By: Archie Hall

The growing estrangement between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland spilled into the streets of the territory today, July 1, the public holiday marking 17 years after Great Britain handed its colony back to China amid hopes in Beijing anyway that Hong Kong people would see themselves as mainland citizens.

Hong Kong has stubbornly remained Hong Kong, a territory with an increasingly separate identity, values and ideals.  Hundreds of thousands of people formed up in the city’s Queen Victoria Park at 3 pm under warm and cloudy skies that later resulted in a torrential downpour. They were listening to the strains of Bob Dylan’s classic protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” blasting from loudspeakers and carrying signs calling for democracy.  The crowds were so big that they spread out lamp post to lamp post in the park and clogged the streets; concerns over possible violence proved unfounded.

It was not immediately possible to calculate exact numbers but the turnout rivaled a massive July 1 protest against Beijing’s political interference in 2003.  Tuesday’s march, like the one in 2003, was vast and dense, covering much of the area between the park and Central. Organizers and the police did not have an immediate estimate.  The last marchers didn’t even leave Victoria Park until after 7:20 pm,  almost four and a half hours after the march started.

Some 4,000 Hong Kong police, who have long experience peacefully controlling demonstrations,  lined the streets to keep order on an orderly crowd, with factions including every local cause from saving Lantau island’s water buffaloes to demanding a stop to the repatriation of North Korean refugees. Falung Gong was there, as were gay rights protesters dancing under rainbow umbrellas. It was not a sight one could ever see in the mainland.  Hints that the People’s Liberation Army troops housed in the territory might come out in force also proved unfounded.

The latest confrontation between Beijing and its upstart territory has been brewing for months over a threat by a once-small group of activists called Occupy Central to shut down commercial streets in the city’s center. Over recent weeks, Beijing has turned up the temperature, with a White Paper issued to remind the city of 7.5 million it should stay patriotic and subservient, which did little but raise hackles in the city.

A long series of provocations over many years has left fewer and fewer people each year identifying themselves as “Chinese.” A Hong Kong University poll in 2013 showed 62 percent of Hong Kong residents identify primarily with the territory and 38 percent do so exclusively.  At the same time, the temperature is rising in China, with growing numbers of people saying Beijing has the right to tell Hong Kong what to do.  Hong Kong’s young, who had been expected to opt for the motherland, instead appear to be rejecting it in growing numbers, if the march was any indication.

That sentiment impacted the annual July 1 protest march, with near-record numbers calling for defending the territory’s autonomy, supposedly granted for 50 years after the 1997 handover but slowly being eroded by court decisions and administrative actions.

China has stalled on a guarantee in the Basic Law to allow universal suffrage and is now waffling on an earlier promised to grant it by 2017.  The marchers are demanding free and open nominations for chief executive and the abolishment of “functional constituency” seats – allotted mostly to pro-government business groups – in the Legislative Council.

Occupy Central responded to the White Paper by organizing a three-part plebiscite allowing voters to pick the kind of free electoral process they would prefer. Beijing began to deliver a clumsy series of warnings, calling the plebiscite “illegal and invalid,” spurring nearly 800,000 voters to respond in the face of widespread hacking to disrupt the vote that was traced to mainland companies’ computers. 

As a result of the 156-year colonial period – although none of them were enshrined in law – Hong Kong has extensive freedoms that the mainland can only dream of. But fears are growing that a unique territory on China’s southern flank is increasingly threatened.

Part of the problem is the 2003 Closer Economic Partnership between the mainland and the territory that gave Hong Kong significant trade benefits.  But it also provided for the entry of millions of Chinese visitors – a number that swelled to more than 40 million in 2013, engendering huge strains. At one point 35 percent of the babies born in Hong Kong’s vastly superior maternity wards were by mainland women, denying beds to locals. Wealthy mainlanders have swamped commercial establishments, resulting in local merchants being displaced for French, Italian and Swiss boutiques whose prices are out of the reach of locals.

Because so much Chinese milk powder is adulterated, Chinese parallel traders also came to Hong Kong to buy up vast amounts of the powder in Hong Kong supermarkets, denuding the shelves to the point where the government instituted fines of HK$500,000 and threatened two years of jail time for possession of more than two tins.

The result of these irritants is a march the likes of which has not been seen in the city at least since the 2003 controversy over an internal security bill that outraged Hong Kongers. Although the first marchers left Victoria Park in the Causeway Bay district at 3 pm and reached the Pacific Place shopping center 3 km away two hours later, prospective marchers were still trying to get into the packed park to start.

At an official morning ceremony marking the 1997 handover, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government “will do our utmost to forge a consensus” on implementing universal suffrage in the territory. Leung spoke after the official ceremony Tuesday morning marking the anniversary, but stopped short of detailing plans for the vote for chief executive in 2017, which is a focal point of this year’s demonstration.

But in addition to the strains from the tourism issue and others, there is a growing history of provocation that makes conciliation problematic. Kevin Lau, the former editor of the Chinese language newspaper Ming Pao, was brutally stabbed in February after the paper had participated in an expose of accounts held in the British Virgin Islands by Chinese mainland officials and their families. There has been other widespread intimidation of news professionals along with massive distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks on protest groups apparently emanating from mainland sources.

By 6pm, a drenching rain had cooled off the marchers and started to disperse them although their numbers were still pouring down the street toward the city center. It is hardly likely, however, that anything is going to cool off the problems between the city and Beijing. It is going to take a concerted effort that so far is not evident on either side.