President Xi Jinping stepped out of his fortified and firewalled country for the first time since the pandemic outbreak to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China. Though he hailed the success of the "One country, two systems" model and claimed that Hong Kong continues to remain an entity with a unique identity, for many, his words did not ring true.
When the British handed back the colony, the world had hoped that Hong Kong and its business ways would rub off on China. Unfortunately, it is Hong Kong that is changing, and not for the better. President Xi is determined to permeate the region with "Chinese characteristics." That can only mean one thing. Like on the mainland, freedoms will only be paid lip service, government censorship and control will seep into all aspects of business and civilian lives, dissent will not be tolerated, and one can expect more opacity in dealings with the region.
The Covid restrictions and disruptions of the world supply chain had already pushed many business conglomerates to leave the Special Administrative Zone. In January, the American Chamber of Commerce reported that one in twenty companies surveyed plans to move their headquarters out of Hong Kong.
It is not just trade and businesses that will suffer. Civil liberties and press freedom are on the dock. The ruthless suppression of 2019 anti-government protests, arrests of pro-democracy activists, erosion of civil rights, curbing of press freedom, and the subsequent imposition of the national security law have all played a significant role in such decisions.
Once known for press freedom, the country now ranks behind the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Colombia. According to Reporters Without Borders' latest list, the region dropped seventy places and now ranks 148th on the index. Many pro-democracy media outlets shut down or were forced to down their shutters. The feared national security law has muted the "city of demonstrations."
It is not just businesses that are leaving. In the past year alone, 90,000 Hong Kongers left the country. During the Covid wave that swept through the city in February and March this year, another 100,000 people moved away. In the three months since the British National (Overseas) visa for Hong Kong residents was introduced, more than 123,000 applications have been received.
According to reports, Monsignor Javier Herrera-Corona, the Vatican's unofficial representative in Hong Kong, is said to have cautioned Catholic missions about the impending changes. Efforts are on to save the missions' property, documents, and funds. President Xi's vision for the special administrative zone is a religion with "Chinese characteristics." What that means is anybody's guess, as China is an atheist Communist country with little religious freedoms on the mainland. But, Hong Kong's people of the Catholic faith have come under scrutiny and sharp criticism for their role in the 2019 anti-government, pro-democracy protests. It is unlikely that an authoritarian like President Xi will allow freedoms that may lead to demands for more.
But, the changes are here to stay. The new Chief Executive of Hong Kong, John Lee, was sworn in, in front of President Xi's presence. He is not expected to preserve the region's liberties. His role in crushing the 2019 civilian protests makes him more palatable to Beijing than to the majority of the people of Hong Kong.
Until two decades ago, Hong Kong was a bustling center of international trade and commerce. It was home to the world's busiest port and Asia's second-biggest stock market. The city was a vital link between the Chinese and the world economy. With an internationally recognized legal system and home to the headquarters of multinational companies, the city was the pulse of the global economy.
Hong Kong's Basic Law, a mini-constitution derived from an agreement between Britain and China at the time of the handing over, should have been the rulebook that steered the city for at least the next 25 years. Today, it's the Communist manifesto and President Xi Jinping's vision that is shaping the city.
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