Hong Kong staged a big march to protest Beijing's suppression of its political autonomy and to demand suffrage. Upwards of 300,000 people took part (probably). The Communist Party's reaction was twofold. For mainlanders, it stopped issuing travel visas to Hong Kong and ignored the march, aside from a small mention about a demonstration causing traffic jams that was buried in stories extolling the virtues of stability and prosperity that the motherland was bringing to Hong Kong. For Hong Kongers, the local Commie mouthpieces characterized the march as a "carnaval atmosphere" and encouraged local authorities to turn it into a tourist attraction. But the mood in that 95-degree, smog-infested heat was funeral, calm and determined.
The day before the march, I heard Princeton U. sinologist Perry Link, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers, discuss the similarities between the Communist Party's takeovers of Shanghai, Tibet and Inner Mongolia in the 1950s, and its tactics toward Hong Kong. His conclusion: Hong Kong's traditions of rule of law, freedom of speech and relative transparency are not going to survive. Popular action like the march will draw out the process, but cannot, in the end, save Hong Kong from becoming just another mainland city.
It's a dark and disturbing argument, and one I would have argued against in the early days of the handover. In 1997, there was a sense that China would inevitably become more democratic, over time, as its middle class grew larger and began to demand the same political role as in other countries. Hong Kong's handover would in fact encourage this trend, by demonstrating how things like rule of law can work and exporting all these positive memes. Moreover, at that time, Hong Kong was still the indispensible regional hub, China's window through which it could trade and access international capital markets. And the region still looked to Japan and the US as the most powerful players.
Moreover, in the late 1990s, attitudes in Hong Kong about the mainland hand't changed. Mainlanders were still grubby peasants while Hong Kong was a rich, sophisticated world city where people spoke decent English.
Today these views have all changed. The financial crisis which wiped out a lot of equity in the Hong Kong property market, as well as growing direct links with the mainland, and China's rapidly growing role in the region's economic and political life, has made Hong Kong dependent upon the mainland for survival. We see it now in the throngs of grubby peasant tourists taking pictures of gweilos drinking beers in Lan Kwai Fong. We see it in various economic arrangements that are designed to support Hong Kong tycoons. And we see it in Hong Kong's authorities' regular trips to Beijing with hat in hand looking for charity. Mainlanders are quite arrogant and unsympathetic to Hong Kongers: imagine Ohio finally getting one up on Manhattan. They feel it's their turn to rule the roost and Hong Kongers are sometimes treated with contempt.
Hong Kong's role as an international city is also under challenge, which probably explains the goverment's frenetic, desperate attempts to label itself as "Asia's World City" or "City of Life" or whatever other gimmick it uses (including the ill-fated slogan, "Hong Kong: It'll take your breath away!" in the midst of the SARS crisis).
We have three main industries here, tourism, logistics and finance. Tourism as I've said is now dependent on mainlanders, now that the Japanese have lost interest. Logistics is under threat with so many new, high-quality ports and such opening around the Pearl River Delta, as well as with increasing direct links between Taiwan and the mainland (all of that traffic, including air travel, has had to go via HK, much to the territory's benefit). Finance remains important here but much more China work is being done from Shanghai and should the renminbi ever become convertible, expect a wholesale move.
So while Hong Kong remains useful to the mainland, it is increasingly less so. Which means maintaining the special autonomy becomes less important.
Will China go democratic? There remain China-watchers who believe so, pointing to big trends like the spread of cell phones and the internet, the ultimate growth of the middle class, and the lack of any ideological legitimacy in the CCP. But I'm pessimistic. I think the government is adept at curtailing free speech and screening the internet and SMS messages. It has completely coopted the cities and the peasants and workers lack a real, nation-wide organizational capability. Although the authorities are frightened of anything smacking of social unrest - and unrest is frequent in China, although rarely reported - so far they've been able to isolate and crack down on anything it percieves as a challenge.
Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have talked a great game of improving the quality of life, ending corruption and allowing political experimentation. But village elections have been squashed, a few trials in Shenzhen never got off the ground, and most importantly, Beijing has cracked down on any attempt by Hong Kong to broaden the political base, let alone attempt an election for the post of Chief Executive.
A lot of foreigners think China is missing out on a big chance to use Hong Kong as a petri dish. But I think the CCP is horrified at any chance of a proper election in Hong Kong. Heaven forbid people on the mainland might take notice. It is also therefore keen to portray any rallies in Hong Kong as street carnivals (harmless a-political fun) or as threats to order (causing traffic jams). What they'd really like to see is a rally that turns into a riot, but Hong Kong isn't likely to oblige them, at least not yet.
So, back to Perry Link's comments about the takeover of Hong Kong, which he calls a "done deal". There are obvious differences between Hong Kong today and Shanghai or Tibet in the 1950s. I won't go through all of his points but let me highlight the promises that Mao made to Tibet in 1950:
1. Tibet was exhorted to expel US and UK imperialists and return to the motherland
2. Tibet was promised autonomy in all respects except for foreign policy and national defense
3. Tibet was promised it could maintain its own system and institutions for an extended period of time
4. Mao promised to leave future questions about Tibet's position within China to Tibetans
5. Tibet was promised the free practice of religion
All of these have direct parallels to the Basic Law underlying Hong Kong's return to China under the rubric of "one country, two systems". Only over time did it become clear that the CCP had a deliberate strategy of deception, divide-and-rule tactics, politicizing daily life, coopting and betraying local elites and backing everything up with the threat of violence to take over these places. And it is clear to some people that the CCP is using the exact same strategy, if not the same tactics, in its absorption of Hong Kong.