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Hong Kong, and the litany of Beijing’s betrayal

Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. and is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Hong Kong, marking 20 years since it was returned to China from British rule, has been met by a fierce security lockdown, hordes of protesters, thousands of armed police and the arrests of political activists.

On this milestone anniversary, Hong Kong is reeling as it is dragged deeper into a status whose blueprint is a string of broken promises by Beijing.

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Hong Kong's modern history has been unorthodox, a free-wheeling but Westernized speck on a decidedly undemocratic regional map. It had been ceded to the U.K. in 1842 after China lost a war that was waged to defend Britain's continuing exports of India's opium (after China had outlawed its use).

Fast-forward 146 years to July 1, 1997, and a surreal open-air pageant with the President of China and members of the Communist Party Politburo onstage. A tropical downpour had just drenched the jam-packed parade square. Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, final Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten and young new Prime Minister Tony Blair glumly watched goose-stepping soldiers of the People's Liberation Army. When the red and yellow flag of the People's Republic of China was raised to replace the Union Jack, the euphoric crowd let loose a jubilance Hong Kong had never known.

The future seemed exciting. In a Joint Declaration that set the terms of reversion to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing promised Hong Kong's social and economic systems would remain unchanged, and rights and freedoms – including those of the press, of association, of correspondence, of strike, of academic research and of religious belief – protected. China promised "one country, two systems" and "no change for 50 years," and said "Hong Kong people would govern Hong Kong." That meant Hong Kong would be governed by locally elected leaders.

A subdued Prince Charles sounded like he didn't believe his own farewell remarks: "We have no doubt that Hong Kong people can run Hong Kong, as the Joint Declaration promises… and that faithful implementation of the Declaration is key to Hong Kong's continued success… I wish you all a successful transition, and a prosperous and peaceful future."

Communist leaders have occasionally repeated that democratic institutions and rule of law remained the end game for post-Mao China (though always with the caveat that these goals could not be realized immediately due to historical, cultural and developmental factors).

Canada endorsed the Joint Declaration at the UN, expecting Beijing to eventually comply with international norms of democratic governance. In 1998, China signed the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, giving assurance (false, as we now know) that China was moving in this direction.

But in 2013, Xi Jinping became President and began making statements explicitly renouncing such political ideals as constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, and speech and assembly. He said they were incompatible with sustained Communist Party rule in China. One of the Party's official newspapers condemned these principles as "a ticket to hell" for China.

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China nixed any notions about universal suffrage in Hong Kong, instead introducing pro-Party curriculum in schools, intimidating independent media and illegally relocating several Hong Kong residents deemed hostile to the Beijing regime to the mainland. This betrayal has been met with public outrage and massive protests in the streets, including one in 2014 that occupied some districts of downtown Hong Kong for three months.

More and more young Hong Kongers are now demanding genuine autonomy, if not outright independence, from China, renouncing their Mandarin-based Chinese-ness in favour of a localized Cantonese Hong Kong identity. When some of this new generation were recently democratically elected to the local legislature, China's No. 3 state leader Zhang Dejiang warned that Hong Kong must be governed by "patriots who sincerely support China's sovereignty."

Politically, things are volatile and dangerously uncertain in Hong Kong, and it matters a lot to Canada. There are 300,000 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, and half a million Canadians of Hong Kong origin reside in Canada. That's a strong Canadian connection for a place with just seven million residents.

So far, Chinese troops in Hong Kong have stayed in their barracks. For how much longer is anyone's guess. In June 1989, observers pondered similar questions about Tiananmen Square.

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