July 1, 2022 will mark 25 years since Hong Kong’s return to China. Next year’s anniversary is imbued with a special significance. It marks the halfway point in Deng Xiaoping’s 50-year guarantee, made in 1997, that Hong Kong’s “previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”, a promise enshrined in the Basic Law under which Hong Kong is governed. For much of the past 24 years, Hong Kong defied wide expectations that the “one country, two systems” model would crumble shortly after the handover. On the contrary, it thrived as an unlikely democratic enclave within an authoritarian state, and as Asia’s financial centre, which global firms eyed as a gateway to the China market. Recent developments, however, suggest the model is coming under unprecedented stress. On December 23, construction crew quietly removed one of the most well-known statues, the “Pillar of Shame”, standing on the campus of Hong Kong University since 1997. It was erected after a commemoration that year of the June 4, 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The annual Tiananmen vigil at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park itself became a symbol of the freedoms enjoyed in the SAR. This year, the park was cordoned off by the police and the anniversary went without commemoration. Last week, memorials to Tiananmen at three other universities were also removed.
A new national security law passed by China last year has been cited as the reason for the actions. The law also led to Hong Kong’s most well-known pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily , ceasing publication. Meanwhile, the SAR government is revising the academic curriculum to promote patriotism and dilute the emphasis on liberal values. The law, along with a radical overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system earlier this year, undoubtedly marks the two biggest changes since the handover. The electoral reforms reduced the share of directly elected representatives in Hong Kong’s legislature and introduced a new candidate review committee to ensure only “patriots” can run for office. Pro-Beijing candidates swept the “patriots only” polls on December 19, which saw the lowest turnout of any polls since 1997, with many of the pro-democracy opposition figures either boycotting the elections or unable to contest, a marked change from the December 2019 district elections held shortly after months of protests that were swept by the Opposition. The changes reflect Beijing’s sense of strength and perception that it is no longer bound by commitments made 24 years ago. Chinese officials, betting on the access to the China market offered by Hong Kong, believe the lure of commerce will not dent Hong Kong’s financial status. That may well be true, but the impact of the changes is being felt elsewhere. Across the Taiwan Strait, fewer and fewer people view the “one country, two systems” idea, once mooted as a possible model for peaceful unification, as a future that they would want.