When anyone asks me what has changed in Hong Kong in the 20 years since its return to China in 1997 and the departure of the British, I usually respond that you see a lot of red flags flying (mostly Hong Kong flags, not China ones), and that they have repainted the red Royal Mail boxes in Hong Kong Post green.

That might sound rather flippant, but in fact relatively little has changed outwardly. Trams still trundle down streets named after colonial governors. The statue of Queen Victoria still sits in its namesake park staring placidly at the mountains. Barristers still address red judges (from the color of their gowns, not their political persuasion) as “your worship.”

That doesn’t mean there have not been changes, even on a superficial level. Who remembers how, in October, many parts of Hong Kong used to be festooned with the red and blue National Chinese flag? Now it would be considered politically incorrect, to say the least, to publicly display the de facto banner of Taiwan.

I see other signposts of change when I learn about Jimmy’s Kitchen – that colonial institution – being sold to a Chinese owner. Talking about the sale, way back in 2002, the restaurant’s proprietor, Neil Mackenzie, was quoted as saying “Hong Kong has changed a lot in the last four or five years,” without outlining exactly what had changed except for it no longer being a British colony.

As Hong Kong and China look back on the 20 years since the former reverted to Chinese sovereignty, both sides find their worst fears were unfounded but also that their best hopes are unfulfilled. Hong Kong people would – perhaps grudgingly – admit that Beijing has not shred their liberties. But they are still disappointed that their hopes of full democracy, which they feel they were promised, have not been realized.

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Donald Tsang, second from right and now in jail, hands power to Leung Chun-ying, left, in July 2012

For its part, Beijing has to be happy that Hong Kong has not become a base for foreign subversion of the central government. But it must also be a source of deep frustration that this has not earned China’s leadership much love. Hong Kong people still think of themselves as Hong Kongers first and as citizens of China (meaning the political entity known as the People’s Republic of China) a distant second. No amount of exchange programs, “Love China; Love Hong Kong” drives, or army open houses, is likely to change this.

Propinquity has not improved relations between Hong Kong people and the thousands of mainland Chinese who have descended on the territory since China loosened travel restrictions – a move meant as a favor to Hong Kong during the Asian Financial Crisis. Some incidents, fairly trivial in themselves, have taken on outsized meaning. When the Italian luxury garment retailer Dolce & Gabbana opened a smart new shop on busy Canton Road in Kowloon, it got into trouble when the management sought to forbid locals, but not mainland visitors, from taking pictures of the window displays. More than 1,000 people gathered outside the store to protest.

Some 40% of real estate transactions are said to involve mainland buyers, boosting the profits of landlords but pricing Hong Kong people out. Once again one hears of the “sandwich class” (people too well-off for public housing but too poor to buy apartments). Locals find that their favorite noodle shop has closed to make way for a store selling imported watches for the Chinese tourist trade.

China's flag is raised by People's Liberation Army soldiers to signal Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule, in Hong Kong, July 1, 1997. Negotiations over the future of Hong Kong took years before a treaty was signed in 1984 to return the territory at midnight on June 30, 1997. More than 4,000 PLA troops crossed the border into Hong Kong. Since then the garrison has tended to maintain a low profile in the city. Photo: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
China’s flag is raised by People’s Liberation Army soldiers to signal Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule, in Hong Kong, July 1, 1997. Photo: Reuters / Dylan Martinez

And then there was the notorious “locusts” advert published in Apple Daily, the territory’s leading Chinese-language newspaper. The full page ad showed a giant locust perched greedily on a mountaintop overlooking Hong Kong. Underneath, the battle cry “Hong Kong people have had enough.” The locust, you will gather, was intended to represent mainland China and its visitors to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong people have a patronizing term – derived from a bumpkin-like character in a television series – that was, for a time, commonly used to refer to the flood of tourists from the mainland: Ah Choon. It was one of the ways Hongkongers looked down on their poor relations to the north in the years preceding the handover. They still consider mainlanders country bumpkins, only rich country bumpkins.

Lurching from crisis to crisis

Hong Kong has had three Chinese chief executives in the past 20 years, and none of them managed to capture the hearts of Hong Kongers. The first, Tung Chee-hwa, was considered an amiable bumbler, a decent man unfortunately out of his depth. Tung showed very early on that he did not possess the political skills or charisma needed to run a place like Hong Kong.

The second chief, Donald Tsang, seemed at first the perfect antidote to Tung. A self-proclaimed “typical Hong Kong boy”, he was born in Hong Kong (unlike Tung, who was born in Shanghai) and worked his way up through the ranks of Hong Kong’s civil service to become financial secretary and later chief secretary. His finest hour came in 1998 as financial secretary when, in the depths of the Asian Financial crisis, he abruptly sacrificed laissez faire principles and spent billions in public money, buying stocks to shore up the Hong Kong dollar.

The action saved the dollar and earned the government a nice profit when the stocks were later sold. During his second term, ending in 2012, however, Tsang was embroiled in several scandals, accused of taking gifts from tycoons in the form of trips on luxury yachts and private airplanes. In February of this year, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison, the most prominent person in Hong Kong ever to be jailed.

Hong Kong’s third chief executive, Leung Chun Ying – universally known as “CY” – never seemed to get much of a break from Hong Kong’s highly politicized population. He squeaked into office after the front-runner, and Beijing-approved candidate, the then chief secretary Henry Tang, was accused of building an illegal addition to his house. Throughout his career he has been dogged by accusations that his first loyalty is to Beijing, not Hong Kong. Some have accused him of being a closeted member of the communist party (curiously still illegal in Hong Kong).

A protester holds up a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, as she marches to demand universal suffrage in the Chief Executive election in Hong Kong, China March 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
A protester holds up a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, at a protest in March, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Leung tried to alleviate some of the things that bug Hong Kongers, such as rampant property prices. His attempts to suppress these by taxing mainlanders buying up property and banning pregnant women from entering the territory and giving birth to “anchor babies” had little success. And none of these actions ever seemed to do anything to raise his dismal public approval ratings.

Hong Kong experienced three major crises in the 20 years following the handover. The first was a mass protest over Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, in July 2003. This timebomb obligates Hong Kong to enact laws designed to suppress “subversion” and protect “state secrets,” which are rather broadly defined in China. The article was considered so sensitive and so potentially damaging to “confidence” in the territory’s future that the government waited five years before moving on it. By then, it reasoned, Hong Kong people would have become more comfortable with China and its intentions. That proved to be a serious miscalculation.

An estimated 500,000 people – a significant portion of the entire population – turned out in a massive demonstration against Article 23 and the Tung administration in general. The day was hot and sunny and had a festive air. They came with their children, even babies in strollers, walking from Victoria Park to the government offices on Lower Albert Road. Aerial views on television that evening looked like a tsunami of people.

Twenty years after the handover, Article 23 is a dead issue, and the neither the government nor Beijing shows any indication that they intend to bring the subject up again. The protests were a heady exercise of people power ending in victory, and may have lulled Hongkongers into thinking that future confrontations would also end so favorably for them. That expectation would be dashed ten years later in a larger conflict.

From one unelected club to another? A pro-democracy demonstrator holds a portrait of Queen Elizabeth as he marches along downtown Hong Kong July 1, 2012, during the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover to China. New Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying was sworn into office on Sunday by Chinese President Hu for a five-year term in which he will confront challenges ranging from human rights to democracy after a tumultuous year of transition and protest. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
From one unelected club to another? A pro-democracy demonstrator holds a portrait of Queen Elizabeth as he marches along downtown Hong Kong July 1, 2012, during the 15th anniversary of the territory’s handover to China. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

The second crisis, in 2012, sprung from the Hong Kong government’s attempt to inject greater patriotism (meaning support for the PRC) into the curriculum. The new materials included “The China Model,” purported to describe the Chinese Communist Party as progressive, selfless and united while criticizing multi-party systems as oppressive and divisive. The decision reflected the growing frustration in Beijing that Hong Kong schools were not doing enough to foster patriotism and love of the motherland.

The protests over patriotic education were notable for the first appearance of the British colonial flag among the demonstrators. I almost fell off my chair when I first saw a picture of the flag in the hands of some protestors on the front-page of the New York Times. It is hard to think of anything that would be more irritating to the Chinese leaders than for Hong Kong people to embrace the symbol of colonialism. The flag would become even more prominent at future demonstrations.

The most serious crisis in the past 20 years was the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014, so-called because the demonstrators used umbrellas as a defense against tear gas and pepper spray (as well as rain, of course). The demonstrations began in September after Beijing released its proposal for electing the chief executive in 2017. It called for direct elections but retained tight control over who would be allowed to run by reserving the power of nomination to a 1,200-member election committee.

The inconclusive ending to the Umbrella Movement left both sides, Hong Kong and Beijing, in a sullen, sour mood. Beijing no longer seems to care very much about making nice with the territory. In what looked like an officially threatening reprimand, it issued a “white paper” in June 2014, saying that autonomy was not a right but something that could be revoked at any time the central government feels its authority is threatened.

Time has always weighed heavily on Hong Kong. When I arrived in 1987, the handover date of 1997 seemed comfortably distant, yet the years went by in a flash. Many of the young people who took part in the Umbrella Movement will be entering vigorous middle age in 2047

The Umbrella Movement’s failure also had a profound impact on Hong Kong’s people, especially its young. They no longer seem interested in the traditional liberal causes – such as elections to the Legislative Council and of the city’s chief executive – that had motivated their fathers for more than 20 years. Many retreated into an extreme kind of localism, being against, for example, use of Mandarin rather than the local dialect, Cantonese.

They went by such names as the Hong Kong Indigenous Party, the Hong Kong Independence Party, Civic Passion and Demosisto. Some took part in the 2016 Lunar New Year riot in Mongkok, the most violent disturbance since the spillover of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. It seemed a long way from the halcyon days of the 2003 anti-Article 23 protests.

Time has always weighed heavily on Hong Kong. When I arrived in 1987, the handover date of 1997 seemed comfortably distant, yet the years went by in a flash. China’s promise to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy as a Special Administrative Region for 50 years following the handover also seemed something else in the far-distant future. Yet we have already shaved 20 years off of that time. Many of the young people who took part in the Umbrella Movement will be entering vigorous middle age in 2047. In the early years most of us assumed that Beijing would be happy to simply extend autonomy indefinitely. That is no longer such a certainty.

Todd Crowell worked for 16 years as Senior Writer for Asiaweek. He is the author of ‘Farewell My Colony, Last years in the life of British Hong Kong,’ reissued as a 20th anniversary edition by Blacksmith Books.