Hong Kong’s global aspirations end in shadow of Beijing’s Xi Jinping

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Years after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, officials in the former colony unveiled an ambitious new branding strategy. Postcolonial Hong Kong would be the “Global City of Asia” – a preeminent warehouse for global trade, a key transit point for foreign investment in the emerging superpower China, a cosmopolis of people from virtually every continent, and a city- De facto state with its own currency, immigration protocols, legal system, and far greater civil liberties than the mainland.

For the first decade of the new century, that branding seemed more or less accurate. Hong Kong has boomed alongside China’s booming economy. Major American and Western banks have expanded their footprint in a city still governed by British common law and entangled in international financial markets. In 2008, Time magazine declared with a cover story (targeted, at the time, to an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland) the advent of “Nylonkong”. He argued that New York, London and Hong Kong had become international triplets and were jointly driving an optimistic era, making “today’s global economy a phenomenon that has increased people’s life chances. ‘countless millions of people’.

The story thereafter was not so happy. Financial crises and recessions have rocked the West. In American and European public opinion, the very concept of globalization has become suspect. And while the mantra of Hong Kong and China coexisting as “one country, two systems” endured, it became increasingly clear that this was not a status quo that suited Beijing.

As Hong Kong celebrates the 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule on Friday, a radically different vision of the city has taken shape. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the city on Thursday and announced that Hong Kong was “rising from the ashes”, a gesture to the hardships of the pandemic as well as the months of protests that have rocked the city in previous years. The latter has been met with a widespread crackdown by Beijing and a new national security law approved by Hong Kong’s docile legislature. Since the bill was signed into law two years ago today, the city has experienced a deeply chilling effect on dissent and politics.

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Hong Kong was once touted as a liberal precursor to what China might become. Under Xi, it’s a cautionary tale of authoritarian entrenchment. “Gone are the pithy promises of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping from before 1997 that ‘horses will still be raced and dances will still be danced’ after the handover,” our colleagues noted. “They are superseded by Xi’s views, as stated on the 20th anniversary of the transfer of power, that ‘a country’ constitutes the deep roots of an advanced ‘system of governance’, above all, to achieve and maintain the national unity.”

National unity, in Xi’s formulation, spells the end of the long-held democratic aspirations of many Hong Kongers. Legislators loyal to the mainland now control Hong Kong’s local assembly almost entirely. Dissidents have been imprisoned and criminalized as foreign agents and terrorists. Critical journalists and once prominent media outlets have been suppressed. For years, Hong Kong has been the scene of mass protests every June 4 in commemoration of the 1989 massacres in Tiananmen Square. These vigils are now prohibited.

Hong Kong in 2022 is a far cry from what it should have been in 2001, when local authorities proclaimed its aspirations as a “global city”. Chinese companies, not US banks, are the bottom-up players in its financial sector. A myriad of international companies have in recent years opted out of Hong Kong as a regional hub of operations, opting for the safer and more stable policy found in cities like Seoul and Singapore.

While 130,000 people have left Hong Kong this year alone, a steady stream of well-educated and well-heeled mainlanders is filling the void. More Hong Kong work visas were issued to mainlanders than foreigners last year – the first time this has happened since records of such permits were collected. Rather than touting Hong Kong’s world-leading cosmopolitanism, Beijing officials have now made it part of a regional megacity in the Pearl River Delta, linked to more populated cities across the border. such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

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For Chinese leaders, Hong Kong should know its place. Along with the decline of the city’s global brand comes China’s growing assertiveness and confidence on the world stage. “Beijing is wary of foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs and this xenophobia has become more pronounced under Xi,” Ho-Fung Hung, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Today’s World View. “[Chinese Communist Party] Today, the leaders truly believe that the West is in decline and China is becoming the center of the world.

The city remains a popular offshore destination for Chinese investment, but Beijing’s consolidation of political control over the city has already had effects downstream. Hung pointed to the national security law and a recent proposal to bar public access to Hong Kong company registry data – a move he said has sparked apprehension from the international business community. on transparency in the financial sector. “The foundation of Hong Kong’s institutional strength as China’s international and offshore financial center has generally eroded,” Hung said.

Eric Lai, a fellow at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, told Today’s WorldView that there is an irony at the heart of the Chinese crackdown: “Hong Kong’s success as an economic and financial hub depends on values ​​that Xi Jinping disapproves of”.

For Beijing, however, the tighter controls are probably worth the price. Chinese officials also believe the easing of pandemic-era controls will help revive Hong Kong’s tourism sector and the city’s economy will pick up soon.

But for many Hong Kongers, something fundamental has been lost. “Acceptance of a Beijing-designed future may be more difficult among the generation born around the handover, who expected greater democratic freedoms and were introduced into local politics through protests against Beijing’s impositions,” wrote our colleagues.

Beyond the tens of thousands who have already left, at least 123,400 Hong Kongers have applied for a British migration scheme granted to residents of the former British colony. Other Commonwealth countries, including Canada and Australia, have facilitated the emigration of Hong Kongers.

“Hong Kong has lost its own people, when you see this place is no longer itself, the place we recognize as we grow up, and when all we could see would get worse, then there is no more room for us,” Adrianna, a Hong Kong immigrant to Vancouver, told Asia Nikkei Review.

“How is it,” she added, “that we people who love Hong Kong are forced to leave and become refugees?”

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