When the last British governor of Hong Kong sailed out of Victoria Harbor on July 1,1997, many expected the Chinese government to honor pledges to maintain the colony's basic freedoms, enshrined in the so-called Basic Law -- in effect, the territory's mini-Constitution.
After all, the thinking went, Beijing would have nothing to gain by tinkering with the rule of law in one of the world's premier trade and business hubs. It wouldn't dare pluck the feathers of what had traditionally been known as the goose that lays China's golden eggs -- a freewheeling, capitalist enclave that served as China's gateway to the world for trade and investment. And freedom of the press would be tolerated on the assumption that the Chinese understood the need for business to have unfettered access to information.
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Moreover, the British had installed a world class legal and physical infrastructure that was expected to endure far into the future. That included such institutional safeguards as the powerful and feared Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), designed to keep the noses of the civil service squeaky clean.
But almost half way into the mandate of the "one country, two systems" experiment, Beijing appears to be accelerating Hong Kong's absorption into China at a pace no British foreign office official might have expected in the heady run-up to the handover.
That includes a hard crackdown on dissent, especially on anyone who advocates independence of Hong Kong from the mainland. The situation was brought into focus Monday when three of the territory's most high-profile pro-democracy protesters appeared in court on charges of fomenting unrest during 2014 street protests that brought the central business district to a standstill for almost three months. (They have pleaded not guilty but face up to seven years in prison if convicted.)
Local pro-democracy protesters are not the only ones to feel the clampdown on freedom of expression. Last month, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, Victor Mallet, was declared persona non grata in Hong Kong after chairing a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club ((FCC) with Hong Kong independence advocate Andy Chan. A few weeks ago, Mallet, who was also the correspondents club's vice president, was denied entry into Hong Kong as a tourist -- a move of such severity it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
While Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed chief executive, Carrie Lam, has refused to comment on the reasoning behind the expulsion, it is widely seen to be a signal to others of a red line that should not be crossed. It may also foreshadow more troubles ahead for the FCC: in 2023, its lease comes up for renewal by the Hong Kong government. And, with a three-month cancellation clause, which allows the government to terminate the lease even sooner, more missteps could shutter an institution that has traditionally served as not only a venue for free speech, but as a haven, exhibit space and workplace for foreign journalists and diplomats.
Even before the exclusion of Mallet, there has been creeping self-censorship in Hong Kong. The territory's major English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, owned since 2015 by Alibaba's Jack Ma, tends to give Chinese authorities velvet glove treatment. The Chinese-language media in the territory has long-since fallen into line and stays clear of criticism of Beijing.
Some, such as the FT's Hong Kong correspondent, Ben Bland, say that those who speak out face a hard knock because Lam and her administration have to be seen delivering on the hardline policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi warned during a visit to Hong Kong last year that any challenge to the regime is "absolutely impermissible" and not to cross the "red line" of undermining Chinese sovereignty. As China aggressively widens its military and economic footprint in the region, Hong Kong officials find themselves under even more pressure to be delivering positive returns for Xi.
Francis Moriarty, a former senior political correspondent for Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), tells me that the harsh actions against Mallet, pro-democracy leaders and others indicate that "the legal protection of free press and free speech, guaranteed under the Basic Law, are being steadily eroded by pressures from Beijing and its Hong Kong acolytes, who are becoming emboldened."
While local business tycoons are not kicking up a public fuss on the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, representatives of foreign businesses, many with regional bases in the territory, are. In a stunning blow to Hong Kong, the US-China Economic and Security Review Committee, which advises the US Congress, said this month that Beijing's "encroachment" on the territory's freedoms could tarnish its status as a global business hub. "The ongoing decline in rule of law and freedom of expression is a troubling trend," the report said.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said reining in press freedom could damage the territory's competitiveness as a leading financial and trading center and termed Mallet's visa denial "a worrying signal." After initially playing down Mallet's visa woes, AmCham President Tara Joseph, a former Reuters journalist and FCC president, said: "Without a free press, capital markets cannot properly function, and business and trade cannot be reliably conducted."
Whether pro-democracy advocates like it or not, China's embrace of Hong Kong is proceeding apace, and in more ways than one. In recent months, the territory has become much more physically integrated, with multi-billion-dollar bridge and high-speed rail links.
When people say there really is no place like Hong Kong, they aren't exaggerating. With a world-class infrastructure, enviable geographic location and an educated and entrepreneurial population, British officials might now be expressing regret at handing it back to China on such liberal terms. It's just too bad they didn't do more to shield this golden goose from China's poison arrows.