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Hong Kong's Winding History


Protests continue this weekend in Hong Kong, even though the government has shelved a controversial extradition agreement with Beijing and apologized over that legislation. Citizens of Hong Kong want to maintain their freedom of speech and assembly, which is stronger than in mainland China. And that difference stems from Hong Kong's winding history.

VICTORIA HUI: I grew up in Hong Kong and got my undergrad degree in Hong Kong, so I've been watching what's going on in Hong Kong all this time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Victoria Hui is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. We called her up and asked her to tell us how Hong Kong is both part of China and very much its own place.

HUI: Hong Kong Island was ceded to the United Kingdom in 1842, after the first Opium War.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Under tolerant and wise British rule, with ruling Oriental assistance, has grown a modern Western city in an Eastern setting.

HUI: And then in 1898, Britain also forced China to lease a piece of territory called the New Territories to the U.K., this time as a lease for 99 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the early 1980s, London was eyeing the end of that 99-year lease and wanted to open negotiations with Beijing. In 1984, they struck a joint declaration.


MARGARET THATCHER: We have got an agreement, which is acceptable overwhelmingly to the people of Hong Kong.

HUI: The joint declaration promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, with Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong under a one country, two systems model.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The one country, two systems model was to take effect in 1997. Foreign affairs and national defense would be guided by Beijing. Everything else about Hong Kong would be controlled by Hong Kong.

HUI: In the mid-1980s, the atmosphere was very, very optimistic. We thought that we were - we could create our future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1989, pro-democracy students started protesting in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

HUI: Hong Kong people were like, wow. Hong Kong's going to be returned to Beijing in 1997. If the students can get their way, if there is democratic reform in China, then everything would be fine. At the time, people were holding up this placard, today's Tiananmen; tomorrow's Hong Kong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Beijing cracked down.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The troops have been firing indiscriminately. But still there are thousands of people on the streets who will not move back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hundreds of people were killed.

HUI: Hong Kong people became very worried that, wow, the hope for a democratic China was dashed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 1997, the handover from Britain finally happened.


CHRISTOPHER PATTEN: Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. And that is the unshakeable destiny.


HUI: That was the last governor, Christopher Patten. He said that as he was about to leave Hong Kong forever. And I also remember that night, when I went back home, I stay up until past midnight. And then I was watching CNN. All of a sudden, you have this line at the bottom saying Hong Kong. And as soon as the clock clicked midnight, the line at the bottom says Hong Kong, China. I still remember how strange that felt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After the handover, friction with Beijing tested Hong Kong's autonomy. Victoria Hui said people felt China was tightening its grip.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The protesters here in Hong Kong, afraid that the central government in China will impose a more authoritarian system of government.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: As police fired as many as 87 cans of tear gas, determined demonstrators shielding themselves with umbrellas and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The so-called Umbrella Revolution of 2014 brought protesters into the streets for nearly three months.

HUI: The rallying cry in - during the Umbrella Movement was, we want genuine democracy. We don't want basically fake democracy when there's one person, one vote, but candidates are all screened by Beijing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Leaders of that movement were jailed, and the change protesters had hoped would come didn't. Hui says the people of Hong Kong saw 1984 and 1997 as both moments of hope and apprehension. She says it's a mix of feelings today's protesters share as they look ahead to their next transition, 2047, when the current legal system is set to expire.

HUI: So for Hong Kong people, the call for democracies is very urgent. What's going to happen in the future? In the eyes of the young people, you know, the earlier we can have a stronger democracy, the better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.