“On the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover this year, we are honoured to present the film Look Up (《一样的天空》) as a tribute to our motherland,” Hong Kong Sil-Metropole Organisation chairman Chen Yiqi told Zaobao on 19 May.
That day was also the start of the further easing of social distancing measures in Hong Kong in which cinema capacities were upped from 50% to 85%. Sil-Metropole Organisation, Emperor Motion Pictures, Media Asia Film and One Cool Film Production took the chance to hold a launch event for Look Up, a film premiering on 23 June tracing the lives of four young people from the 1990s to the present.
Apart from Chen Yiqi and other production company heads, also present were the stars of the film including singer-songwriter Ivana Wong Yuen-chi, veteran actor Shek Sau and actress Michelle Yim (also known by her stage name Mai Suet). The event was a rare large-scale press conference amid the pandemic.
... the Hong Kong government has planned over 100 major celebratory events to be held in Hong Kong, mainland China and overseas.
Tracing 25 years of Hong Kong’s present
Going back to a piece of Hong Kong history, the UK initiated the Opium War in 1840. Between 1842 and 1898, the Manchus (Qing empire) were forced to cede Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories — collectively known as Hong Kong — to the British on three occasions. Following 150 years of colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule on 1 July 1997. Twenty-five years have passed since then.
In line with the Chinese tradition of throwing massive celebrations every five and ten years, the Hong Kong government has planned over 100 major celebratory events to be held in Hong Kong, mainland China and overseas. Following the stabilisation of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 situation, numerous commemorative activities are going ahead.
Among them, the Hong Kong government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department announced that it would spend nearly HK$300 million (roughly US$38.2 million) on events and promotions, including waiving the admission and booking fees of public facilities such as badminton courts, billiard tables and water sports centres on 1 July.
The Hong Kong government also has two major commemorative events lined up: the opening of the Hong Kong Palace Museum and the launching of the third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport.
The Hong Kong Palace Museum is a pet project of incumbent Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and also the third “Palace Museum” apart from the ones in Beijing and Taipei. Meanwhile, the third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport is an important addition for Hong Kong, an international aviation hub. The construction of the runway is complete and flight checks are under way.
When Beijing restored its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, it promised to implement “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong which grants the city a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after reunification. Amid the celebrations, Hong Kong society is reflecting on the changes that Hong Kong has seen over the past 25 years.
Economy still going strong
Hong Kong, the “Pearl of the Orient”, had a GDP of US$177.35 billion in 1997. Its economy has performed well over the past 25 years despite external economic fluctuations. Statistics from Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department show that Hong Kong’s nominal GDP reached around US$368 billion in 2021, making it one of the most competitive economies in the world.
As a veteran Hong Kong filmmaker, Chen Yiqi has witnessed the industry’s development over the past 20 years. With the strong backing of the motherland, he said, the Hong Kong film industry has gained new opportunities in mainland China after 1997. This is more so after the mainland relaxed regulations for co-productions a few years ago, removing stipulations on the percentage of Hong Kong principal creative personnel/artistes and the inclusion of mainland-related content.
While some people think that Hong Kong cinema is losing its local flavour, Chen Yiqi pointed out that Hong Kong films are gaining popularity in mainland China. He explained, “In the past, the box office revenue of Hong Kong-made films in mainland China was only around 500 to 600 million RMB [roughly US$75 to 90 million]. But since the premiere of The White Storm 2: Drug Lords [in 2019], more Hong Kong-made films are making over 1 billion RMB at the box office. This means that Hong Kong cinema’s distinctive local flavour has a place in the mainland market.”
Undeniably, however, while Hong Kong has grown economically over the past 25 years, it has also been beset by deep-seated issues such as economic inequality, lack of youth upward mobility and public health issues.
Taking the housing issue as an example, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, pledged to “achieve a home ownership rate of 70% in ten years” and “reduce the average waiting time for public rental housing to three years” at the start of his term. But after 25 years, the latest Quarterly Report on General Household Survey shows that the rate of home ownership was not even 50% at the end of last year, while the average waiting time for public rental housing increased to 6.1 years as of end March 2022.
... hidden behind Hong Kong’s prosperity is a large number of forgotten groups, such as hundreds of thousands of subdivided flat tenants, the homeless and millions of poor grassroots residents.
After Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Xia Baolong pledged to “bid farewell” to subdivided flats last year, the Hong Kong government vowed to solve the housing problem but society has yet to see a glimmer of hope of the housing problem being solved.
In an interview with Zaobao, Chan Wai-keung, lecturer at the Community College of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, lamented that before 1997, Hong Kongers could climb the social ladder as long as they worked hard. Taking the education industry as an example, it was easy for secondary school teachers to live in 1,000 sq ft (roughly 93 sqm) houses. But now, it is the story of a sinking middle class. Even university lecturers have to settle for 400-500 sq ft housing units and work hard to feed themselves.
In fact, hidden behind Hong Kong’s prosperity is a large number of forgotten groups, such as hundreds of thousands of subdivided flat tenants, the homeless and millions of poor grassroots residents. Society for Community Organization (SoCO) deputy director Sze Lai-shan told Zaobao that many of the homeless in Hong Kong have been waiting for public rental flats for a long time and the pandemic has just worsened their plight. She said, “Many people lost their jobs during the pandemic. Unable to pay rent, they got chased out of their homes and can only sleep on the streets. They can’t feed themselves either.”
... the 2019 protests have left the city scarred and the mood of resistance in Hong Kong society is showing no signs of abating.
Hong Kong’s political landscape has been unstable ever since the 500,000-strong 1 July protests in 2003, opposition to Article 23 of the Basic Law and the 2014 Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement. The 2019 anti-extradition bill protests was also one of the biggest challenges that Hong Kong has had to face since the handover, with the foundation and bottom line of “one country” being dealt a massive blow.
It was not until after 2019 when Beijing implemented the Hong Kong national security law and overhauled the city’s electoral system that Hong Kong society gradually returned to a relatively stable state. However, the 2019 protests have left the city scarred and the mood of resistance in Hong Kong society is showing no signs of abating. Another migration wave has hit Hong Kong and people are growing weary and frustrated with repeated Covid-19 outbreaks.
On 24 May, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) released the popularity of government and social well-being indicators as well as the Public Sentiment Index, which showed that for the first time, the figures for all ten social well-being indicators went below 6.00, the highest figure being “personal safety” at 5.99 and the lowest being “political rights” at just 3.90, reflecting a generally negative assessment of the situation in Hong Kong.
In contrast with the activities driven by the authorities, the 25th anniversary celebrations among the people are comparatively muted.
Assistant Professor Chris Li Man-kong of the Faculty of Social Sciences at UOW (University of Wollongong) College Hong Kong said the low figures show that Hong Kongers are pessimistic about Hong Kong’s overall climate, and the political platform of the current and future administration does not provide new hope for the people, which the government should think about.
In contrast with the activities driven by the authorities, the 25th anniversary celebrations among the people are comparatively muted. A reality check took place when on 23 May, just over a month to the actual anniversary on 1 July, the police cracked a possible local terrorist bomb plot, raiding a “mini explosives laboratory” in a housing flat in Wong Tai Sin and seizing about 30kg of chemicals and bomb-making equipment, and arresting a computer technician and his parents.
Asked if the suspect was plotting to use the explosives on the anniversary, the police said it is yet to be confirmed when the suspect was planning to use the explosives, and they would investigate.
It is believed that, as before, Chinese leaders would visit Hong Kong to mark this year’s anniversary and grace the investiture of the incoming Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong government has recently ramped up security efforts and implemented the strongest-ever security measures.
The latest issue of political magazine East Week cited reports that about a month ago, the police set up a special supervisory committee headed by the deputy commissioner of Police (Operations) Albert Yuen Yuk-kin to handle security for the anniversary. The committee’s duties would include making top-level preparations for a visit to Hong Kong by the Chinese president, and mobilising over 10,000 police in the strongest-ever security preparations.
Informed sources anticipate that police personnel will not be allowed to take leave except in special circumstances, and their shifts will be longer. Moreover, more security cameras have been added in the area around the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, as surveillance measures are stepped up.
The international situation has definitely changed a lot in recent years, with intense competition between China and the US, and key changes in Hong Kong’s domestic and external circumstances. Many Hong Kongers worry about Hong Kong’s declining competitiveness and are anxious about the future. With “one country, two systems” at the halfway point of “no change for 50 years”, how will things develop in the second half?
The end for Hong Kong?
Twenty years ago, Shenzhen was seriously challenged. Its advantage as a special economic zone was no more and its growth was slowing down. In 2002, young intellectual Wo Zhongjiao wrote an 18,000-word article titled “Who Ditched You, Shenzhen?”, drawing debate among millions of netizens.
Then mayor of Shenzhen Yu Youjun later proposed to meet Wo. The meeting went down well and attracted much public attention. In the end, Shenzhen found a new path in innovation technology, transforming itself into China’s Silicon Valley.
Former Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung — currently research chair professor of public administration with the Education University of Hong Kong — previously wrote a piece lamenting that like Shenzhen before, Hong Kong’s political and economic difficulties have its people wondering if this spells the end for the city.
... if both sides negate Hong Kong, and Hong Kong turns inwards due to political factors and loses its openness and freedom, it can no longer be a bridge between East and West...
He warned that Hong Kong’s previous unique advantage was due to stable China-US relations and the city’s external orientation. Now, China and the US are in opposition, and if both sides negate Hong Kong, and Hong Kong turns inwards due to political factors and loses its openness and freedom, it can no longer be a bridge between East and West and its influence will shrink. The international metropolis will literally “hollow out” and Hong Kong will be at real risk of being abandoned.
However, Wu Junfei, a researcher with the Hong Kong China Economic and Cultural Development Association, said that although Hong Kong’s development over the past 25 years has not been all smooth sailing, so far it has been able to maintain its unique advantage in three areas, and he is confident about Hong Kong’s future.
The first point is that the Common Law still applies in Hong Kong, which is different from the law in mainland China. Wu said: “It is a consensus in Hong Kong that it wants to keep its legal system and connect to the West, and the Chinese government will also value this system.”
The second point is having a mature civil society. Although the voice of Hong Kong’s opposition has weakened since the national security law was implemented in mid-2020, the people’s voice remains strong, and Wu believes that after the chaos settled into peace, Hong Kong’s civil society has still been able to play a positive role.
The third point is having unique values. Wu said that over 150 years under British colonial rule, Hong Kong has developed its own dialect and local culture. For instance, mainland China emphasises collectivism while Hong Kong focuses on individualism and believes in personal freedom and privacy. This attribute makes it hard for Hong Kong to be replaced by other cities in mainland China.
... perhaps it has to consider building a form of “capitalism with Hong Kong characteristics” that can satisfy what society seeks...
Chan Wai-keung said it cannot be denied that since Beijing enforced the national security law in Hong Kong, freedom in Hong Kong has declined over the past two years, but it remains to be seen whether this is good or bad — after all, Western countries that believe in freedom have also seen crises in the democratic system in recent years.
Looking ahead at the outlook for “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, Chan felt nothing stays the same forever, and given that Hong Kong is going into the second half of “50 years of no change”, Hong Kongers also have to seriously think about whether at the end of 50 years they want to continue with “one country, two systems” or go back to “one country, one system”. Otherwise, come 2047, it will be hard to accept a major change.
Wu also felt that since Hong Kong’s previous brand of capitalism has not resolved the people’s problems including housing, social mobility and the rich-poor gap, perhaps it has to consider building a form of “capitalism with Hong Kong characteristics” that can satisfy what society seeks, that is, social equality and justice, and a fairer distribution of wealth.
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