There are riots on the streets of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a city which never sleeps. On its warm evenings, the streets are filled with office workers wending their way home as well as hawkers trying to make yet another sale. At three in the morning, the neon signs are still lit and while the volume of noise is down, the traffic has barely declined. Hong Kong Chinese live vibrant lives.
It is that vibrancy, that level of activity and energy that the citizens are trying to maintain. What they fear—and why they are rioting—is that the stultifying hand of Beijing will smother them.
In 1998, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed off on Hong Kong. This erstwhile British colony had become a world class city build around one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. But the part of Hong Kong which had been vastly expanded was located not on the island of Hong Kong, but on the Kowloon Peninsula. Britain had signed a 100 year lease on the “new territories,” Kowloon, and that lease was up. No chance for a renewal.
China was a decrepit and weak state one century ago. By the end of the 20th century however, the tumultuous revolutions of 1911 and 1949 had brought about enormous changes in China. It is no longer a weak power that has to bow to the imperialists from Europe.
The government of Communist China understood clearly that they could not simply enclose Hong Kong into mainland Chinese culture. The enormous business wealth of Hong Kong was too valuable to squander in an imposed centralized economy. However, the Chinese Communists had gained some experience with alien economic systems.
When Deng Xiaoping became the sole leader of China after the devastating Cultural Revolution which ended in 1976, Deng was determined to set a new course for China. He began an experiment: a Special Economic Zone. He took a city in South China, encapsulated it with exceptional laws to protect it from the heavy hand of Beijing bureaucracy and allowed it economic freedom. The S.E.S. thrived. The great Chinese economic engine was on its way to becoming a leading world class economy.
Hong Kong would also have a special status. “One country, two systems” was the slogan. The Chinese did not want the business community of Hong Kong to desert the city thus killing a golden goose. But the leaders of Hong Kong wanted more than just the guarantee of economic liberties.
Hong Kong citizens wanted the real deal: economic and political freedom to run their own affairs. Yes, an overseer came from Beijing, but in the last decade, there was at least the hope that Hong Kong was going to be the harbinger of greater political freedom for all Chinese.
This hope was not realized. Not only has Hong Kong remained an isolated example, but it has seen the influence of Beijing become ever more heavy-handed.
Today there are riots in Hong Kong. Its citizens have learned that even their limited freedoms will be curtailed. Hong Kong has not become a beacon of change for Beijing. Beijing is insisting on uniformity and an end to the special relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of China.
If this happens, the lights of Hong Kong will be dimmed. The bustle of the streets, night and day, will decline. The youth of Hong Kong will inevitably slip away to seek their fortunes in other lands. They will learn other languages and take their vitality to new places: a blow to the city but also a blow to China.