When Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was promised that the city’s way of life would be preserved in an arrangement known as ‘One Country, Two Systems’, which will expire in 2047.
But less than two decades into Chinese rule, freedom is eroding fast in Hong Kong. Last week, Lee Bo went missing mysteriously. He was a publisher of books that were critical of China's establishment.
According to his wife, Mr Lee phoned from mainland China where he said he was "assisting in an investigation", even though the Immigration Department has no record of him leaving Hong Kong. Lee follows the fate of four of his colleagues, all of whom ‘disappeared’ in recent months, including a Swedish national in Thailand.
"He thought it was quite safe in Hong Kong." Mrs Lee’s response reflects a typical assumption of Hongkongers – that you could criticise the Communist Party as long as you are in Hong Kong. After Mr Lee’s disappearance, this may no longer stand true. The long arms of the Big Brother have stretched across the border.
Based in an old building with a small sign in a busy district, Mr Lee is no Nelson Mandela. Yet Lee’s work may be deemed dangerous by authorities as his books largely involve them: political gossip about Chinese leaders. Banned in China, these books are particularly valuable to curious Chinese tourists. It has not been established which book brought about trouble for Mr Lee, though reports suggest it may involve allegations about Xi JinPing’s love life.
The invisible hand of Beijing is not only squeezing freedom of the press and publishers, it is also gripping power on university campuses. On New Year’s Eve, the Hong Kong government quietly installed Arthur Li, a pro-Beijing figure to chair Hong Kong University (HKU), after the rejection of a liberal candidate for pro-vice chancellor. Both incidents are perceived as repercussions of the student-led ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of 2014, as HKU has been a hotbed of student activism and even separatism.
Shortly before the 1997 handover, Margaret Thatcher, who signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, advised Hongkongers to take to the world, should China renege on their promise. "Raise them [human rights concerns], one by one, again and again, each day… use the powers you have to see that it’s lived up to," she said.
Needless to say, David Cameron had other ideas. Embracing the Chinese President with a state visit in 2015, Mr Cameron expressed concerns about Hong Kong with Mr Xi in private, only to be slammed down by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in public.
Asked how she felt about Hong Kong’s handover as British rule comes to an end, Mrs Thatcher replied: "I shall be very sad indeed. I shall wish that our forbearers… had the territory in free hold in perpetuity, in which case Hong Kong would be a free, independent nation, long before now. She could be still, if China would let her."
Almost twenty years on, we can safely conclude that the Iron Lady, for once, seemed far too optimistic.
If Chinese authorities truly masterminded the abduction of Mr Lee and his colleagues, Hong Kong’s free society may have come to an end. China will not let Hong Kong reign free; Britain will not intervene. Hongkongers have been left to fend for themselves.
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