It’s a strange thing to watch from afar the election of a new (or in this case, not so new) leader back in your home country. And as I experienced for the first time last week, it’s made even stranger from a place where the vast majority of those around you have never cast a nationally or even locally relevant political vote.
Following events that took place here in Hong Kong towards the end of last year, it’s no mystery to the rest of the world that this city exists within a precarious political balance. And there are many here who watch the UK elections with great attention. It’s of course impossible to forget that nearly two decades ago, this place was given over by the British to the Chinese during a rainy and emotional ceremony just a mile or so from where I’m writing this column. And while it may shock many, there are still some Hong Kongers who would rather return to a time of British colonial rule than ride the uncertain waters towards greater integration with mainland China and the politics of Beijing.
A few months on from the dramatic Occupy protests, the conversation about universal suffrage has not died down in Hong Kong. But it exists within a broader one regarding the city’s future – across everything from its complicated politics to education, pollution, business and overall quality of life here. And for the first time in many years, discussions about leaving Hong Kong are becoming more common. Some think that there will be a repeat of the mass flight from the city that followed Beijing’s Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, when families concerned about what the 1997 handover might bring took their children to countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia. Others see the political tumult as distracting from the inevitable competition that this city will face from a more international China. If Hong Kong is no longer needed as the legally protected entry point to do business in China, many wonder what its unique selling point will be.
Last week, Beijing published a new bill for its national security law. For the first time, the Chinese government called directly for the involvement of Hong Kong and Macau, stating that the protection of China was the responsibility of all Chinese people, including those from these two special administrative regions. The bill renews pressure on the city to prevent acts of treason, secession, sedition or subversion. And while it would likely take an amendment to Hong Kong’s Basic Law for this to be implemented, the threat it suggests to freedoms in the city is unlikely to go unnoticed. In 2003, a similar approach led to hundreds of thousands marching in protest and the early resignation of the chief executive.
Following the shutdown of the city through Occupy and ahead of the controversial vote set for late June over electoral reform, Beijing’s decision to put pressure on issues of national security now can’t be a coincidence. And while it will likely lead to further thousands taking to the street, without direct electoral influence, their voices could easily be ignored. Despite any feelings on the outcome, it makes looking from here at the UK’s elections and the controversial future referendums somewhat bittersweet.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.