to earn what they want in life. In short to say how I feel today, HK is very nice; only some anarchists are trying to cause trouble. Mainland China is very restrained.

An Ordinary Housewife

I trusted that China would become better and better, and HK would follow in the same way. My feelings were, however, rather neutral and peaceful on July 1, 1997.

Today I am somewhat disappointed at the apparent failure to maintain "one country, two systems." Things look to be turning bad.

A Doctor

I was neutral about HK’s future in 1997. On the one hand, I worried about the changes in the economic and political environments, and was concerned about freedom of speech and democracy. On the other hand, I considered myself Chinese and remembered the painful history China and HK have with Western countries. Seeing the economic progress in China I was optimistic about the economy despite the blow-up in 1997. Because it would have been difficult to continue my profession as a doctor in another country, I decided to stay and look ahead positively.

Today I consider HK stable economically and politically, although both aspects are heading slowly in a downward trend. The “one country, two systems” model is surviving despite the criticism and pessimism of Western countries. However, conflict is emerging rapidly. In the future HK’s position will become less important and be replaced by Beijing and Shanghai. I worry about the younger generation—their discontent in their identity, the socioeconomic hardships they face, and the difficulty they have buying property.

A teacher in a Christian school

I was not pessimistic in 1997 although I was sure that changes would come regarding the government’s control of the people. I was hopeful because the Lord is in control and there would be more opportunities to spread the gospel and contribute to building the church in China. Besides my confidence in God, the Chinese government was opening up to the world and desired to be a great country. The Chinese people are practical. Money is still a high priority in the communist government. Needed changes for better lives would come from the people and the government would not withstand their efforts.

In general I am more hopeful today than before. I have seen more young people willing to prioritize social concerns, spiritual needs, and cross-cultural mission. Economic pressure drives people to seek fulfillment in life rather than in material satisfaction. Some may find the future bleak but others are willing to look for new opportunities for fulfillment.

A civil servant who was in his 40s during the handover

My decision in 1997 to stay and not to apply for a British National (Overseas) passport as a backup for my family reflected my wish to witness and experience HK's evolution. Whether the future would be good or bad was not the criterion. As I watched the handover ceremony with my friends that midnight, I felt proud to be Chinese.

Usually anniversaries of any type don't bring me much additional excitement or any special thoughts—the same is true of the 20th anniversary of SAR Establishment Day. A tougher China and more controversial issues affecting HK seem to be recent trends. But my question is: Is it good or bad? Some people seem to be gaining while others are losing!

A Lawyer

On July 1, 1997, I was neither hopeful nor pessimistic about HK’s future. The Chinese government definitely wanted to have HK under its control like any government would. Self-rule is a political gimmick. But the Chinese government itself is also changing.

Today control of HK by the Chinese government is obviously tighter than before. With its fast economic development, China is more assertive than two decades before.

A Scientist

I was 11 in 1997 and probably didn’t really know what it meant. It was raining, and I had celebration performances to participate in, so it was a hassle running around with my violin. But I don't remember an especially festive or touching atmosphere. It was merely an event. Now that I think of it, a lot of people were pretty clueless about what was happening. The feeling was more of uncertainty than relief or celebration. After all HK people were not involved in the determination of our future in the 80s.

Now I feel more numb about July 1. For years I've thought that it's not an occasion to celebrate—if I were in HK on this day I'd be out on the street to protest. Every year there’s more nonsense and pessimism. China has shown its real face by grabbing power whenever it can, disregarding whatever agreement it reached with the Brits. I think the police are even doing more to control the traffic because the Chairman "is honoring his presence here." This day reminds us of how much HK has changed—becoming more like mainland China—eroding trust. Not changing for 50 years is a lie.

A Retiree

Being originally from HK under the British system, I was hopeful that HK would be a shining example when returned to its rightful owner, China.

Now 20 years after the return to China under the system of “one country, two systems” and being ruled by HK people, HK continues to be free and prosperous though there is rising discontent from some of the younger generation regarding political and economic issues. I am still very hopeful for the next 20 years as local and international observers recognize that China is becoming an influential and responsible leader for its people and to the world community.

A Hong Kong lover

I was hopeful and optimistic about HK’s future on July 1, 1997. Apart from my faith in the Lord, I identified myself intuitively and positively as a Chinese—just one incidentally born in HK.

The British Government had never given any national identity, nor loyalty, to HK citizens. A good knowledge of history tells us that colonial governance resulted from evasion, oppression, and robbery on an international scale. The return of HK to the Chinese Government was a milestone marking the end of a disgraceful period of history and the beginning of a brand new era, though with great uncertainties. There would be changes, no matter good or bad, for which we, in the dual roles of HK and Chinese citizens, are endowed with the inevitable privilege as the owners as well as the burden as the recipients. At that moment, we were no longer aliens to the city and country. We were an inseparable part of HK and China.

It is again a dilemma of history. As Dickens said, it is the best of times as well as the worst. My feeling of being a HK and Chinese citizen has never changed in spite of all the turmoil in these 20 years. There are people who sell their souls to gain political benefits as well as the respectful and heroic who sacrifice their welfare for others—both in HK and in the mainland. I still feel myself intuitively and positively a Chinese.

I have travelled to several major cities in the mainland and observed the pervasive influence of HK sub-culture on Chinese people. HK is still tough in spite of political infiltration and economic seduction. So far as HK maintains the unique balance of being the most envied and the most hated city in this great country, we have tremendous influence over the whole of China, in all areas besides economy and politics. HK is declining in many aspects, especially in the SAR Government, in response to political realities. However, under such enormous pressure, HK people still exhibit an incomparable spirit. In our submissiveness and quietness, we are influencing innumerable Chinese people toward freedom of speech, human rights, political integrity, and universal harmony. Incidentally, these basic values match well with our Christian faith.

A Freelancer Writer and Translator

On July 1, 1997, I was not hopeful or pessimistic, more in the middle. It might be more accurate to say there was just no way out. Most people like me, maybe over 90% of HK residents, were unable to migrate to other countries. Though we were afraid of communism, what we could we do? Life must go on; the only way to live is make good use of everyday, being with friends and family. As a Christian, we can pray, praise, and read the Bible more—we don’t know if at some time we will not be able to read it. Yet, thankfully, we can still own Bibles even in different versions.

Personally, I am not excited about the 20th anniversary of HKSAR. As I said, life must go on. Especially after the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central in Peace, which made HK even more famous, the whole world is watching to see how China implements “one country, two systems.” It is like a battle that seesaws back and forth. On the one hand, China is determined to make “one country two systems succeed. On the other hand, HK wants more freedom, some aggressive parties even want independence. It’s an impossible situation.

A Taxi Driver

When it was decided that Hong Kong would be returned to China, a wave of immigration took place. At the time we had no means of immigrating; we could only accept that fate. When Shanghai was liberated from colonization, the capitalists were also liquidated despite being promised that they would be exempted. Although there is the internationally recognized Sino-British Joint Declaration, we proceeded with caution. For example once the HKSAR government took over, they immediately changed the medium of instruction in most secondary schools to Chinese. I didn't agree with that so my daughter went to an English language school.

Twenty years later, the government has been attacking school-founding religious organizations by changing the education system, and using policies to “mainlandize” HK people. Using both threats and financial benefit they force the media to take sides. Truth in the society is increasingly obscured. Civil servants do not insist on following systematic procedures. Civilization is regressing. Invisible pressures on individuals are mounting.

As China becomes the largest market force due to her 1.3 billion population, they deem the communization of Hong Kong as their success. The "strong country" (HK's sarcastic name for China) is spreading its influence worldwide using the same means—buying stocks in international companies to sway universal values. Other countries may slowly change their cultures as now they are in the same boat since they sold stocks to China. The tragedy of communist power changing the world's values may occur. Nobody cares about the mainland's betrayal, further reinforcing the regression of civilization to focusing only on economic gain.

A Christian expat who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly 40 years

On July 1, 1997, I was cautiously hopeful. China had already been opening up to lots of different influences, had established their own stock market, dismantled the old Commune system of living, and seemed to be open to dialog with Westerners. We had also seen a marked transformation in how Westerners were treated in the Mainland. We were more welcomed, with a decrease in surveillance as we traveled around. I hoped that as HK became part of mainland China, with a more open border and freer travel, we would see more people able to evangelize in the mainland. This was my main reason for optimism. Even though there was the promise of "50 years, no change" we knew better than to believe it. Government promises hold little water, but the "one country, two systems" was an intriguing idea. I was excited to see how it would be put into practice.

Twenty years isn’t very long, but we are now just five years shy of the half-way mark in the "50 years, no change" promise. By and large, it has been a difficult thing to measure. HK enjoys more freedoms than most mainland cities. However, that does not apply across the board to the political situation. Beijing has made it quite clear that hope for an independent, democratic HK is vain when they clarified their interpretation of a "democratically elected Chief Executive" according to their own ideology. HK has become a much more politicized city than it ever was under British rule. That may not be a good thing in the long run. Beijing is determined to rule HK as absolutely as they rule the rest of the country, but there are factions in the SAR government that are just as determined to make HK an independent entity. My optimism is now on hold for the political future of this city. The impact on evangelists both local and foreign, may be quite insignificant, or it may be catastrophic. A recent hardening of political lines in Beijing towards Christianity could influence the way Beijing views evangelistic efforts here as well, especially if they decide to blame "outside influences" for the political atmosphere here right now. However, ultimately, neither Beijing nor HK is in charge of what happens. God has been doing mighty and amazing things in China. I see no reason for that to change, however governments may behave.

A mother of two toddlers

Although I was in HK in 1997, I don’t really remember how I felt at the time—I was just 13 years old.

Today, however, I don’t feel like the anniversary is something worth celebrating. I couldn’t say what is better or worse now compared to pre-‘97, but I would say that this government is not for its people. Everything they do is to create an image for the world and for its authority. They don’t even try to consider their people. I feel this government is hopeless; even with a new Chief Executive on July 1, those in government are still the same people; nothing has changed. However, history tells us that if a government treats its people poorly, it will one day be overthrown. It might not happen in my lifetime, but it will one day.

US attorney who moved to Hong Kong in 1990

I was in Statue Square at midnight on June 30, 1997 for the handover. I would have been home watching it on TV, but a friend staying with us from the US dragged me down to Central for the midnight handover. Some of the pro-democracy politicians had somehow sneaked into the old Legislative Council building and were making speeches from the balcony. We saw a small group of policemen take the badges off their caps, put them in a bag and put new badges on their caps—I believe the old badges said “Royal Hong Kong Police,” and the new badges omitted the word “royal.” Statue Square was crowded and people seemed in a festive mood. History was happening and there was some excitement.

I was young and happy to be in HK—a place I loved and a place where exciting changes were taking place. Overall I was pessimistic about China’s rule over HK. I couldn’t trust a communist government. The communist government of China had caused its people too much misery and suffering during its short history. Like many other people, I still remembered the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. It was hard for me to believe that the promise of “one country—two systems” would be maintained.

Now it is 2017. I have to admit, HK has fared much better than I expected in 1997. I would say that religious freedom has been completely unimpaired. Personal freedoms are unimpaired. It seems to me that local schools have so far, generally, maintained their political independence (though the Beijing and HK governments are looking hard for ways to use the schools to inculcate “correct” thinking).The media has been a casualty of the handover. The media has become almost universally pro-establishment. The disappearance of the five Causeway Bay Books publishers—one of them (Lui Bo) apparently abducted from the streets of HK in 2015—is a very poor omen for the future of the “one country—two systems” promise. I don’t believe China will ever permit HK to have genuine universal suffrage as promised by HK’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. I expect HK to continue to have a much freer society than China for a long time, but I expect continued erosion of the “high degree of autonomy” promised to HK.

A teacher in a seminary

Back in 1997, I assumed that China would interfere in Hong Kong, but that fears of world opinion and Hong Kong's economic importance would limit their willingness to meddle in local affairs.

With regard to the present situation, Chinese agents kidnapping publishers and businessmen off the street and whisking them off to China is unsettling. China still does not understand the political aspirations of Hong Kong's people. That added to the massive influx of mainlanders has caused considerable backlash among the younger generation. I expect more violence.

For more on the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover check out the special section in last week’s ZGBriefs plus a few more here for good measure.

Image credit: Rain in Hong Kong by Mark Richardson via Flickr. 
Narci Herr

Narci Herr

Narci Herr and her husband, Glenn, lived for just over 30 years in Hong Kong. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and then for the last 20 years of their time in Asia they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout China and Narci... View Full Bio