Soon after lunch on 18 August this year, crowds started gathering in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. They spilled out of buses and subway trains, filling the park and eventually the streets around it. By evening they had brought the north side of Hong Kong island to a standstill.
It was a Sunday on the 11th consecutive weekend of mass protests against Hong Kong’s undemocratic government and Beijing’s tightening grip. It was peaceful, and enormous. Organisers said 1.7 million people showed up from a city of 7 million.
August is Hong Kong’s hottest month and during the afternoon the heavens opened. The crowds stayed, under an ocean of umbrellas. When they moved west into the central business district in violation of police orders, no one could stop them. “We could just come out again and again,” one participant told the BBC – and they have.
The scale, determination and ingenuity of Hong Kong’s youth-led pro-democracy movement has taken the world by surprise. Some of the activists themselves, gloomy about the prospects for change as little as five months ago, have been astonished. The protesters have out-smarted Hong Kong’s police and out-thought its bewildered Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
This week, Lam blinked. She withdrew an extradition bill that triggered the protests because of its implicit threat to bring anyone in Hong Kong within the reach of the police state in mainland China.
Lam’s hope was that her concession would divide the protest movement and take the steam out of the demonstrations. It hasn’t. One masked protester said it was “like applying a Band-Aid to rotting flesh”. Four of the Hong Kongers’ five demands – for Lam to step down, for an inquiry into police brutality, for the release of those arrested and for genuine universal suffrage – remain unaddressed. At time of writing, more demonstrations are planned for this weekend and Lam’s authority looks shot.
But zoom out, and the picture changes. It’s hard to miss a new addition to the Hong Kong seascape: the 55 kmbridge-and-tunnel combination opened last year to connect the city to Zhuhai on the mainland. It departs to the west, the longest bridge in the world, then dives under the Pearl River estuary to let shipping pass overhead.
From the north, also new last year, comes a bullet train from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, linking Hong Kong to the entire Chinese high-speed rail network, with a parcel of Hong Kong territory leased to mainland authorities to conduct immigration and customs clearance.
These are prodigious feats of engineering, built at a total cost of about $30 billion. Most of all they are symbols of Beijing’s commitment to a long-term plan for Hong Kong that absorbs it completely and remorselessly into the rest of China.
As the protesters marched in August, Chinese state media released news of a directive from the State Council that Beijing would elevate the role played by Shenzhen, the mainland city neighbouring Hong Kong, in its Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (GBA) development plan.
The plan – first mentioned in China’s 13th five-year plan in 2016 – is an attempt to integrate and develop Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and seven other cities in Guangdong province into a high-tech and innovation hub to rival Silicon Valley and Tokyo. The idea is that it should also compete with New York as a financial powerhouse. The area covered is the size of the Netherlands, is home to more than 70 million people and has a combined GDP of $1.6 trillion. In Beijing, the strategy is overseen by a “Leading Small Group” headed by vice-premier and Politburo member Han Zheng.
An outline development plan published in February highlighted Hong Kong’s prominence within the GBA as a hub for international finance, professional services, trade, transportation and aviation. Neighbouring Shenzhen – home of tech giants Tencent and Huawei – was assigned the role of the region’s centre for technology and innovation.
But the latest State Council document appears to upgrade Shenzhen’s status, with plans for a range of legal, financial and social reforms that would make the city a “pioneering” showcase for “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The measures include granting the city privileges in foreign currency exchange, encouraging international companies to set up their headquarters and making it easier for foreigners to start businesses there.
Some see the boost for Shenzhen as a rebuke to Hong Kong for the protests. The stridently nationalist Global Times quoted a mainland Hong Kong affairs expert, Tian Feilong, who said the move showed the central government had decided that “Hong Kong is not suitable to hold up the major role for the Greater Bay Area strategy”.
The protesters have other things on their minds. Underpinning the Hong Kong demonstrations is an existential fear that the city is losing its distinct identity and legal protections for a way of life that was supposed to be guaranteed until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” formula.
Beijing has made it increasingly clear that one country takes precedence over two systems. After a 79-day occupation movement for universal suffrage – the Umbrella Movement – ended without any government concessions in 2014, Hongkongers watched with a rising sense of powerlessness as their freedoms were eroded.
Pro-democracy activists were jailed. Elected lawmakers were disqualified, candidates were politically screened then barred from standing for election and a political party advocating Hong Kong independence was banned. These developments prompted the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to conclude in April that the city was moving towards “one country, one and a half systems.”
To this and other British government commentary, Beijing has responded that the former colonial power should “know its place”.
The blueprint for GBA development clearly states that one of its goals is to further draw Hong Kong into Xi’s great national project, which also takes in the Belt and Road Initiative. According to the document, it would “support the integration of Hong Kong and Macao into the development of the country … and enable compatriots in Hong Kong and Macao to share with the people in the motherland both the historic responsibility of national rejuvenation and the pride of a strong and prosperous motherland.”
The Hong Kong government and its allies have praised the project and poured resources into promoting the GBA to Hong Kong’s youngsters as a promised land of jobs and (compared with Hong Kong) plentiful, affordable housing. Sammi Fu, a district councillor from the pro-establishment New People’s Party insisted in an interview that the scheme offers Hong Kong’s youth alternatives.
“Hong Kong’s industries are relatively non-diverse, so graduates usually think of working in finance,” Fu told me. “If they study computing they might consider working in sales for IT instead of in innovation and technology. If you want to become a film director, the mainland has many opportunities but Hong Kong’s film industry is almost dead.”
Jonathan Choi, chairman of the city’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce, is similarly on-message on the GBA. “We won’t be Hongkongers in the future, but rather Greater Bay Area people,” he told the Hong Kong Economic Times. And shortly before withdrawing the extradition bill this week Lam gave a speech in which she stated that “our work on the GBA has actually not stopped”.
It won’t get much support from the people on the streets. For all the promises of better career prospects and living conditions, multiple polls show that beneath their activism, and fuelling it, Hong Kong’s young people share a worldview that has been hardening against Beijing for some time.
They have consistently resisted calls to seek their fortunes up north. A survey conducted by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups in January 2018 found that 68 per cent of respondents said they would not want to work in the any of the Guangdong cities in the Greater Bay Area. More than four fifths of those surveyed cited the difference in the legal systems of Hong Kong and mainland China.
Gary Tang, a lecturer at the Hang Seng Management College, conducted a series of focus groups with students and young working people last January and found that while most were open to working overseas, few consider the mainland an option.
“They’re very insistent they want to improve themselves and learn advanced modes of working, advanced management skills, professionalism, and to them these aren’t things to be found on the mainland,” Tang says. “Some who study, say, accounting may think integrity is the most important thing in their field and that’s missing on the mainland, so that’s non-negotiable.”
Tang says that in these free-form conversations young people rarely addressed political concerns directly but expressed a lack of trust in the social environment and government institutions, as well as concerns about the lack of a free internet.
“They’re afraid of crossing the street, of being burgled, of not knowing if the police will really help if you report it, of not knowing if the water is safe,” he says. “Everyone mentioned the internet … [they think] you could get a SIM card with two numbers, you can use VPNs … but if you need to do that, then this place is crazy and I don’t want to live there.”
For pro-establishment politicians such as Sammi Fu, views like these stem from ignorance.
“If they understood the cultural background, that there are many nice people there, then it might be easier to promote the GBA,” she says.
In fact, the Hong Kong government has increased spending on exchange trips to the mainland for local students, to little effect. A survey commissioned by Fu’s own party last year found that 95 per cent of secondary students polled had visited the mainland, close to 70 per cent used the Chinese social media app WeChat, and around 80 per cent often watched mainland-produced TV shows. But the same study found 74 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t choose to work there.
“We go to watch movies, sing karaoke, walk around, snack and eat hot-pot,” says Zoe Choy, 18, a school-leaver who professes no interest in current affairs. She lives in Tuen Mun, close to the border, and it takes her just over an hour to get to downtown Shenzhen, which she often visits with her friends. “It’s clean, cheaper than Hong Kong and transportation is convenient.”
A world away from the protests, Shenzhen’s trendy shops and restaurants have become popular destinations for young Hong Kong day-trippers. One brand that has achieved cult status there is HeyTea, a chain that sells cheese-topped tea drinks. But even cheesy tea isn’t going to lure Choy to work in the GBA. She says she wouldn’t consider it.
Some say the Shenzhen consumer craze among Hong Kong’s youth is over-hyped. “You see these young people on Instagram, going to Shenzhen, drinking HeyTea, but even if they do all this, it doesn’t mean they accept this [Greater Bay Area] identity,” says Wayne Chan, a 29 year-old Hong Kong independence advocate.
Chan disses the GBA plan, but he doesn’t doubt its ambition. He sees it as an experiment in demographic engineering.
“[The Chinese Communist Party] will make it very hard for you to survive in this place,” he says, referring to Hong Kong. “They’ll make you suffer and then offer you some sweeteners, the sweeteners are to entice you to go to the mainland and leave Hong Kong. I believe this kind of population cleansing is one of their goals and it’s already underway.”
Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement believes the GBA plan is a concerted push to erode young Hongkongers’ sense of identity, but he doesn’t think it will succeed. “I think the Greater Bay Area is like a ‘concept stock’ which will fail,” he told me earlier this year.
Even before the protest took off, Wong pointed to mainland censorship of popular TV shows and rules that ban the depiction of bleeding characters in computer games as examples of why Beijing was always going to find it hard to win over Hong Kong youth.
“Their absurd restrictions on things that most appeal to young people show their fundamental nature. They ultimately can’t control the tendency of the state machinery to want to manipulate cultural [expression]. If it’s just a matter of economic benefits, such as job opportunities, everyone thinks it’s fine. But when it comes to culture, that transcends politics. If you can’t even watch period dramas, Hongkongers would be up in arms.”
How have the protests impacted young Hongkongers’ enthusiasm for the GBA project? There isn’t much hard data either way, but the term itself has become a target of mockery and is even used as an insult. Some protesters have campaigned for countries such as the UK and the US to strip family members of leading officials of their foreign citizenship so they are forever “consigned to living in the Greater Bay Area”.
Whether Hongkongers like it or not, Beijing is set to push on with its plan. As it does, experts expect more emphasis on continuity than change. There’s nothing new about strengthening economic cooperation and flows in trade and people in what used to be called the Pearl River Delta area, as the political scientist Brian Fong points out. It has been happening continuously and organically for decades.
For Fong the crux of the issue is whether the GBA will become a jurisdictional entity and a governance issue – and this in turn depends critically on the role played by the “Leading Small Group” led by vice-premier Han Zheng.
“At the moment we’re not sure about the details of this group, including what the limits of its power are,” he says. “In theory there are two possibilities – one is that it’s just a talking shop… But it could also become a kind of super-government.” And if the GBA authorities become a super-government, local governments in the region would become rubber stamps.
“In such a circumstance, Hong Kong as a separate jurisdiction since 1841 would disappear. It would be hollowed out. So one country, two systems and the Basic Law would still be there but Hong Kong as a separate jurisdiction would become an empty shell.”
The protest movements of 2014 and 2019 would have passed into history, and Xi would have won.