The Optimistic Case for Hong Kong

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CK. Chan patiently combed through his old diaries with me for most of 2007. He was a language instructor at Harvard, and my teacher, who exactly four decades before had been throwing rocks at Hong Kong’s colonial police force, agitating against British rule in a Mao-inspired uprising.

His commitment to Hong Kong never wavered, though his targets had changed, from British governors to the Communist Party in Beijing, after China acquired control of Hong Kong in 1997. Over dinners, we’d go line-by-line together, wondering whether there was anything that we could learn about Hong Kong’s conflicted relations with China from the words of an antsy teenager fighting a different government for the same reasons.

I never became a historian of modern China. But my work continued to touch on Hong Kong, observing its changes over time as a journalist and foreign policy advisor. Chan, now retired and still living in the Boston area, remained generous, putting me in touch with his network in Hong Kong, which has benefited my own writing over the years. But last week, I realized how much more his lessons and perspectives have meant to me as I grapple with all that is rapidly evolving in that city.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s iron-fisted move last week to crack down on political dissent in Hong Kong shocked, saddened and angered many who know the vibrant global hub. When China regained control over Hong Kong 23 years ago, both London and Beijing agreed that the city would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, with its own legal system, under a framework known as “One Country, Two Systems” for 50 years, until 2047. Last week, in response to recent growing protests in Hong Kong, China’s rubber-stamp legislature introduced a draft national security legislation—bypassing elected leaders in Hong Kong—that would target broadly-defined acts of secession, terrorist activities, and efforts to subvert state power in the city. Beijing has deployed its “nuclear option,” effectively reneging on the promise that it made in an international treaty to preserve Hong Kong’s way of life.

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