In 1997, when Hong Kong ceased to be a part of the British empire and joined with China, it was promised a large degree of autonomy, political and economic, for 50 years. The recent disqualification of Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching — two young legislators recently elected to Hong Kong’s legislative council (Legco) — has increased fears that the Chinese government will make its presence felt in the city long before the 2047 deadline. Leung and Lao’s disqualification from the Legco by a Hong Kong court came a week after the Chinese Parliament passed an order to change the law to make the decision possible. Both candidates belong to the Youngspiration, a youth-based party, and are advocates for an independent Hong Kong. The fact that they were elected despite the strict screening of candidates by the Chinese government agencies speaks volumes.
Nationalist aspirations are increasing in Hong Kong. China, too, has progressed and needs the city less and less to showcase its own successes in modernity and globalisation. Shanghai today rivals Hong Kong as a global metropolis and economic powerhouse. Both internally and externally, the Chinese state has displayed aggression and been increasingly sensitive on issues of nationalism and territorial and political control. This has brought it into conflict with Japan, the US and its allies in the South China Sea, and fortified the impasse in the restive areas of Tibet and Xinjiang. Given the trend, China is likely to exercise more control as its power grows and Hong Kong, with its Western, liberal tradition will push back.
Hong Kong and mainland China differ fundamentally in their approach to the relationship between the economy and polity. In Hong Kong, the values of liberal political democracy, bequeathed to it by a European tradition, are making their presence felt. On the other hand, Chinese capitalism has been state and party-led, and the political system hasn’t evolved ways to incorporate and accommodate democratic dissent. Even if the disqualification of the Youngspiration legislators is soon forgotten, this contradiction will continue to play out in days to come.