When I was based as a reporter in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s, I never fully appreciated the place.
I had what I considered more important stories to cover—wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and East Pakistan and events in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and even Afghanistan.
So I rarely wrote about Hong Kong.
Between assignments throughout Asia for The Christian Science Monitor, I would return briefly to Hong Kong and an apartment overlooking ships in the harbor. It was a chance to enjoy an environment where the phones worked and I could get regular hot showers.
I did enjoy meeting Hong Kong residents, but many of them seemed to me to be only interested in making money. One was a businessman who came to dinner one evening and expressed astonishment at the hundreds of books that I had lining the shelves in my study and living room.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Why so many books?”
Hong Kong protests
Then in August 1986, when I was based in Beijing for The Washington Post and Hong Kong was still a British colony, something happened that changed my view forever.
More than 1 million of Hong Kong’s inhabitants joined a signature campaign opposing China’s plans to build a nuclear power plant located only about 35 miles (about 56 kilometers) from Hong Kong.
Since then, I’ve returned to Hong Kong more than 20 times, and it has continued to surprise me.
Large but mostly peaceful protests have become commonplace in Hong Kong.
But what has surprised me the most over the past decade or so is the emotion driving many protestors, who now seem to fear that their whole way of life is being threatened by Chinese government moves to assert more authority over Hong Kong.
On July 1, 2003, as many as half a million people took to the streets to protest “anti-subversion” legislation that Beijing wanted to impose on Hong Kong.
As a result, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s chief executive at the time, and his Beijing backers decided to postpone introducing the bill.
Some commentators now think that Hong Kong may be approaching a flash point, with a possible escalation of tensions coming during what has now become an annual protest march on July 1.
July 1 marks the date in 1997 when Britain handed Hong Kong over to China based on a Sino-British joint declaration that the territory would retain a “high degree of autonomy” for the next 50 years.
Hong Kong then became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) within China boasting its own chief executive, legislature, and judiciary. It was to enjoy autonomy in all matters other than defense and foreign relations.
And the Hong Kong government subsequently promised residents that they would be able to vote for their own leader in 2017.
But all of this came into doubt after Beijing began to insist that candidates for the chief executive post would have to be loyalists who “love China” and would be screened by a largely pro-Beijing nominating committee of 1,200 local power brokers, many representing business interests.
Chief executive nominations
“Occupy Central,” a homegrown pro-democracy group founded in Hong Kong in 2013, is insisting that the nominating process is flawed.
The group organized an unofficial, mostly online referendum lasting 10 days that ended June 29. It asked residents to vote on three ways to reform the voting system. None of these would be likely to please Beijing because they would eliminate the veto power of the nominating committee.
More than 780,000 people voted, by the organization’s own count.
As the best-organized of the groups calling for reform of the nomination process, Occupy has threatened to mobilize a nonviolent sit-in protest in the city’s central business district if the Hong Kong government fails to reform the system.
Beijing has labeled the group as “illegal.” Pro-Beijing media, meanwhile, have launched a propaganda campaign alleging that Occupy Central will shut down businesses and transportation throughout Hong Kong, a city of more than 7 million people.
Reasons for turnout
Analysts attribute the large turnout for the PopVote to a combination of factors, including threatening statements from China, a suspicion that Beijing was behind a massive cyberattack on the poll’s website, and a Chinese white paper that stressed the limits on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
In early June, Zhou Nan, a former senior Chinese official, caused alarm when he declared that China could declare martial law in Hong Kong if the Occupy movement created major disorder.
Popular resentment, meanwhile, has been stoked in part by an influx of mainland Chinese, including wealthy Chinese whose investments have raised Hong Kong property prices. These have affected young people who cannot afford to buy an apartment.
“More fundamentally, there are fears that press and judicial freedoms are being eroded,” noted Financial Times’ commentator David Pilling last week.
An official white paper issued by Beijing on June 10 heightened fears that China will now further limit Hong Kong’s autonomy and even restrict its independent judiciary system.
The paper stated that “the high degree of autonomy is not an inherent power but one that comes solely from the authorization of the central leadership.”
It also categorized Hong Kong judges as administrators who need to be "patriotic" and loyal to China.
China’s decision to issue the white paper appears to have succeeded only in deepening suspicions of Beijing.
On June 27, some 1,800 Hong Kong lawyers, wearing black, marched silently to the city’s highest court—the largest public protest by the territory’s lawyers since the handover.
They were said to fear that Beijing's ruling Chinese Communist Party would start micromanaging Hong Kong.
Of course, Hong Kong residents still include a sizable number of people who take little interest in politics. Just as I observed back in the 1970s and early 1980s, many are still concerned with simply making a living
Some fear that speaking out on political issues may only get them into trouble.
And then there are many businesspeople who have profited greatly from their growing ties with mainland China.
But what may now concern Beijing as much as anything else is the growing presence of disgruntled young people showing up at, and sometimes even leading, the various protests and rallies that have occurred in recent years.
Dan Southerland is RFA's Executive Editor.