Hong Kong Apostasy
This is the latest chapter in an account of the former British colony, now a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. It consists of three excerpts from For the Love of Hong Kong: A Memoir From My City Under Siege, a book by Hana Meihan Davis published by Global Dispatches.
Hana Meihan Davis 戴味閒 was born and educated in Hong Kong, and she is part of a family that has been actively engaged with the city’s public life and political fortune for decades. Her mother, Victoria Tin-bor Hui, is a noted political scientist and her father, Michael C. Davis is a lawyer and professor of law. Both are prominent public intellectuals. Having graduated in architecture and journalism from Yale University in 2020, Hana Meihan Davis continues to pursue work in both fields. For the Love of Hong Kong is her first book.
淪陷 lúnxiàn — ‘a state of occupation’ or ‘territory fallen into enemy hands’ — is a term that writers like Lee Yee 李怡 have long used to describe Hong Kong’s post-1997 condition. For the Love of Hong Kong is an account of the city both before and after the fall. Apart from offering her personal insights into the plangent fate of a unique global city, Davis also celebrates some of the men and women who have fought alongside the citizens of Hong Kong to protect it.
The prominent Hong Kong activists Brian Leung and Margaret Ng both feature in Davis’s book. They have also been part of our own record of Hong Kong’s ‘apostasy’. See, for example:
- Brian Leung Kai Ping 劉繼平, ‘I am Brian Leung: they cannot understand; they cannot comprehend; they cannot see’, China Heritage, 20 August 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘The Road Not Taken by Margaret Ng 吳靄儀, China Heritage, 24 April 2020
- Margaret Ng 吳靄儀, ‘Hong Kong 攬炒 — Burning Down the House’, China Heritage, 1 May 2020
Midnight 1 July 1997 marked the formal transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, bringing to an end 156 years of British rule over the former colony. The city and its environs now became a ‘special administrative region’ of China’s People’s Republic.
On the previous night — 30 June 1997 — a formal handover ceremony was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Representing the United Kingdom, Prince Charles, in the presence of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and the departing Governor Chris Patten, read a farewell speech on behalf of the Queen. Beijing was represented by President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of the territory.
In a leaked account of the events titled ‘The Handover of Hong Kong or The Great Chinese Takeaway’, extracts of which were published in the Mail on Sunday in November 2005, Charles described the Party bosses from Beijing as ‘appalling old waxworks’. (Having acted as Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s interpreter when he hosted Li Peng at a state dinner in Canberra in late 1988, I can confirm that the Chinese premier’s visage was unquestionably ceraceous in appearance. See ‘Supping with a Long Spoon — dinner with Premier Li, November 1988’, China Heritage, 10 December 2018.)
The ceremony on the evening of 30 June 1997 itself was an ‘awful Soviet-style display’, following which, Charles notes:
‘we had to watch the Chinese soldiers goose-step on to the stage and haul down the Union Jack and raise the ultimate flag.’
The event was broadcast internationally and, on the night, I had been invited by SBS TV in Sydney, Australia to act as one of their on-air commentators. Readers of China Heritage will be aware that I had worked for Lee Yee in Hong Kong in the late 1970s and had a career as a writer of Chinese cultural commentary, an editor and translator, in the city through the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
On the night of the handover, my commentary was sardonic in tone and my predictions were dire. Among other things, I observed that, sooner or later, the Sino-British agreement governing the future of Hong Kong would inevitably end up like the Seventeen-point Agreement which had been concluded with the Tibetan government in 1951. Beijing repeatedly betrayed key stipulations of that agreement during the 1950s and made a mockery of it thereafter.
Mine was a view influenced by such noted Hong Kong writers as Ni Kuang 倪匡 who, in the late 1980s, had predicted that ‘Tibet today is Hong Kong tomorrow’. Similar views were expressed throughout the decade by equally incisive political commentators such as Hah Gong and Lee Yee, as well as by many others who had firsthand experience of the Communists.
As rain pelted down on that glum ceremony in Hong Kong, the panelists in the SBS TV studio in Sydney were asked to offer a prognostication for the future, especially how the Australian government under the new conservative minister John Howard would deal with a Hong Kong under Beijing’s control. After the usual pro-business palaver from my fellow commentator Henry Tsang, an unabashed purveyor of ‘don’t ask too many questions’ boosterism, as well as being the mayor of Sydney, I observed that, of course things would go swimmingly under John Howard and his government’s business-über-Alles approach to China. I summed up my sentiments by saying, after all, ‘They’ll just go for the bucks and fuck principle.’
The studio fell silent — it turned out that the producers had a very dim view of swearing on live television. SBS never invited me back.
As Prince Charles wrote after the ceremony:
‘Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested…’
Charles noted that even though everyone at one reception held to celebrate the handover was ‘thoroughly optimistic’ about Hong Kong’s future, ‘… in the background was the sneaking worry about creeping corruption and the gradual undermining of Hong Kong’s greatest asset — the rule of law.’
Martin Lee, a leading champion of the rule of law in Hong Kong, is Hana Davis’s godfather. In her poignant account, she talks about her lifelong relationship with this brave man and with the valorous people of that fallen city. She also celebrates the ‘Hongkonger spirit’ that survives the fall.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
15 June 2021
The 16th of June 2021 marks the second anniversary of The March of Two Million, when the city of Hong Kong took to the streets to protest against the puppet government that ruled over it on behalf of Beijing.
That peaceful, and joyous, protest was a significant moment in the global history of principled mass defiance.
- Hana Meihan Davis, ‘For the Love of Hong Kong’, Slate, 31 May 2021
- ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’ in The Best China section of China Heritage
For the Love of Hong Kong
Hana Meihan Davis
I was raised on the streets
I spent my childhood as one of the improbable millions meandering through Hong Kong’s narrow urban corridors. I grew up sitting on my father’s shoulders, wearing black protest T-shirts that I could not yet decipher. I marked every June 4 sitting between my parents on the dusty concrete of Victoria Park, commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre with a brightly glowing candle cupped between my ever-growing hands.
The discourse of our city’s democracy is a language I’ve been fluent in my entire life, but the same streets that raised me are already losing their voice. In 2020, while global attention was diverted to the coronavirus pandemic, China made its controlling strike: At the eleventh hour on June 30, the Chinese government published a national security law that, in short, criminalized dissent and imposed a palpable chill upon Hong Kong. The new law’s six chapters and 66 articles forever altered the life conditions of this hitherto self-governing city on China’s southern shore. Political resistance invariably has consequences; and after months of unrest, the Hong Kong of my childhood was gone.
Today, those fortunate enough face the impossible question: to go or to stay, to choose freedom of thought and action, or to remain and continue to resist howbaever they can under increasingly authoritarian conditions. Some, like my family and many of our close friends, must confront the harsh reality of perhaps never returning to Hong Kong, of spending the rest of our lives with half a heart lost in the cacophony back home. But many countless thousands don’t have the privilege of choice.
But the feeling of displacement that now grips our every day is not unfamiliar — this resilience against forces bigger than we is part of what it means to be a Hongkonger. Hong Kong’s untethering is symptomatic of migration; but instead of the geographic movement this implies, my city’s dislocation has always been shaped by political waves beyond our control. Hong Kong is, after all, a city co-authored by Chinese imperialism, British colonialism, and the tightening stranglehold of Communist Chinese domination. To be a Hongkonger is to be a product of colliding empires, a rootless child defined by powers far away. The city is in many ways itself the exile, not fully belonging to the East or to the West. To be a Hongkonger is to be a dreamer, an inventor, a storyteller. Hong Kong needs its Platonic orators clinging tirelessly to its myth in order to survive.
When the Qing dynasty lost the first Opium War in 1842, Hong Kong Island became England’s foothold into the East, ceded in perpetuity under the Treaty of Nanjing. Under similar duress, the southern part of the Kowloon peninsula was signed over in 1860 at the conclusion of the second Opium War. Decades later, in 1898, Emperor Guangxu leased the rest of Kowloon and the New Territories to the U.K. for a period of 99 years, forming what we now recognize as the districts of Hong Kong. While it was not without its ills, colonialism struck a different tenor in Hong Kong. Under British authority, this pendant off of China’s southern coast grew from a collection of rural fishing villages into a global trade entrepot and financial center, a Western-influenced oasis in the heart of East Asia, where the rule of law and basic freedoms became rooted as inalienable rights.
June 30, 1997
The sunrise that morning was an auspicious, imperial red. The color of red packets at lunar new year. But when I ask my parents about the 1997 handover, they tell me about the rain. It was not the soft, hesitant drizzle of winter, but the torrential downpour of a mid-summer storm. The sky vehemently opened up, thunder conquering the island’s ancient emerald mountains. The BBC reported that the sky was crying for Hong Kong. Chinese media said that rain had come to wash away the memories of British rule.
That night, I attended my first protest in the womb: My parents spent the evening at a demonstration outside the old colonial legislature. Democratic legislators who had been expelled, including my godfather, had gathered to protest. “The flame of democracy has been ignited and is burning in the hearts of our people,” my godfather said to the press from the Legislative Council balcony. “It will not be extinguished.”
At 12:15 a.m. on Tuesday, July 1, 1997, Prince Charles and Governor Chris Patten boarded the HMY Britannia from the Tamar site, now a park that surrounds the Legislative Council complex. Umbrellas danced under the rain. Dressed in pale green, Governor Patten’s teenage daughters cried before turning away. When my parents clicked CNN on back home, “China” had been added to the end of Hong Kong’s name. Across the city, Hong Kong’s red and white bauhinia found its place in the Chinese flag’s shadow: always adjacent, always lower.
It was with an aim of ending a centuries-long humiliation that China approached the 1997 handover. Beijing claimed that the Qing dynasty had been backed into a corner, signing the so-called Unequal Treaties in despair after being forced into a war it did not ask for. A flourishing British Hong Kong was a symbol of Chinese defeat at the hands of Western powers in the eyes of Beijing’s government. Through this lens, the entirety of Hong Kong would be “returned” to “mother” China as a Special Administrative Region, or SAR, on July 1, 1997. The One Country, Two Systems principle would protect the territory from the authoritarianism emerging on the heels of China’s totalitarian revolutionary phase. This is what was promised when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984, but the Basic Law that ultimately emerged only symbolized Beijing’s growing control. Instead of promoting autonomy and the rule of law, Hong Kong’s constitution reflected the city’s subordinate status to Beijing, with both the chief executive election committee and Legislative Council dominated by Beijing loyalists by structural design. The Chinese Communist Party retained the ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law, a force that would hang over both the courts of Hong Kong and the processes of political reform.
The handover was not something Hongkongers demanded, especially when China’s opening to the world had revealed the regime’s egregious abuse of human rights under Maoist rule, but the change was something they had to face head on. Some sought hope elsewhere, clamoring to the West in waves. Many of the privileged stayed in Hong Kong, with the protection of foreign passports and prestigious boarding schools should things turn sour. Across the world, people hoped that Hong Kong would serve as a democratizing force, tempering the hardline authoritarianism of China across the border. Liberal values were to flourish under the rule of law for a “trial period” of 50 years. That was the promise, the “unshakeable destiny,” as Governor Patten said in his farewell address. “Hong Kong people were to rule Hong Kong.”
I was born seven months after the handover, in Ma OnShan’s Prince of Wales Hospital, on a rainy winter day in February 1998. My parents named me Meihan in honor of Martin’s late mother. Watching over me as a sleeping infant, my godfather pointed to my tightly curled fist, raised high above my head as if I were punching the air in indignation. He joked, saying it was a sign that I’d follow in his steps one day.
While it’s almost certain that China will one day try to bury the truth about Hong Kong’s decades-long grassroots democracy movement, a dusty canvas photo album on our living room bookshelf keeps all these memories alive. My dad driving Martin Lee around rural Hong Kong for a 1992 Legislative Council by-election, campaign posters plastered all over his bright-red 1960s Land Rover — an old British army castaway he had refurbished himself. My parents and godmother, now a program director at Human Rights Watch, singing at the first Tiananmen anniversary candlelight vigil, pale-yellow candles illuminating their faces. My mother, barely older than I am today, at a campus democracy talk, with a notebook in hand and the Chinese University library blurry in the distance. The photos, in contrast to the images emerging from the bloody streets of 2019, are tinged by a wild sense of hope, a vigor that was reflected in everyone’s eyes.
Will Hong Kong find its voice once again?
This is the question plaguing Hongkongers in the aftermath of the national security law.
A professor once told me, “Hong Kong is not a place, it is a happening.” This city, built by refugees from China, is now facing its own mass exodus at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, whose rule many had fled. The national security law is for many the last straw of a long and sinister process of China’s intervention in Hong Kong. However, while it may seal the fate of this city as a physical space, it necessitated the growth of a new global identity. In following the “be water” analogy that captured much of the anti-extradition movement, barrister and former politician Margaret Ngoi-yee described the then-proposed law as something that would inevitably spread Hongkongers beyond the geographic confines of the territory. History proves this to already be true: The waves of pre-1997 immigration created rippling pools of Hongkongers abroad, waves of people ready to mobilize for a shared home, layers of identity that have already had years to build up.
During the 2019 protests, “be water” meant having a formlessness that evaded police violence and arrest. Today, the evocation of water has taken on a new meaning: It is still about adjustability, but also about the power of growing beyond what might have otherwise confined us.
“Being a Hongkonger is about finding the leeway between hardship and idealism,” activist Brian Leung explains to me. This, he says, is what it means to “be water.” The global network of language, culture, and support for the Hong Kong movement — a “Cantonese soundscape” — is where Hongkongers place our hope.
For many, the story of Hong Kong and its people is still being written. So far, we may be grounded by immense disappointment and fear, but Hongkongers are known for their undying resilience. As the once-boisterous streets of Hong Kong fall silent, Hongkongers are taking their plight to the world, rallying around the idea that anyone who has faced injustice, anyone who shares the values of human dignity, freedom, and democracy, can be a Hongkonger.
- Hana Meihan Davis, For the Love of Hong Kong: A Memoir From My City Under Siege, Global Dispatches, 2021