How Hong Kong was swallowed by the Chinese dragon: The beacon of freedom has been crushed by tyranny
For almost half a century, the glitzy Jumbo Floating Restaurant was one of Hong Kong’s best-known sights as it sat majestically in the stunning harbour surrounded by skyscrapers, serving seafood and suckling pig to celebrities, royals and tourists.
Built in the style of a Ming dynasty imperial palace, the landmark vessel was 260ft long and could seat 2,300 diners. Once the world’s biggest floating restaurant, it had appeared in several hit films including a Bond movie.
But earlier this month, having been crippled financially by Covid then towed away by tug boats, the restaurant with its dragon throne, murals and six-storey pagoda capsized and sank to the bottom of the South China Sea.
For some Hong Kongers, the sinking of such an icon serves as a perfect metaphor for the capsizing of their own dreams of freedom and democracy as their city’s unique status is scuttled by brutal communist bosses in Beijing.
Never mind that the dim sum was often dreadful, the dishes bland, the bill inflated — this event ’symbolised the death of Hong Kong’s good old days’, in the words of one resident. And just as there seems minimal chance of raising the huge craft 3,000ft from its resting place on the seabed, few citizens cling to much hope of salvaging that spirit of dynamism, openness and optimism it represented and which made Hong Kong so special.
‘The old Hong Kong has gone,’ said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, who wrote a history of his beloved birthplace. ‘It is being brought in line with the rest of China and this is incredibly sad for anyone who was born there or lived there.’
The old Hong Kong is gone. It all seemed 25 years ago amid the pomp, pageantry and earnest promises to protect precious freedoms when the Union Flag was lowered for the last time and Hong Kong handed back to China after 156 years of British rule
A ruthless dictatorship has crushed this former British colony with dizzying speed since the eruption of pro-democracy protests in 2019, using local stooges to lock up dissidents, silence journalists, intimidate business leaders and stifle the rule of law.
It is depressing to see so many of the activists, civic leaders and politicians that I met while reporting on the protests being jailed or fleeing to stay free. Former legislator Ted Hui, now in Australia, told me more than 100 of his friends are behind bars. ‘It’s heartbreaking — Hong Kong lost its freedom almost overnight and faces a long, dark age. People are being sent to jail every day. The prosecutions go on and on.’
How different it all seemed 25 years ago amid the pomp, pageantry and earnest promises to protect precious freedoms when the Union Flag was lowered for the last time and Hong Kong handed back to China after 156 years of British rule. ‘The story of this great city is about the years before this night and the years of success that will surely follow it,’ proclaimed Chris Patten, the last British governor, before he carried away the flag at a rain-sodden ceremony on June 30, 1997.
Among those attending were Labour prime minister Tony Blair, China’s President Jiang Zemin and Prince Charles. There were a few protests and most dignitaries left drenched, but the mood was calm with choirs and 21-gun salutes. Later, Patten walked with the Prince on to the Royal Yacht Britannia as a band played Auld Lang Syne — a moment seen as bringing down the curtain on an empire that covered one third of the planet’s land at its peak six decades earlier.
Yet unlike other former colonies, the booming city state was not set free. Under a controversial deal agreed by Margaret Thatcher, it was given to China, with a scheme called One Country, Two Systems supposed to protect its freedoms until 2047.
The big question is whether Britain was gullible to trust a vicious communist dictatorship with a bloodstained history of atrocities. For this was a time when most ‘experts’ thought growth would drive China to become more liberal, more like Hong Kong.
With the benefit of hindsight, many would answer with a resounding yes.
‘The British and rest of the international community were naive in believing that such an authoritarian regime would let people have freedom, although many people believed that China might open up,’ said Dennis Kwok, an exiled political activist.
Soon after the handover, Blair — displaying his trademark naivety on foreign policy and complacency about authoritarian regimes — insisted there was ‘unstoppable momentum to democracy’ in China after the nation joined a global trade body.
How hollow such words sound today following the tide of dystopian horrors inflicted not just on Hong Kong but against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet and brave dissidents daring to challenge China’s repressive rule.
Thatcher signed the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration with reluctance but felt she had no option. Britain, having seized Hong Kong Island during the First Opium War in the 19th century, had agreed a treaty after the Second Opium War taking control for 99 years of the islands and more land — The New Territories — in the area. That lease ended on July 1, 1997.
Chris Patten (right), the 28th and last governor of colonial Hong Kong, receives the Union Jack flag after it was lowered for the last time at Government House. Under a controversial deal agreed by Margaret Thatcher, it was given to China, with a scheme called One Country, Two Systems supposed to protect its freedoms until 2047. Thatcher signed the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration with reluctance but felt she had no option. That lease ended on July 1, 1997
Thatcher reportedly told one Hong Kong banker she saw the Chinese as ‘savages’, although later argued that ‘we had to negotiate with the cards that we possessed’.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 in Beijing, pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong demanded an end to the continuing negotiations — but Britain decided to continue with the process after receiving assurances from the Chinese.
Patten, to his credit and as recounted in his entertaining new book The Hong Kong Diaries, spent five years as governor battling bovine bureaucrats in both Beijing and Whitehall in a bid to introduce and embed democratic reforms.
But it was too little, too late — and now they have been ripped up with such force that even the last governor’s elderly friends such as Cardinal Zen, a 90-year-old former Catholic bishop, and Martin Lee, a mild-mannered 82-year-old barrister known as the Father of Democracy, are among those targeted by the cruel regime.
Hong Kong was a frenetic melting pot of more than seven million people from all over the planet, a vibrant place that had evolved into a financial powerhouse serving as a unique bridge between China and the West.
Yet Patten reminds us that many were refugees from communism who fled ‘the persecution of landowners, from the starvation (even cannibalism) of the great famine and its tombstone politics, from the horrors and brutalities of modern Chinese crackdowns on any dissent’.
Xi has speeded up the strangulation of Hong Kong — most infamously with the draconian National Security Law used to throttle freedoms that made it such an unusual corner of China
Like others, he places much of the blame for the clampdown on China’s latest dictator Xi Jinping, the fiercely nationalist and vain president who has ratcheted up repression and extreme state control backed by high-tech surveillance since taking over the leadership a decade ago.
Patten pointed to the infamous Document Number Nine, circulated in communist circles after Xi took power, which warned against Western values such as democracy, economic freedom and a free Press — liberal tenets that used to be on display in Hong Kong.
He believes the ferocity of the clampdown exposes Xi’s fear over the despotic regime’s strength. ‘When they arrest a 90-year-old cardinal, it does not show any confidence in their system of government,’ said the former Tory chairman.
Certainly Xi has speeded up the strangulation of Hong Kong — most infamously with the draconian National Security Law used to throttle freedoms that made it such an unusual corner of China.
This measure, criminalising criticism of the Chinese state, was secretly drafted after a blundering effort by Beijing’s stooges to permit extradition to China sparked the 2019 protests — which were joined at times by up to two million people.
The vile law alone has been used to jail about 200 people — and even in efforts to silence foreigners. Benedict Rogers, British head of the human rights group Hong Kong Watch, was ordered to take down his organisation’s website or face possible imprisonment even though he lives in the UK.
Rogers, who once lived as a journalist in Hong Kong, refused. But now he must be wary, like some other critics of this appalling regime, of travelling to places that possess extradition treaties with China for fear of a potential life sentence in prison.
‘Half the world is off limits,’ said another leading activist, who lives with his family in another Western nation. ‘Kidnapping is also a possibility, so I stay alert all the time.’
Criminalising criticism of the Chinese state was secretly drafted after a blundering effort by Beijing’s stooges to permit extradition to China sparked the 2019 protests — which were joined at times by up to two million people
Such is the extent of the Orwellian repression that library books are being removed, school texts replaced to ensure slavish loyalty to Beijing and parents have stopped talking about politics at home in case their children blurt out something wrong in public.
Elections were at first postponed — then only ‘patriots’ permitted on ballot papers after pro-democracy politicians were accused of subversion for saying they opposed the government.
Yet, sickeningly, some Britons still serve at senior level in the police force enforcing the crackdown while five UK judges sit on the bench of the highest court — including Jonathan Sumption, who loves to pontificate about democracy and freedom.
There is talk Xi might head to Hong Kong for the anniversary — when residents will be given souvenirs such as mugs and pens to drive home Beijing’s message that it is a day of celebration rather than mourning for lost freedoms.
In the latest move, history is being rewritten to suggest that Hong Kong was never a British colony. Instead, school books claim that Westminster ‘only exercised colonial rule’ — a subtle distinction to highlight China’s claims of unbroken sovereignty.
Chung Ching Kwong was born the year before handover so grew up in a freer Hong Kong when many dared hope China would honour its promises. ‘I was taught to think critically, but now it feels like that world I knew has been turned upside down,’ she said.
Many of the participants in the 2019 demonstrations were young, often teenagers, and highly-educated. They admitted to their fears and the futility of challenging China with umbrellas and wok lids to place over rounds of tear gas
Then as a teenage school pupil, she witnessed the shocking moment when police fired tear gas for the first time on their citizens during the Umbrella protests of 2014 — something that became routine during the demonstrations five years later, which were scarred by worsening police brutality.
I saw that many of the participants in the 2019 demonstrations were young, often teenagers, and highly-educated. They admitted to their fears and the futility of challenging China with umbrellas and wok lids to place over rounds of tear gas. ‘What alternative do we have?’ one asked me.
Kwong, a Hong Kong campaigner who works with IPAC, an alliance of MPs in democratic countries pushing for firmer response to China, told me she anticipated Beijing’s breach of the treaty with Britain ‘but I never expected it to be so quick’.
She was not alone: the demolition of the deal, the breaking of all those promises agreed by Chinese leaders, has taken place with disturbing speed. Kwong, currently studying in Germany, will this week join those Hong Kongers moving to Britain.
According to the latest government figures, there have been 123,400 applications for the special visa scheme launched two years ago in response to the repression that offers a fresh start here.
The clampdown on civil liberties, which coincided with Hong Kong’s bungled response to Covid, has seen the population shrink for two years after six decades of annual growth that saw it double in size.
Firms have seen an exodus of senior foreign staff and complain it can take months to find replacements while analysts predict a sharp fall in prices for the world’s most expensive residential property market.
Some firms have begun warning it may be impossible to continue in a city that seems to have slammed shut its doors. Other multinationals such as the HSBC and Standard Chartered banks have, however, shamefully kowtowed to Beijing, even praising the National Security Law.
The clampdown on civil liberties, which coincided with Hong Kong’s bungled response to Covid, has seen the population shrink for two years after six decades of annual growth that saw it double in size
Hong Kong’s adoption of China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy on the pandemic fuelled the sense of isolation after the virus emerged out of central China in January 2020. The government failed to vaccinate a sufficient number of elderly people, so when their defences were breached by the Omicron variant more than 8,000 people died in three months.
Ironically, the Hollywood hit movie Contagion — about a global pandemic, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow — was filmed at Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Last month, Beijing picked John Lee, the hardline security chief sanctioned by the U.S. for overseeing the crackdown, as the territory’s next chief executive — a move seen as underscoring its relentless focus on ‘stability’ rather than prosperity.
Among those forced to flee recently is Michael Vidler, a human rights and criminal lawyer who spent 30 years building up a thriving Hong Kong practice before having to leave suddenly in April amid fears he was being targeted by Beijing.
Even as he left the airport, Vidler was harassed by up to ten Chinese media reporters taking photographs and asking if he was a traitor. As he knew better than most, hostile Press campaigns are often used by the state as a prelude to arrest.
The British lawyer had already seen legal colleagues in China barred from doing their job on baseless ‘public nuisance’ grounds. ‘I felt a quiet but profound sense of foreboding that this time had come for Hong Kong lawyers like me,’ he said.
Hong Kong is becoming just another bustling Chinese city filled with fearful citizens under the rigid control of corrupt communist bosses in Beijing, brutish security forces and some of the world’s most intense surveillance
Vidler arrived as a young man in Hong Kong entranced by its dynamism and freedom, the best police force in Asia and a system of government rooted in law.
‘Now I see it as a police state,’ he said. ‘There is no opposition in the legislative council, civil society is not functioning, people are cowed and the police are even goose-stepping in parades.’
Like all other Britons and Hong Kongers I spoke to last week, Vidler spoke of his sadness at the ruination of one of the world’s most remarkable places. ‘Hong Kong is now unrecognisable from the place that I loved,’ he said.
One financier I met on a protest told me she had ‘begrudgingly’ left. The harsh truth is that Hong Kong — with its unique spirit, evolved through an unusual stew of cultures, history and geography — lies wrecked, just like that landmark restaurant.
It is becoming just another bustling Chinese city filled with fearful citizens under the rigid control of corrupt communist bosses in Beijing, brutish security forces and some of the world’s most intense surveillance.
And that is a tragic loss for the whole world.