In troubled Hong Kong, the virtual coronation of hardline Chinese President Xi Jinping last week in the Great Hall of the People cast a long, dark shadow over the special freedoms and autonomy the city has enjoyed in the 20 years since its handover from British to Chinese rule.

It’s no coincidence that Xi’s extraordinary ascension over the last five years has paralleled Hong Kong’s steady decline as a special administrative region of China operating under the “one country, two systems” principle agreed to prior to the handover. While Hong Kong today remains, by far, the freest and most vibrant and efficient city in China, during Xi’s presidency it has repeatedly seen its autonomy violated, its individual freedoms eroded and its independent judiciary compromised.

Now that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has been enshrined in the Chinese constitution at last week’s twice-a-decade party congress — an honor shared only by the revolutionary founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, and his celebrated successor, former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping – Xi’s near-absolute grip on power appears guaranteed for many years to come. These years promise to be tough ones for Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million people, many of whom, despite their Chinese ethnicity, refuse to be labeled as Chinese.

According to a University of Hong Kong survey conducted prior to the 20th anniversary of the handover in July, only 3.1% of Hong Kong people aged between 18 and 29 identify themselves as Chinese, presumably because of the disconnect they feel with China as a nation. Instead, more than 90% of that group preferred to be called “Hongkongers.”

In a wider survey of all age groups, said they 35% thought of themselves as Chinese and 63% as Hongkongers.

In 1997, the year of the handover, the figures were about the same for the wider group, but the number of young people claiming a local identity rather than a national one has since risen by 25%.

Those figures don’t exactly add up to a warm embrace of the motherland and are viewed with disappointment and apprehension in Beijing. Until Xi took over as general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, the central government had maintained a relatively loose grip on Hong Kong, in keeping with the post-handover supposition that a city subjected to British colonial rule for more than 150 years would require some time and space before returning comfortably to the fold.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes her oath in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping on the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2017.   REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes her oath in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping on the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule, on July 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip

Under Xi, however, that time is running out and that space is noticeably shrinking as Hong Kong protests against central authorities have become more strident and a small but vocal independence movement has been born.

Alarm bells certainly went off in 2012 when a teenage activist named Joshua Wong Chi-fung led a 100,000-strong demonstration against a proposal to introduce Chinese-style patriotic education as a required subject in Hong Kong schools, forcing the Hong Kong government to pull back on the obviously Beijing-mandated scheme.

Two years later, Wong and others would spearhead the 79-day occupation of key commercial areas of the city by pro-democracy demonstrators, attracting international attention and support and putting Beijing on hyper-alert for any further efforts that could undermine its authority in Hong Kong.

More recently, the 2016 election of two pro-independence candidates —Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang — to Hong Kong’s mini-parliament, called the Legislative Council (Legco), brought matters to a legislative and judicial crisis after the two lawmakers turned their oath-taking ceremony into profanity-laced protests against the central government.

Reacting to the crude affront — during which both lawmakers referred to the Chinese nation as “Cheena,” a derogatory pronunciation used during the Japanese occupation of the country in the last century, and Yau mockingly pledged her allegiance to the “People’s Refucking of Cheena” —  the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress stepped into the blazing controversy, issuing an “interpretation” of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. That interpretation essentially rewrote the article concerning oath-taking so as to disqualify any lawmaker who did not “take the oath sincerely and solemnly.”

Yau and Leung had already been booted out of Legco by the council president. The interpretation assured they would never return.

In July, after the Hong Kong government filed a legal challenge against four other pan-democratic lawmakers who had used their Legco oaths as a platform for protest, the High Court ruled that  Lau Siu-lai, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Leung Kwok-hung and Yiu Chung-yim should also lose their seats in the legislature. The ruling was a godsend for Legco’s pro-Beijing bloc: Now down six seats, the pan-democrats lost their veto power in the council and, with that loss, any hope of offering meaningful legislative opposition to a Hong Kong government taking its marching orders from Beijing.

Watch for more jail time for pro-democracy protesters, more patriotic education (which the opposition denounces as “brainwashing”) in the city’s schools  and — perhaps the pièce de résistance — the passage by Legco of national security legislation mandating harsh new anti-subversion laws

July also marked Xi’s first visit to Hong Kong as president, which he used to join in the 20th anniversary celebrations while also making an uncompromising speech in which he drew “a red line” against any forces in the city harboring plans “to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities” targeting mainland authorities.

A month later, Wong, Law and their compatriot, Alex Chow Yong-kang, would be given jail sentences of six to eight months for their roles in storming the headquarters of the Hong Kong government in September of 2014, effectively launching the Occupy campaign, also known as the Umbrella Movement. Initially, Wong and Law had received community service sentences for their actions, while Chow had been issued a suspended jail sentence. But, in an unusual move that critics said amounted to a case of double jeopardy, the Hong Kong government, no doubt cheered on from Beijing, mounted a legal challenge on those sentences as being too lenient and won, sending all three activists to prison.

Clearly, under Xi, China has lost patience with Hong Kong and is moving actively, with the assistance of a compliant local government, to bring the wayward city to heel. The last five years, during which Xi has led the country as a mere mortal, present a stark record of that. Now that Xi has entered the Communist Party pantheon along with Mao and Deng, life stands to become downright backbreaking for Hong Kong’s political opposition.

Watch for more jail time for pro-democracy protesters, more patriotic education (which the opposition denounces as “brainwashing”) in the city’s schools  and — perhaps the pièce de résistance — the passage by Legco of national security legislation mandating harsh new anti-subversion laws that would see those calling for Hong Kong’s independence from China imprisoned for treason.

In 2003, the last time the Hong Kong government tried to force such legislation down the throats of the people, 500,000 demonstrators took the streets in protest. The bill was subsequently shelved and the then deeply unpopular secretary for security, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, resigned and fled the city to pursue studies abroad.

Ip has been back in Hong Kong for years now, rebuilding her reputation by winning a Legco seat, by starting her own political party and think tank and by capturing a place on the Executive Council advising Hong Kong’s chief executive. Indeed, today she is one of the city’s most popular political figures.

Hong Kong may soon see a similar rebirth for the national security legislation she once championed.