In Print 

Melancholy in Hong Kong

From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue “Europe Under Fire

HONG KONG—On July 13, 1989, a month after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Hong Kong’s public-service broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) aired a documentary about the sense of disenchantment pervading the city. Producers of “The Melancholy Hong Konger” interviewed two up-and-coming local politicians and several middle-class Hong Kong families about their hopes for the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and their disillusion in the wake of Beijing’s crackdown on the pro-democracy student movement. It ended with a simple yet damning indictment: “China is not credible; Britain is not reliable.”

Twenty-five years later, in the midst of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong is again at a crossroads. In a curious twist of fate, the people RTHK interviewed in 1989—democratic politician Martin Lee and pro-establishment figure C.Y. Leung, along with Hong Kong’s increasingly restive middle class—provided a frighteningly perceptive glimpse into the factors contributing to the unrest, and into the city’s future, then and now.


The first footage of Lee in “The Melancholy Hong Konger” shows him wielding a megaphone, inveighing against a White Paper issued by the Colonial Government in early 1988. The White Paper decreed that 10 directly elected seats would be introduced into the city’s legislature in 1991—the first legislative seats in the city’s history to be directly elected. Lee and other pro-democracy politicians, outraged at the snail’s pace of democratization, burned copies of the White Paper in protest.

In late June 2014, a quarter century after this document aimed at marginal democratization, Lee—along with hundreds of his colleagues in the city’s legal profession—marched in silence from the High Court building to the Court of Final Appeal in protest against another White Paper. This latest document, issued now by the State Council in Beijing, described judges as “administrators” in a move heavily criticized by the Hong Kong Bar Association and by senior judges as undermining judicial independence. In response, the legal profession organized its third silent march since the handover in defense of the rule of law. With photographers and lawyers jostling to fill the space outside the Court of Final Appeal, the protest leader—a fresh-faced barrister named Dennis Kwok—called for silence. Lee, following Kwok’s lead, said nothing.

The change from megaphone to silence—and from protest leader to elder statesman—mirrors the change in Lee’s fortunes, and those of the Democratic Party he helped found in 1994. It also reflects the growing disappointment among moderate democrats in Hong Kong as China first delayed, and then repudiated, its promises of gradual democratization for the former British colony.

In 1989, the documentary described Lee aptly as representing the “vanguard of democracy.” Indeed, in 1995, the Democratic Party became the largest party in the Legislative Council [Legco], with 19 of the 60 total seats. Yet, by 2014, the Democratic Party had become a shadow of its former self—winning a mere six of 70 seats in the 2012 Legco elections. It was the worst showing in the party’s history. Lee himself, previously held up as Hong Kong’s democratic hero, had long been supplanted in the popular imagination by Joshua Wong, an unassuming secondary-school student with thick glasses and a bowl cut who turned 18 during the protests. In the interim, much had gone awry for Lee, for the Democratic Party, and for Hong Kong.

The splintering of the pro-democracy camp (collectively referred to as “pan-democrats”), particularly in the years after 2010, was a key contributor to the Democratic Party’s downfall. Only half of the seats in Legco are elected through direct elections in geographic districts (known as “geographical constituencies”). The remainder are chosen through a “functional constituency” voting system that statutorily entrenches the political influence of special interest groups such as the financial sector. Voters in each geographical constituency vote for a party list, and seats are filled by proportional representation. As a result, smaller parties have found their voice in Legco, at the expense of larger parties such as the Democratic Party. This phenomenon has affected both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy parties in Legco. However, the pro-Beijing parties, unlike the pan-democrats, have largely succeeded in limiting internal dissension. “Radical” pro-democracy voters gravitated towards the League of Social Democrats, founded in 2006 by former Democratic Party members, and People Power, itself a breakaway party from the League. Nearer the political center, the Democratic Party faces challenges from the Civic Party, which caters mainly to the middle and professional classes and also holds six seats in Legco.

The Democratic Party’s own missteps have also led to its decline. During the protracted debate over electoral reforms for 2012 that took place between 2009 and 2010, pro-democracy parties split over how to oppose the Hong Kong government’s proposal, which they viewed as insufficiently democratic. The Civic Party and League of Social Democrats launched a de facto referendum on the proposal by resigning from their Legco seats, forcing territory-wide by-elections. The Democratic Party refused to participate in the by-elections. It later entered into secret talks with the Beijing government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. The Democratic Party subsequently endorsed a revised proposal by the Hong Kong government, despite continued opposition by other pro-democracy parties. These moves split the pro-democracy camp and badly damaged the Democratic Party’s credibility. More significantly, the secret talks made the idea of negotiations between Beijing and Hong Kong’s pan-democrats politically toxic.

In addition to the Democratic Party’s strategic errors, the emergence of nativism—the idea that the interests of “native” Hong Kongers should take priority over those of visitors or recent immigrants from mainland China—also dimmed the prospects of rapproachement between Beijing and Hong Kong’s democrats. The Hong Kong public that RTHK portrayed in 1989 had been quick to stand in solidarity with China’s nascent Tiananmen Square democracy movement. On May 20, 1989, thousands took to the streets despite typhoon-like weather. Eight days later, an estimated 1.5 million residents demonstrated in support of the students in Beijing. By 2014, however, more Hong Kongers have begun to question whether they should identify with mainland China in any form at all. In a June 2014 survey of Hong Kong residents’ ethnic identity, conducted by the University of Hong Kong, 67 per cent of respondents identified themselves as “Hong Kongers” or “Hong Kongers in China.” Only 31 per cent identified themselves as “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong.”


Nativist sentiment arose in response to two different, but overlapping, developments. First, the influx of people and capital from mainland China, following the introduction of economic integration measures in 2003, has triggered escalating tensions and “right-wing” xenophobic rhetoric. Second, major public works projects, such as the redevelopment of the Queen’s Pier and Star Ferry Pier and the extension of China’s high-speed rail network into Hong Kong, have raised questions about the relative priorities of commercial development, economic integration with mainland China, and the preservation of historical and cultural landmarks. The destruction of Tsoi Yuen Village to make way for a high-speed rail extension, and separate plans to redevelop the rural North-Eastern New Territories, became rallying points for “left-wing,” anti-capitalist demands for a return to Hong Kong’s rural origins.

The emergence of political nativism in Hong Kong took the democratic old guard by surprise. In 2013, the Alliance in Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements of China—organizers of the city’s annual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre—proposed “Love the country, love the people; the Hong Kong spirit” as the motto for that year’s vigil. They were beset by unprecedented criticism. The motto was eventually dropped—a testament to the growing influence of political nativism.

A further challenge to the democratic establishment was the emergence of a younger generation of pro-democracy activists who, unlike their predecessors, had little or no experience of a Hong Kong under colonial rule. The landmark protests in 2012 against the introduction of “patriotic” national education into school curricula was spearheaded not by any pro-democracy party, but by Scholarism—a group of secondary school students led by Wong. And the momentum of the protests that culminated in the Umbrella Movement was largely due to boycotts organized by Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, representing university students. Lee, the graying trial lawyer, was in the vanguard no longer, replaced by the bespectacled boy with the bowl cut. Meanwhile, Lee’s 1989 political opponent, C.Y. Leung—now Hong Kong’s Chief Executive—faced his own predicament.


As early as 1989, RTHK described Leung as a pro-Beijing conservative associated with the idea that political reforms should occur only gradually. As Secretary-General of the Basic Law Consultative Committee (responsible for gathering public opinion on what would become the city’s mini-constitution), Leung should have played a key role in shaping the views that reached the Basic Law Drafting Committee. In reality, the provisions establishing Hong Kong’s political structure were hammered out with minimal input from the Consultative Committee. Yash Ghai, an authority on the Basic Law, described the later stages of the drafting process—especially after the Tiananmen Square Massacre—as a process where China “was increasingly dictating the terms of the Basic Law.” Unbeknownst to the Hong Kong public, Beijing’s increasingly direct involvement in drafting the Basic Law would be a foretaste of things to come.

Beijing would continue to play a heavy role in Leung’s ascendancy following his leadership of the Consultative Committee. After 12 years as Convenor of the Executive Council (the city’s cabinet), Leung declared his candidacy for Chief Executive in 2011. The ensuing three-way race was an elaborate farce. Albert Ho, a member of the Democratic Party, stood no chance of election—as Ho himself must have known. Chief Secretary Henry Tang, the original front-runner, soon found himself mired in scandals over marital infidelity and an unauthorized underground extension to his home. Leung, too, did not emerge from the campaign unscathed. Florence Leung, a former Communist Party operative, alleged that Leung could not have been appointed Secretary-General of the Consultative Committee had he not been a Party member. In a candidates’ debate, Tang alleged that Leung had stated, in a top-level meeting, that the use of riot police and tear gas against protesters was inevitable—a prophecy that ultimately came true under Leung’s administration in 2014. And senior members of Leung’s campaign team attended a dinner where an alleged former triad boss was present.

By the time the 1,200-strong Election Committee was called upon to vote for the next Chief Executive, some electors were openly contemplating casting blank ballots to force a new election. Others complained that the Beijing government’s Liaison Office had publicly campaigned for Leung. Even Leung’s selection—by a narrow 689 out of the 1,200 electors—did not end the controversy. Shortly after the vote, he paid a 90-minute visit to the Liaison Office—three times as long as his meeting with outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang—raising suspicions about the Liaison Office’s intervention in the Chief Executive contest.

Upon his selection, Leung promised—perhaps in an acknowledgment of the lack of credibility that suffused the electoral process—that there would be no Tang camp or Leung camp, only a “Hong Kong camp.” Yet Leung’s tenure has been marked by unprecedented social tension and division. At a town hall meeting in 2013, suspected triad members attacked a member of the League of Social Democrats in full view of the media and police who stood by mutely. Pro-government protesters —some transported to protest sites from mainland China or given financial compensation for their participation—have become a regular feature of Hong Kong politics. And Leung’s reactions to the Occupy Central movement—which included signing an anti-Occupy petition in his “personal capacity,” as well as his perceived aloofness by responding to weeks of ongoing protests with recorded video broadcasts—have failed to bridge Hong Kong’s growing political chasm.

The Leung administration has also been marked by acrimonious relations with other branches of Hong Kong’s government. Relations between executive and legislature—never particularly comfortable—reached new lows during 2014 after radical democrats attempted to filibuster the budget. In a question-and-answer session in May 2014, Leung devoted half of his nine-minute opening speech to condemning the filibuster, antagonizing pro-democracy legislators. The session ended early after radical democrats threw buns at the beleaguered Chief Executive. Despite these travails, Leung reiterated in July that he saw “no problem between the executive and legislative branches,” pinning the blame entirely on the legislature.

Although Leung’s relationship with the judiciary has not been as troubled as his relationship with the legislature, it has not exactly been cordial. In 2011, Leung complained that people who sought judicial review of government policies and infrastructure projects were delaying administrative operations—hardly a statement calculated to assure critics concerned about judicial independence. And Leung’s response to Beijing’s White Paper, which demanded political loyalty from Hong Kong’s judges and denigrated them as mere administrators, was to defend it as helping improve understanding of “One Country, Two Systems,” the Chinese policy of governance, which supposedly limited Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong affairs. Ironically, Leung’s success in undermining effective institutional counterbalances to executive power directly contributed to the decision by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters to take to the streets. In doing so, he also succeeded in galvanizing Hong Kong’s traditionally apathetic middle class.


“Even before the June 4 massacre” in Tiananmen Square, “The Melancholy Hong Konger” explained, “not every person was as confident as the British Government” in Hong Kong’s future. Middle-class Hong Kongers with the financial means to leave did so in droves. Between 1986 and 1989, nearly 100,000 Hong Kongers emigrated—primarily to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Those who stayed behind hoped for continued prosperity and stability in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover. For them, the massacre in Tiananmen Square came as a rude awakening. If the Beijing government could break so many of the promises it made to the protesters—not to deploy the army against them, not to engage in subsequent recriminations—how could it be trusted to abide by the promises made to Hong Kong in the Joint Declaration or the Basic Law after the end of its colonial status in 1997? In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, emigration enquiries and applications spiked. Singapore’s announcement of an immigration quota of 25,000 for blue-collar and white-collar workers resulted in jostling and scuffles as thousands queued for application forms.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, unease had given way to quiescence. Many middle-class émigrés, reassured by the early years of Chinese rule and seeking greater economic opportunity, returned to Hong Kong—armed with foreign passports as “insurance policies.” As late as May 18, 2013, The Vancouver Sun declared that immigrants from Hong Kong were “streaming out” of Canada. The newspaper reported that Hong Kong had over 350,000 residents with Canadian citizenship—a sizable fraction of the city’s population of 7 million. Yet developments in Hong Kong would again prompt the middle classes to consider whether to leave Hong Kong, or to stay and fight for their rights.

By 2014, Hong Kong’s middle classes—long reputed to be apolitical—had much to be upset about. Housing prices were higher than in New York, London, or Tokyo, and continued to rise despite the 2012 introduction of property taxes designed to deter speculation. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient—a measure of income inequality—rose to a record high of 0.537 in 2011, among the highest in East Asia. And the concentration of economic power in a handful of conglomerates led to growing resentment of the “real estate hegemony.”

Nonetheless, economic and livelihood issues were not the only reason for middleclass discontent after the handover. In 2003, a record 500,000 people marched in protest against the government’s proposed national security legislation, although the government’s mishandling of the SARS outbreak and allegations of impropriety by the Financial Secretary probably contributed to turnout. In 2012, thousands of students and parents organized a sit-in outside the new government headquarters building to protest against the introduction of mainland-style national education into the curriculum. And the public reaction to Beijing’s decision on Chief Executive electoral arrangements for 2017, permitting “universal suffrage” only after a Nominating Committee had pre-selected the candidates, culminated in weeks of protest that captured the world’s imagination. Common to all three protests was the growing public perception that Hong Kong’s economic and livelihood issues are linked to the domination of the city’s economic and political landscape by a handful of elites with close ties to Beijing. Beijing’s confirmation that the 2017 Chief Executive race would continue to be shaped by these elites on the Nominating Committee—and Leung’s lament that truly democratic elections would disproportionately help the poor—were, for protesters, the final straw.

Faced with these developments, some Hong Kongers have chosen, once again, to vote with their feet. Hong Kong Security Bureau statistics show that 3,900 Hong Kongers emigrated in the first half of 2013, up from 3,600 in the same period in 2012. Between mid-2012 and mid-2013 the Census and Statistics Department recorded a net outflow of people, a rarity in the city’s history. Immigration consultants in Hong Kong reported spikes in enquiries and emigration applications after Beijing issued its White Paper in June 2014, and after the start of the Umbrella Movement in September 2014. As of this writing it remains to be seen whether middleclass Hong Kongers will again leave in droves. But one major difference between 1989 and 2014 is the sense among Hong Kongers that, with China’s continuing encroachment into Hong Kong’s autonomy, there is little left to lose.


In 1989, Leung told RTHK that Beijing could hardly blame the Hong Kong public for questioning Beijing’s commitments to the Joint Declaration and Basic Law, after it had broken its promises to the students in Tiananmen Square. Developments in Hong Kong have proved these doubts amply justified. In the years following the handover, Hong Kongers witnessed ever more inroads into the city’s promised autonomy.

Beijing’s broken promises regarding Hong Kong’s democratization have been a particularly notorious example. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is currently selected by an Election Committee of 1,200 people, the Committee’s composition carefully designed to favor pro-business and pro-Beijing interests. Under Article 45 of the Basic Law, the “ultimate goal” is for the Election Committee to be replaced by universal suffrage, following nomination by a “broadly representative” Nominating Committee.  Universal suffrage was originally scheduled for 2007, but has been repeatedly delayed. In 2004, after the watershed 2003 protests, Beijing ruled out elections for 2007 and claimed for itself the power to determine whether changes to the selection mechanism were necessary. In 2007, Beijing again postponed elections for Chief Executive from 2012 to 2017. As debate over reforms for 2017 progressed between 2012 and 2014, Beijing made clear that it would not countenance genuine elections. On August 31, 2014, Beijing declared that the Nominating Committee for 2017 would be composed along the same lines as the Election Committee in 2012 and that any candidate must “love the country and love Hong Kong”—language that meant democratic politicians would not be allowed to run. To many in Hong Kong, Beijing had reneged, yet again, on its promises.

Growing limits on press freedom and the rule of law have also alarmed Hong Kongers. The city’s journalists, although freer than their counterparts in mainland China, face growing pressure from pro-Beijing bosses to self-censor. At the same time, companies are running or pulling advertising under political pressure, and there are even threats of physical violence. In 2007, long before Leung took office, the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned that press freedom had declined over the past decade. In 2014, Kevin Lau, former chief editor of the newspaper Ming Pao, was stabbed in broad daylight following his abrupt removal. The Association declared that 2013-2014 had been the darkest year for press freedom in decades.

Nor has Hong Kong’s fabled rule of law been immune. Since 1997, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have used Beijing’s power to interpret the Basic Law to go over the heads of Hong Kong’s own courts, or to pre-empt local litigation. Of the four interpretations issued to date, only one was made at the invitation of Hong Kong’s own courts. Prior to his assumption of the Chinese presidency, Xi Jinping urged the three branches of Hong Kong’s government to “cooperate”—another strike at judicial independence. And Beijing’s White Paper of June 2014, with its reference to judges as “administrators,” of whom patriotic loyalty was expected, prompted the legal profession to organize its third silent protest march since the handover.

In other areas, too, Hong Kongers see growing interference from Beijing in matters that were ostensibly within the scope of the city’s autonomy under the Basic Law. The planned introduction of mainland-style national education alarmed parents who saw the specter of communist political indoctrination, a particularly unpalatable prospect for Hong Kongers who fled from the ravages of the Chinese Civil War or the Cultural Revolution. Yet Liaison Office official Hao Tiechuan chose to fan the flames by arguing that brains, like dirty laundry, sometimes needed washing. Moreover, Shiu Sin-por, head of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, argued in March 2014 that the Liaison Office’s participation in Hong Kong’s legislative affairs was a “reality” and acknowledged that some legislators listened only to the Liaison Office. Yet, in the face of Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s promised autonomy, the United Kingdom has maintained an unseemly silence.


After the Tiananmen Square massacre, members of the Legislative and Executive Councils agreed that British nationals in Hong Kong should receive the right of abode in Britain—a right that had been taken from them in 1962. Despite support from the British press and public, Whitehall was unmoved. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd announced that full citizenship would be granted to only 50,000 heads of households and their families—amounting to about 225,000 Hong Kong Chinese out of a total of 3.25 million British nationals in Hong Kong. Small wonder that conservative author William McGurn titled his book on the British treatment of Hong Kong Perfidious Albion.

In 2014, as in 1989, some Hong Kongers have looked, in vain, to the United Kingdom for support in the face of Beijing’s belligerence. When Lee—accompanied by former Chief Secretary Anson Chan—traveled to London to make the case for Hong Kong, Prime Minister David Cameron and senior Conservative cabinet ministers declined to meet them. When Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, member of the Liberal Democratic Party, met the two, Clegg criticized his coalition partners for their failure to stand up for Hong Kong. Clegg’s comments fell on deaf ears. After Beijing released its decision on Chief Executive elections for 2017—imposing pre-selection of candidates by political criteria—the Foreign Office merely responded by recognizing that the decision would “disappoint” democrats. “If speaking up means saying what the Foreign Office just did,” Civic Party Chair Audrey Eu retorted, “it is far more honorable not to speak at all.”

Britain’s mealy-mouthed response to the protests may reflect its current preoccupation with appeasing China. After Cameron and Clegg met the Dalai Lama—a figure vilified by the Chinese leadership—in 2012, Beijing forced Cameron to postpone a visit to China originally scheduled for April 2013. The British government has since been anxious to repair relations. This reconciliation has been financially lucrative. In June 2014, the two countries announced trade and investment deals worth £14 billion ($22 billion).

Nonetheless, there is pressure even within London to speak out on Hong Kong. The Hong Kong police’s use of tear gas against protesters prompted members of Parliament in London to question British arms exports controls to Hong Kong. A parliamentary inquiry into the implementation of the Joint Declaration is ongoing, despite repeated Chinese protests against its “interference” in Hong Kong’s affairs. And Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, has urged ministers to speak out publicly, rather than to do so “behind their hands.” These demands may explain why even Cameron was compelled to say that he was “deeply concerned” about events in Hong Kong. It remains to be seen whether such “concern” will result in stricter British monitoring of Chinese compliance with its commitments to Hong Kong.


After the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the right of abode debacle, “The Melancholy Hong Konger” declared the Hong Kong public at least knew the true faces of both Beijing and London. Twenty-five years later, history has come full circle. Lee, the democratic pioneer of the late 1980s, is now democracy’s elder statesman, sidelined in favor of Wong and the Federation of Students. Leung—once responsible for shaping public opinion on the Basic Law—has become an embattled symbol of Beijing’s misrule. And, as in 1989, the people of Hong Kong find themselves caught between Beijing’s aggression and London’s cowardice. Unlike in 1989, however, Hong Kongers must decide whether to side with a student-led democracy movement in their own backyard, rather than in distant Beijing. And the Hong Kongers of 2014, abandoned by the British and pummeled by the Chinese, are finally taking their future into their own hands. Regardless of how the protest movement ends, both Beijing and London must now accept that a newly assertive Hong Kong public is part of the political landscape.



Alvin Y. H. Cheung is a visiting scholar at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. 

[Photo courtesy of Leung Ching Yau Alex]

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