Twenty-two years ago, on July 1, 1997, legions of international reporters stood in the rain watching armored convoys of the People’s Liberation Army enter Hong Kong in the predawn hours, just after the territory returned to China after 150 years of British colonial rule.
As a reporter living and working in Hong Kong for an early-generation online news outlet, I was among the witnesses to history.
The scene clearly was orchestrated for maximum drama: Young PLA soldiers knelt upright on open flatbed vehicles, whose flashing red lights cast a glow on to their faces. Wearing white gloves and clutching a rifle to their chests, each soldier fixed his gaze forward, apparently disregarding the hundreds of villagers who turned out to herald their new army.
The seemingly jubilant bystanders waved newly emblazoned flags, showing the bauhinia flower — the flag’s circular pattern of white flower petals is set against a bright red background. The flag was designed as a symbol of unity and the embodiment of the rights and freedoms that would be enjoyed under a so-called “one country, two systems” principle outlined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed at the end of 1984.
The agreement was meant to pave the way for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control, making it a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, with the promise of self-rule and an independent judiciary that would remain unchanged for 50 years. Each year, beginning that year, July 1 would be celebrated at “Hong Kong SAR Establishment Day.”
The handover officially began at 11:30 that evening, with a farewell speech read by Britain’s Prince Charles on behalf of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. At the stroke of midnight, the handover of Hong Kong took on a decidedly celebratory tone, accompanied by the pomp and grandeur of traditional lion dances, over-the-top parties, outsize fireworks displays, and carnivals.
The voices of relatively small pockets of pro-democracy protestors positioned throughout the territory were almost entirely drowned out by the merry-making.
Today, the voices of dissent have swelled to as high as two million of Hong Kong’s seven million citizens, estimates say, and the images of clashes with police have gone viral over the past several weeks.
The majority of protestors are thought to be young adults who have taken to the streets in both peaceful and violent protest against the gradual passage of restrictive legislation over elections, the mandatory implementation of pro-Chinese curriculum in schools, and most recently, the looming threat of draconian extradition laws — all of which have been happening far earlier than the avowed “50 years of no change” would have allowed.
“The love of freedom and the belief in the value of an economically and politically liberal society are deeply rooted in the soul of Hong Kong,” said David Zweig, professor emeritus of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who has lived in Hong Kong and been a member of the Jewish community there for 23 years. “The steady erosion of freedoms of the press and of assembly, and the capitalist system under which they have grown up, have become flashpoints for these growing annual protests on July 1.”
Until now, Hong Kong’s longstanding status as a freewheeling economic hub of international banking and finance, and its reputation as a bustling, yet safe and sophisticated city, have long been a draw for expatriates from around the world — among them, according to an estimate from 2010, about 5,000 Jews.
For some longtime Jewish residents, however, the steady stream of post-1997 changes have been simultaneously depressing and alarming — and a cause for them to join the protests.
“Hong Kong has become our home,” said Eli Bitan, an entrepreneur in the financial and real estate sector who has lived in the city for more than 25 years. “The issue of loss of universal suffrage was the starting point for me to get involved.”
Shani Brownstein, a former toy manufacturer and now a certified life coach living in Hong Kong, acknowledges that although Westerners may not seem as concerned by the changing political landscape, inside the Jewish community there are people who have actively supported the protestors.
“On one level, there’s an appreciation that should things take a turn for the worse, there’s an exit strategy,” she said. “However, for those with businesses here, there is definitely more risk.”
She noted that there has been an annual tradition of protests on July 1, but that this summer, the tenor and magnitude have shifted fundamentally.
Before 2003, protests during Establishment Day were, in fact, small compared with the size to which the annual march has grown today, Professor Zweig said.
In 2003, the largest protest in Hong Kong’s post-handover history took place. Then, some 500,000 people protested the government’s national security legislation, which they feared would restrict their civil liberties. In 2012, Hong Kong students opposed mandatory curricular changes that included topics on Chinese history, culture, and national identity, all of which were seen as vehicles to brainwash them.
In 2014, protestors camped out in the streets for more than two months in what became known as “the umbrella movement,” referring to the makeshift tents set up during Hong Kong’s rainy season. Protestors balked at not being able to elect the head of the city’s government freely; instead, a pro-China committee first handpicked the candidates, before they could vote.
Now, over the past several weeks, demonstrations in Hong Kong have been cited as the largest in the city’s history. Sparked by a proposal to change extradition laws that would allow suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial, two marches drew astonishing numbers into the streets.
The tenets of the Joint Declaration do not expire until 2047, but attempts by Beijing to exert greater control over Hong Kong in the meantime have cast doubt on the reliability of the “one country, two systems” policy.
The looming deadline is particularly worrying to Hong Kong’s young people, who have grown up with liberal values and expectations in an international city outside what is commonly known as China’s “Great Firewall,” a combination of legislative actions and technologies that regulate the internet in China.
“I am sad for the local people,” Professor Zweig said. “We [Westerners] have a passport, so we can leave.”
“On the one hand, Hong Kong students are being encouraged to participate; to make a difference, but they now feel they are stuck in a society that is becoming increasingly repressive, a place to which their grandparents fled from China with nothing on their backs.”
After a 25-year career as a newspaper reporter, radio producer, and magazine editor working for such media outlets as Dow Jones, the Voice of America, and Knight-Ridder in the U.S. and Southeast Asia, Leah Krakinowski Silberstein of Tenafly has chosen to apply her skills to promoting Jewish education.