Before coming to Hong Kong I was continually asked what relationship Hong Kong had with China. Was Hong Kong an independent and separate country? Was Hong Kong still part of China but with less regulations? I had also heard the phrase “2 systems, 1 country” thrown around, but didn’t really understand what it meant. From a few googles, I also knew that Hong Kong had been a British colony until 1997. But I still struggled to understand Hong Kong’s current status and couldn’t give anyone a clear answer.
On July 1st Hong Kong officially celebrated 20 years of reunification with China. As we were headed out for dinner on that day I didn’t know what to expect. I knew there would be a huge fireworks show later on and that the president of China was in Hong Kong, which was a HUGE deal. There had also been travel warnings to avoid large, crowded areas for the whole weekend due to safety concerns. Although I never felt unsafe on our way to dinner, I was still in disbelief at what I saw.
On a covered path over the street the images to either side of me were starkly different. On the first side was a full band playing music loudly. I can only assume that this band was sponsored to play by the government and told where to stand and what direction to face.
This is what they were facing on the other side:
Other signs that were written in only Chinese characters demanded universal suffrage for Hong Kong. Pro-democracy protests erupted in 2014 after Beijing reneged on its promise that Hong Kong would have universal suffrage by 2017, when a new chief executive would be elected. Instead, in August of 2014, Beijing “passed a reform framework to stipulate universal suffrage on its own terms – only two or three committee-vetted candidates who ‘love the country’ would be allowed to run.” This led to “Occupy Central,” which is one of the biggest protests Hong Kong has ever seen. A quick run down of what Occupy Central was can be found here. This is just part of what the protest looked like on the streets:
It was during Occupy Central that the yellow umbrella movement was started. When protestors were being sprayed with teargas one person used an umbrella to protect themselves. The yellow umbrella now stands as a symbol of resistance against the government and has developed into the “Umbrella Movement”; “Umbrella Revolution” is also used interchangeably. For more questions about this movement, information can be found here.
I say all this to say that there is significant resistance to Beijing/China in Hong Kong. 20 years ago Hong Kong was returned by the U.K. to China with the promise that Hong Kong’s independent way of life would be left alone for 50 years. Hong Kong was made into a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with this handover. The “one country, two systems” treaty embodied this idea and initiated the handover of Hong Kong. This governing system has allowed large divides between China and Hong Kong to be maintained.
Differences include the currency, in Hong Kong the Hong Kong dollar (HKD) is used and in China the Renminbi (RMB), also known as the Chinese yuan (CNY), is used. In many cases, the CYN cannot be used in Hong Kong and the HKD cannot be used in China. The Chinese dialect used in Hong Kong is Cantonese, while the official Chinese language of mainland China is Mandarin. Although these may be considered just different dialects of Chinese, it is common to only know one or the other, which makes it very obvious who Chinese mainlanders are when they’re visiting Hong Kong. It is also interesting to note that prior to being chosen as the official Chinese language in 1911 due to political reasons, Mandarin was originally a dialect spoken mainly in Beijing. Although all passports are issued by the same Chinese government for people in China and Hong Kong, people in Hong Kong receive a Hong Kong specific passport. And even though I have a working visa in Hong Kong right now, I would have to apply and pay for an additional visa to even visit mainland China. This would cost $140 USD, whereas entering Hong Kong as a tourist for up to three months is free.
The separation between Hong Kong and China is clear but also extremely messy and conflicting for many people that live in Hong Kong. There is an interesting opinion piece here that talks about the conflicting feelings many Hong Kong people may have about reunification with China compared to their colonial history with Britain.
The longer I live in Hong Kong the more I learn about the real divide and significant tensions between those in Hong Kong and mainland China. These tensions were truly unexpected and I’m still surprised by the subtle differences that are continually pointed out to me between Mainlanders and those in Hong Kong. To me it represents the different way of life that Hong Kong expects and their defiance of a controlling, communist regime, which is Beijing. I also cannot help but wonder what differences Hong Kong would have if it were allowed completely free and fair elections. Hopefully one day we’ll know.