Hong Kong as “the great Chinese experiment in freedom”

“No one knows how long Hong Kong will exist, or how long it will prosper.”

This quote is from the 1950s, but it could have been said at many different points in Hong Kong’s history:

  • Upon its foundation as a British colony when it was unclear whether this sleepy backwater would ever amount to anything besides an “also-ran” to Portuguese Macau;
  • On the brink of Japanese invasion and occupation in World War II;
  • During negotiations in the 1980s over its return to China from Britain;
  • And now, as Hong Kong continues to feel the heavy influence of its reunification with the Mainland.

The South China Morning Post is full of articles highlighting the seemingly growing tension between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Hongkongers complain about Mainland Chinese coming to Hong Kong to buy basic necessities, luxury goods, and real estate (and recently slapped a tax on property purchases by non-local buyers to discourage this). Many Hongkongers were furious over a “National Education” program that they feared would whitewash Chinese history and wrongly alter the sympathies of the territory’s youth (and which was subsequently withdrawn). And there are fears by some over the continued independence of the judiciary.

Colonial-era flag waved at demonstrations.

Frustration over these issues has led to many protests including some that have included calls for Hong Kong independence and the waving of old colonial flags. I honestly can’t gauge how serious these independence sentiments are or how many Hongkongers feel this way. Waving old colonial flags seems, however, like a strategy for maximizing the impact of otherwise smallish protests that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

And indeed they were noticed.

And they infuriated Mainland officials.

Some called for would be secessionists to leave “China” (and by that they mean Hong Kong as well). Some called the British colonial-period flag wavers traitors and seek increased anti-treason legislation. Some have even hinted at cutting off Hong Kong’s water supplies from the Mainland if an independence movement grew out of hand.

All a huge over-reaction that reveals how little Mainland officials understand people who are used to living in a society where rights to free speech are important, well-loved, and legally protected.

An overreaction that only further heightens Hongkongers’ fears over the future. Legal agreements at the time of the handover in 1997 stated that Hong Kong would be able to maintain its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years.

Hongkongers increasingly wonder what will happen in 2047 (in 35 years): “If a few silly flag wavers are enough to upset Big Brother, will there still be a free press? Will our nascent and partial democracy be allowed to continue? Will I be able to post drunk pictures of my friends on Facebook?”

There was a thoughtful op-ed in the South China Morning Post this week that reminded Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (considered rather sympathetic to the Mainland) that:

“[his] job is to protect our freedom to wave any flag.”

The author, Keane Shum, also made this on-the-mark statement:

“If Hong Kong was once the world’s laboratory for unbridled capitalism, we are now the great Chinese experiment in freedom.”

Let us hope it is a successful experiment.



For the initial quote at the top of the post: Steven Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong (2004) himself quoting a visiting British labour advisor in the 1950s.

For the quote on Hong Kong being “the great Chinese experiment in freedom: Keane Shum, “Leung’s job is to protect our freedom to wave any flag,” South China Morning Post, 7 November 2012.

See also, generally: Gary Cheung and Stuart Lau, “Love China or leave, Lu Ping tells Hong Kong’s would-be secessionists,” South China Morning Post, 1 November 2012.

For a quick and dirty history of the handover see this Wikipedia article, “Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong.”

For a tongue-in-cheek overview of recent events see: Chip Tsao, Politically Incorrect: “My Firm No to Hong Kong Independence,” HK Magazine, Friday, November 9, 2012.

24 responses to “Hong Kong as “the great Chinese experiment in freedom”

  1. Hong Kong’s done as far as freedom to speak goes… as far as freedom to make money? That’ll be continuing if the mainlanders have to execute every person in Hong Kong to make it happen. Sadly for them and the rest of the world.

  2. Very thoughtful piece. With the handover happening this week the tensions have escalated further. I’ve read many interesting articles on the crony-ism and lack of understanding of China’s top officials. As an observer it can be frightening. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

    • An extremely interesting week to be a China-watcher. So much hangs it seems on how the “once in a decade change in Chinese leadership” develops in Beijing.

      • Thanks Jen! Your piece really helped me to tie it all together. This is a big week for China-watchers as well… I hear there’s a pretty important meeting up in Beijing that kicked off this week!! 🙂

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  5. “Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (considered rather sympathetic to the Mainland) that: “[his] job is to protect our freedom to wave any flag.” My question is, which imbecile made this statement. Hong Kong is part of China and the only flag that should be waved is the Chinese flag. Whatever happened to Nationalism? Waving the old colonial flag made me sick, I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. The British invested a lot into Hong Kong, but you have to look at the other side, how much have they benefitted from Hong Kong? One country One flag, period, regardless of where your loyalties lie.

    • Yes, it may be rather silly to wave an old British colonial flag. But since Hong Kong (legally) retains its own way of life, including it’s free speech liberties, they have every right to wave any old silly flag they want (be it the old colonial flag, the Brazilian flag, a flag with a picture of K-Pop star Psy, etc). Doesn’t mean you have to like the flag they wave.

      • There is a HK flag (the red one with the white flower). It is often flown with (and slightly lower than) the China flag. The old colonial flag is only used by protesters trying to “stir the pot” (quite effectively, it seems). But the important point is the “two-systems” and the fact that HK maintains its political and economic freedoms, including freedom of expression, unlike the mainland.

      • Oh, yes, right! Heard that VPNs have been rather fickle this week… Hope everyone finds a reliable way back on-line now that the 18th Party Congress is over.

  6. Have been thinking about blogging this for a few weeks. Obviously my apathy and time-poverty won’t be defeated though. Gonna link this on my FB 😉

    • Link away! Maybe that will help enlighten the view of folks like “K. Tat” (above) who think we should all be proudly standing in sync behind “the Motherland” and Chinese flag. HK should milk it’s remaining freedom of expression for all it’s worth…

      Interested in hearing your view in a future post!

  7. During to my trip HK last week , there was an underground road crossing by Happy Valley that some commerative HK return to China graffiti. Not just quick scribbles but some thought out pieces with pandas , lions, and flags.

      • I’ll find out the address for you , and I’ll be posting pics as soon as my wordpress works correctly again. Any trouble uploading pics for you? Could be some commissioned stuff or just pro-Mainland people came up to comemmoratethe occasion , there were also many non-political ones too.

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