180 years on from the founding of modern Hong Kong, what is her future?
Tuesday 26th January marks 180 years of Hong Kong’s association with Great Britain. Despite having a complicated past, the city was built on principles of internationalism, liberal trade and entrepreneurial spirit. It grew to become a global financial centre and a beacon of freedom and globalization in the East.
Almost two centuries on, many of these foundations of Hong Kong’s identity still resonate with the city's citizens. It is, however, a way of life that is under threat.
Since March 2019 the city has been blighted by violent social and political repression. What started out as an overzealous response to peaceful protests quickly escalated into rampant police brutality which sent shockwaves around the world.
In the unfolding turmoil, China’s ruling Communist Party began to more heavily exert its influence on Hong Kong than ever before. Heavy handed police scuffles gave way to all-out harassment and intimidation of anyone associated with the protest movement. The media was suppressed and academic curricula censored. One of the most disturbing developments was Beijing’s imposition of the new National Security Laws, draconian legislation which has been used as a license for Hong Kong’s authorities to intimidate and harass anyone they believe to be associated with the protest movement.
Then, in what is potentially the final nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s freedom, four pro-democracy lawmakers were unilaterally removed from the city’s legislative council. Their crime? Being unpatriotic. The Beijing-backed Hong Kong authorities were so affronted by anyone who dares to support freedom that they make sure to stamp out anyone who stands up for these values, which go to the heart of the historic identity of Hong Kong.
While under British rule, Hong Kong became a leading commercial centre; a crucial link between East and West and a jumping off point for many businesses looking to expand into Asia. Hong Kong is supposed to be a Special Administrative Region of China, with certain freedoms and rights guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which are not enjoyed in the People’s Republic. But Beijing has begun to insist that the Joint Declaration - the UN recognized treaty under which Hong Kong was returned to China - is null and void. Meaning that Hong Kong now, to all intents and purposes, is a totalitarian state under the complete control of the CCP.
All of this, under the shadow of China's increasingly heavy influence in the city, means the global aspect of Hong Kong’s historic identity is being lost.
There is little to be optimistic about in the battle for the future of Hong Kong. It has been transformed, potentially irrevocably, and is unrecognizable from that which it once was. Hope however, for the ideals and culture on which it was founded lives on - in its citizens. Many thousands of Hongkongers have stood against this onslaught, fighting for freedom and democracy against a regime which has no regard for human rights or the international rule of law.
After 180 years of joint history between Great Britain and Hong Kong, it is those citizens who need our support, now more than ever. As we mark this anniversary with mixed emotions, we must ensure that the British National (Overseas) visas that open next week are available to all Hongkongers who need them. We must also ensure that Magnitsky-style sanctions are imposed on those culpable for human rights violations. Only by protecting and supporting those brave Hongkongers and standing up to those who would seek to eradicate their freedom can the historic spirit of Hong Kong survive and its unique identity continue.