20 years later

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China 20 years ago (July 1, 1997). This has occasioned much commentary among China-watchers. The NY Times ran a good piece by Keith Bradsher marking the anniversary:

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches on Saturday, the perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China may want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — the authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

Hong Kong is still an incredible place, but my own sense is that the city is locked in terminal decline, for the reasons Bradsher talks about. This chart is relevant:

Of course, it was both inevitable and desirable that Hong Kong would lose some of its relative economic clout as mainland China built itself up into the world’s second-largest economy. But the mainland’s newfound wealth also allows China to assert control over Hong Kong by buying everything in it. And the city’s liberties are gradually being stripped away as its new overlords wield an increasingly heavy hand.

It’s not really surprising, and there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it. But there it is. Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years:

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