Hong Kong: 20 Years After

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Written by Randeep Purewall

On April 26, 2017, the University of British Columbia’s Hong Kong Studies Initiative hosted “Hong Kong: 20 Years After,” a symposium on Hong Kong two decades after its handover to China. Convened over by Leo Shin of UBC, the symposium brought together Diana Lary and Josephine Chiu-Duke of UBC with Stephen Yiu-Wai Chu and Petula Sik-Ying Ho of Hong Kong University.

Hong Kong is not a democracy, but it is a pluralistic society with a liberal, rule-based culture. It served as a haven for artists, intellectuals and students in the Chinese speaking world in the 1960s says Chiu-Duke who, while living under the KMT in Taiwan, read newspapers like Ming Pao for their critical perspectives. Hong Kong’s residents also supported the Democracy Movement of 1989, and the city proved a creative force in film and popular culture.

That creative influence may be dying, however. As Chu points out, Hong Kong filmmakers are casting actors from the PRC in their lead roles and catering ever more to the audience of mainland China. The rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are also threatened says Ho whether in police pepper spraying student protesters in the Umbrella Movement or Beijing’s interference in the governance of Hong Kong University.

How broad is Hong Kong’s democracy movement in any case? One audience member pointed out that the Umbrella Movement was largely a youth movement while democratic reform is rarely debated in the Hong Kong legislature. Chiu-Duke noted, however, that liberal values and the rule of law in societies like Hong Kong may precede the development of democracy as they did in the U.K.

The question of Cantonese was also discussed. Chu pointed to the PRC’s introduction of Mandarin Chinese into Hong Kong schools at the expense of Cantonese. He told me after the symposium about China’s argument that learning Mandarin results in a purer form of written Chinese than Cantonese. Lary, however, argued that Hong Kong citizens will likely speak Cantonese, English and Mandarin as multilingual citizens in a globalized world.

When I visited Hong Kong in 2015, I felt that the city was as socially and culturally vibrant as any other. It was a society buzzing with life and energy. Those who predict its end in 2047 overlook its importance to China both as a source of investment for China and as a world financial centre. Their predictions also assume that the PRC will itself not change politically, including the possibility of evolving toward a more benign authoritarian regime.

It was clear from the start of the symposium: Hong Kong matters. Canadian citizens abound in Hong Kong and the legacy of Hong Kong’s immigrants is apparent in Canadian politics, business and culture. More broadly, as a liberal, post-colonial city and as a quintessentially modern Asian society, Hong Kong will continue to inspire interest.

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