Hong Kong celebrates Friday the 25th anniversary of its handover and the midpoint of the “One country, two systems” system under which the city was to maintain a certain autonomy for 50 years.
But from the earliest hours, the fault lines that would run through Hong Kong politics for the next two decades were being drawn.
Furious at last-minute attempts by outgoing British Governor Chris Patten to introduce elements of democratization, China announced the expulsion of any MP who openly supported them.
Thus, at dawn on July 1, Lee Wing-tat and many of his colleagues were dismissed from their mandates.
Mr. Lee spent that night in the Legislative Council to bring in those whose clearances had expired after midnight and protest their expulsion.
“This is a moment when all Chinese people should feel proud,” Democratic Party founder Martin Lee said. “We hope Hong Kong and China can make progress together.”
Lee Wing-tat’s feelings were more mixed. “We weren’t so optimistic anymore, I didn’t believe we would have real democracy anymore,” he told AFP.
– Growing distrust –
Twenty-five years later, there are no opposition MPs left in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Some have been arrested under the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020, and many disqualified under new rules reserving elections for “patriots”.
Others fled the city, like Lee Wing-tat, who now lives in Britain.
Yet he was hopeful in 1984, when the Sino-British declaration paved the way for the end of 150 years of colonial rule.
The “One country, two systems” principle, enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, promised a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and Beijing’s appointment of the city’s ruler based on elections or local consultation.
But the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 shook his faith in the Communist Party (CCP).
In the years since the handover, mistrust has only grown between a pro-democracy camp that saw Beijing as an autocratic power bent on stripping Hong Kongers of promised rights, and the CCP that saw their demands as a challenge. to Chinese sovereignty.
Tensions finally exploded in the huge, sometimes violent, protests of 2019, to which China responded with a crackdown that transformed the city.
– Avenger –
Chris Patten, the last British governor, accuses the CCP of betraying its promises to Hong Kong.
“China tore up the joint statement and is trying to vengefully and comprehensively suppress Hong Kong’s freedoms because it sees them as a threat, not to China’s security, but to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to cling to power,” he told AFP.
Former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying does not consider the recent crackdown excessive. “You can’t say, we want to have a high degree of autonomy and you stay away, that would be Hong Kong’s de facto independence,” he told AFP.
In office at the time of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, he blames the social unrest on people being misled by political figures and misunderstanding Hong Kong law.
He also suggests that hostile “alien forces” are involved, declining to be more specific.
Echoing Beijing, Mr. Leung called success the implementation of the “One country, two systems” agreement, which he said could continue beyond its 50-year term.
According to polls conducted by the Institute of Public Opinion Research in Hong Kong since 1994, public confidence in this agreement has reached a historically low level.
Some, like Herman Yiu, have lost all hope of ever changing the system. “Being born in 1997… I had the impression that my destiny was linked to that of Hong Kong”, explains this young politician to AFP.
Freshly graduated, Mr. Yiu was elected in the pro-democracy landslide of the 2019 district elections. But his career was cut short when authorities disqualified representatives who did not pledge allegiance to Beijing.
“I feel helpless, for Hong Kong and for myself,” he says.