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July 1 marks the 25th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong territory to China by the United Kingdom, which had ruled the city as a colony for over a century. This is an extremely important moment for China as President Xi Jinping traveled to Hong Kong amid heavy security measures on Thursday to deliver a triumphal speech: it is Xi’s first trip outside of mainland China since the coronavirus pandemic, over two and a half years ago .
July 1 also marks another more recent anniversary, one certainly not being celebrated in the city: that of the occupation of the local parliament by pro-democracy protesters, which marked the culmination of demonstrations against Chinese Communist Party political interference in Hong Kong between March and November 2019. On Thursday a documentary was released in Italy telling about these protests: it is called Revolution of Our Times.
Both events – the 1997 restitution and the 2019 protests – were fundamental to Hong Kong and its people: the first because it ended a century and a half of colonial rule, albeit hasty and with various government errors. British; the second because Hong Kong was never the same after the protests failed: what was considered one of the freest cities in Asia has fallen victim to a very strong authoritarianism that amazed analysts for the speed and severity with which it was enforced .
Hong Kong became a British colony in the mid-19th century after the two Opium Wars waged by the British Empire (later joined by other European powers) against China.
The Opium Wars were wars of conquest aimed at exploiting the weakened Chinese empire. The British won both easily and received Hong Kong as spoils of war: in 1842, after victory in the first Opium War, the only island of the same name; then in 1860, after victory in the second Opium War, the Kowloon Peninsula; and finally in 1898 the so-called “New Territories”, which the Chinese Empire ceded to the British for 99 years.
First under the British Empire and then under the United Kingdom, Hong Kong experienced a considerable degree of political repression and racism by the colonial rulers, but also an ever-widening prosperity. Especially after 1949, when China was conquered by the Chinese Communist Party, the differences between Hong Kong and China became increasingly clear: Hong Kong developed a thriving market economy and became one of the most prosperous commercial cities in the world, while for decades China remained under direct economic policies of the communist regime very poor.
The political situation also changed significantly after 1949: although Hong Kong was a colony where citizens enjoyed very few rights, and although there were protests against colonial rule in the second half of the 20th century, the situation was not even comparable to that from Hong Kong China, where a totalitarian regime prevailed. Over the decades, thousands of people have fled China to seek refuge and hope for wealth in Hong Kong.
Little by little, the city built its own identity: it preserved its own dialect, Cantonese, while in China the Communist Party tried to assimilate the Mandarin Chinese language (with bad results in reality: the dialects in China are still very strong ); it retained the old way of writing, so-called “Traditional Chinese,” while in China the Communist Party created a “simplified” method; and in general it has created an increasingly unique and distinct culture.
In this context of wealth and culture becoming increasingly independent from China, in the 1980s the British government made an agreement with China for the return of Hong Kong. It was quite a contentious process, also because the city had become relatively free in the meantime, although citizens still could not elect their own deputies and universal suffrage did not exist.
In 1984 Margaret Thatcher’s government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese regime to return the city in 1997, after 99 years since the New Territories were ceded.
In the agreement, China pledged to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms for 50 years and even expand them by allowing citizens to elect their representatives through universal suffrage (which the UK never granted). The compromise took the name “one country, two systems” to indicate that China and Hong Kong would eventually be reunited but would have two distinct regimes. Despite the assurances, nearly a million people left Hong Kong between 1984 and 1997, fearing that returning to China would mean a reduction in freedom and living standards.
At that time, according to various surveys, between 85 and 93 percent of the city’s population were in favor of maintaining the status quo.
The cession of Hong Kong took place on July 1, 1997 during a pompous ceremony attended by Prince Charles and then Prime Minister Tony Blair, along with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. In fact, Hong Kong was the last colony of the former British Empire. Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, said in his farewell address: “Now the people of Hong Kong will rule Hong Kong: this is a promise and an unshakable destiny.”
It really was like that for about fifteen years. Hong Kong became the western market’s gateway to the vast Chinese economy, grew richer and remained free: for 15 years it was the only Chinese city with a free press, an independent judicial system, full freedom of speech and protest, uncensored internet and publication.
Things got even worse from 2013 when Xi Jinping became President of China and instituted a new, more nationalist and authoritarian style of government. Gradually, but with increasing alarm, China began stripping away some of the freedoms Hong Kong had enjoyed for the past few decades and embarking on a policy of gradual assimilation.
In 2014, the city saw the so-called “umbrella revolution,” a large youth protest movement for universal suffrage, which blocked the city for a few months, but without any particular results, except to convince the Chinese government that assimilation would be the only option been to bring Hong Kong under control.
However, the toughest and most important protests began in 2019 in response to a law wanted by the Chinese government that would ease extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China and effectively undermine the freedom of the judicial system. The protests soon widened in scope as it was now clear that Hong Kong’s freedom was at stake: the slogan of the demonstrations became “Free Hong Kong!” As the demonstrations were shouted at, the crowd replied, “This is the revolution of our time!”
The protests began in March 2019 with massive demonstrations, some involving more than two million people (out of the city’s seven million residents).
The protests probably culminated on July 1, when a group of more radical demonstrators with a mixture of violence and extreme civilization occupied the seat of the local parliament in Hong Kong for a few hours: the demonstrators smashed the windows and wrote pro-democracy slogans on the walls walls, but they left money in the building’s canteen to pay for the snacks they took out.
At this point, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, made up mostly of boys in their 20s and even younger, also became a serious threat to the Chinese regime. It was at this point that police violence, which for decades was an internationally lauded model of peaceful management, turned into a brutal and repressive force within weeks.
These protests are told in the documentary Revolution of Our Times, which consists almost entirely of videos shot during the 2019 demonstrations and interviews with leaders of the pro-democracy movement. The documentary was released in some Italian cinemas on June 30 and is a remarkable testament to what the protests were like in those months: to the naivety of the demonstrators, many of whom were children (you grab your first Molotov cocktail and pour it one even all the petrol on the clothes: fortunately it was over); police brutality (there are notable scenes of police officers beating up a group of elderly Hong Kongers who had taken to the streets to “protect the youth”) and Hong Kong’s latest pro-democracy movement in general.
After the protests ended in November 2019, the crackdown that followed was exceptional.
The last victory of the democratic movement was in the elections to the district councils, local bodies without real powers, but in which the democratic candidates won by a large majority in November 2019. But a few months later, the Chinese government passed the compliant local parliament the so-called “national security law,” which gave the authorities enormous latitude to “incite, subvert, and secede” anyone who opposed or even criticized the regime accuse.
After the passage of the Security Law and thanks to the isolation and social control made possible by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong has transformed itself into a de facto authoritarian city in just two years. The democratic parties were dissolved, the free newspapers closed, the pro-democracy movements dissolved. The elections returned rigidly to the Chinese regime’s control. Taking advantage of the Security Law, the pro-China authorities in Hong Kong have effectively stripped the right to demonstrate, freedom of expression and association. The autonomy of the judiciary has been seriously weakened.
Most notably, there were thousands of arrests, including opposition MPs, protesters, right-wing activists and journalists. Massive purges were carried out in many politically important workplaces: after the law was passed, more than 1,000 journalists and media workers were fired.
Hong Kong is not yet a full dictatorship like China. The internet is still not censored, and some rights remain: Recently, a former pro-democracy parliamentarian who lost her job as a result of the crackdown said she could at least visit her comrades and colleagues in prison, which is not possible in China .
But the situation is steadily getting worse: According to various surveys by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, the human rights situation in Hong Kong, which was once one of the freest cities in East Asia, is now similar to that in Saudi Arabia. .
Hong Kong has also become a sensitive issue for the Chinese regime, which also threatens and persecutes democracy activists abroad. Also for this reason, the Italian production company that translated and distributed Revolution of Our Times worked undercover and did not want their name to be revealed to avoid problems with the Chinese government.