Remembering the Old Hong Kong


When they met recently in the Bay Area, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping had nothing to say about Hong Kong. Four years ago, China’s suppression of Hong Kong would have been at the top of the agenda when they met. But the Hong Kong story is out of the news. Already people are forgetting it.

Hong Kong’s political struggle is a David-and-two-Goliaths story in which Goliaths won. A new book Among the Braves, tells the story from the protesters’ point of view. The book’s authors, Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin, are a couple who lived in Hong Kong. She’s a Washington Post correspondent who was stationed there. He’s a writer for The Atlantic. Their book gives a 30-year background to the protests, then follows four activists through the struggles of 2019 and 2020. The “braves” of the title are the radicals who fought with police — and lost.

The story speaks to me because I once lived in Hong Kong. From 1989 to 1993, my wife Anne and I worked there. She was a private banker. I was a journalist at Asiaweek, an English-language newsmagazine — long dead now — then owned by Time-Warner.

Some 50,000 American expatriates lived there. Hong Kong was a British colony, but in 1984 Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping (both now dead) had struck a deal, without asking the people of Hong Kong, to return it to China in 1997. Under their agreement, China promised to keep Hong Kong’s British laws for 50 years under Deng’s formula of “one country, two systems.”

The Hong Kong people I knew had little faith in that promise. The establishment pronounced it good. My employer, Asiaweek, thought so, too. A few years after I left, Asiaweek put Deng on its cover and proclaimed him Man of the Century. China was changing, my editors believed, and in another 50 years it would be a capitalist country much like Taiwan. That was the Asiaweek company line. The end of “one country, two systems” would be one system — a system more like Hong Kong’s than China’s.

As Mahtani and McLaughlin outline in their book, China’s leaders had a different idea. Their version was that the end of the 50 years there would be one system — China’s. By 2047, the old generations would have died off, the Western pollution would been cleansed, and the new generation would be loyal to the People’s Republic of China. I remember thinking, “This isn’t going to work.”

Hong Kong business leaders, who publicly supported “one country, two systems,” were privately moving their money out. Many of the upper-middle-class Hong Kong Chinese I knew had plans to leave for Canada or other English-speaking countries. They remembered Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. They remembered the tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Hong Kong people had gone into their streets to protest those Tiananmen tanks, which were more than a thousand miles away. But they had not gone into the streets to protest the plans for their own city.

I asked some of them, “Why not?”

“There was nothing we can do,” they said.

“The Hong Kong people could shut down this city in one day,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” they said.

Partly I did. To me, the ultimate problem was China. China could send in the army any time. Even that, people said, wouldn’t be necessary. Really all China had to do to bring Hong Kong to its knees was shut off the water supply. I heard this many times. I thought, maybe you should dare them to do that — now, while the British are here. It might be worth it.

There was another reason I hadn’t perceived. What a people are prepared do politically depends on what they’ve done. Protest was unheard-of in Hong Kong until 1966, when a lone man held a hunger strike at the Star Ferry terminal to protest a 5-cent increase in the fare. To Hong Kong, his act was odd, a new thing. In contrast, I came from a nation soaked in the lore of protest, from the abolitionists, the suffragists, the labor movement, the civil-rights movement, and the antiwar movement. All the rights Americans had they’d had to fight for. It was a heritage I’d grown up with. As subjects of a colonial power, the Hong Kong people didn’t have that heritage.

They have it now — in spades. They did not have it then.

The Hong Kong people I knew were proud Chinese, but the pride was historic and familial, not political. Allegiance to a flag was something the people in China had. The Hong Kong people’s Filipino servants had it. But Hong Kong’s flag had the Union Jack in the corner like Australia’s flag, and I never saw a Hong Kong Chinese display it or any other flag. The Hong Kong people had a British-issued passport that allowed them to travel but tied them to no country.

Hong Kong was not a country. It was not even a city-state like Singapore, because Hong Kong was not a state. At Asiaweek, we used the politically correct word, “territory.” Hong Kong’s territory was less than half the size of King County, with an urban part crammed with as many people as the state of Washington.

Under the British the Hong Kong people had a large amount of civil and economic liberty but no political rights. They had not had to fight for their liberty. They did not celebrate it on the Fourth of July or at any other time. Their liberty had been given to them by the colonial power — and in 1984 that power agreed to hand them over to Communist China. The Hong Kong people were not asked for their opinions on it.

As an American, I didn’t have to worry about all this. For gweilos like me, Hong Kong was a place to have an overseas adventure and earn more than I could at home. It was a place, authors Mahtani and McLaughlin write, with shopping malls that “displayed the latest Cartier collection and elevators led to trendy izakayas, hot-pot restaurants serving wagyu beef, and bars that stocked more than 300 varieties of whiskey.” Hong Kong, they write, was “a city that was meant to be placated and subdued by wealth, so seduced by the trappings of modernity to never rock the boat.”

Compared with Seattle, Hong Kong was much more cosmopolitan. The Hongkong Bank had a Chinese menu of currencies to choose for your savings account: British pounds, Japanese yen, Swiss francs, and U.S., Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Hong Kong dollars — each with separate interest rates.

But when I arrived in 1989, the territory had no political parties. There was no use for them. In more than 100 years of their rule, the British had never given the Hong Kong people the right to vote for anyone with actual authority. Only after the colonial power announced that in 1991, 18 of the 60 seats in the legislature would be up for a popular vote, did parties form. Later the universal-suffrage seats were increased to half, and China promised to have all of them, including the chief executive, popularly elected in the future.

That was another worthless promise. The British gave Hong Kong a crippled democracy. They did, however, build Hong Kong a fabulous, world-class, $20-billion airport, done by leveling an island and filling in the sea. The Hong Kong government paid for it, and British contractors built it. China objected; in its view, the British were cutting themselves a fat hog. They had done this before by putting up the most expensive office building in the world — the HSBC building, a showpiece designed by British architect Norman Foster.

The British left on July 1, 1997. Prince Charles handed over the colony to China and sailed away on his yacht, having done his royal duty. The handover went smoothly. For quite a while China stuck to its promise of “one country, two systems,” and it seemed that the skeptics, myself included, were wrong. Hong Kong retained its British law, with its freedoms of speech, press, association, and religious worship. The pro-democracy political parties never had control of the legislature, but they were at least represented, and their friends in the media gave them a platform. Among the journalists was grumbling about self-censorship. Still, there was a pro-democracy press — especially Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily.

There were some tensions. In 2003, thousands of Hong Kong people protested an internal-security bill. In 2012, thousands of Hong Kong people protested a plan to introduce a social-studies curriculum in the public schools to “cultivate students’ Chinese identity.” In 2014, thousands of Hong Kong people protested a plan to ban “unpatriotic” candidates from election ballots. After each of these protests, the government backed down. Public opinion was keeping the government in check.

By the end of the century’s second decade, Hong Kong was approaching the halfway point of “one country, two systems,” and its people were not becoming more loyal to China. In 2019 came the finale — protests in which one million, and then two million Hong Kong people — one out of every four residents — poured into the streets. The protests began over a proposed extradition law, but that issue was soon eclipsed. The protesters demanded full universal suffrage — a real democracy, and not the damaged democracy they had been bequeathed by the British. And China was not going to allow that.

And China won. It never had to send in the army or shut off the water supply. For the most part the job was done by the Hong Kong police using tear gas and rubber bullets — tactics used the world over, including in the United States.

In China’s eyes, its rule in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region had been remarkably tolerant. It had put up with disloyalty for more than 20 years, and cracked down only when protesters had clearly rejected the People’s Republic. That was one way to look at it. Another was that Hong Kong had followed the same strategy with the protesters as Mao Zedong had with political opponents in the 1950s: “Let a hundred flowers bloom” and cut them off. Wait until you have identified all your opponents and then arrest them.

By the end of 2020, most of Hong Kong’s protest leaders had either fled or were in custody. Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy leader, Martin Lee Chu-ming, was arrested, convicted of holding an unlawful assembly, and given a suspended sentence. Lee, now 85, remains in Hong Kong but has withdrawn from politics.

To explain its suppression in Hong Kong, China had a cover story. Hong Kong’s protests, it said, had been fomented by the United States. The culprit was the National Endowment for Democracy, a nominally private organization funded by the U.S. Congress. The NED makes grants to promote democracy around the world. From 2016 to 2020, it made 22 grants to private organizations in Hong Kong.

Was the NED interfering in Hong Kong’s politics? Yes, it was. How much difference that made may be argued. From 2016 to 2020, the NED reports giving out $3.7 million, which is about enough to buy four average-sized condos (484 square feet) on Hong Kong Island. Consider how the grants are described on NED’s web page (assuming the descriptions are honest). In 2019, the two largest grants, $325,000 each, were “to create pathways for constructive dialogue on key political issues” and to assist “election monitoring, get-out-the-vote efforts and local capacity building to improve all stages of the electoral process.” It’s hard to believe that such amounts could prod 2 million people to take to the streets to defy their government.

 Mahtani and McLaughlin assert that the protests “were locally driven, planned and organized.” But they don’t address China’s accusation against the NED. They should have, even only to refute it.

The greater story is that the Hong Kong people put up a hell of a fight. Betrayed by the British and subjected to compulsory loyalty by China, their defeat was probably inevitable. The result is a city that has been politically damaged, but whose economy is still free. Ranked in Economic Freedom in the World 2023, published by the pro-capitalist Cato and Fraser institutes, Hong Kong ranks 8.55/10, second-highest in the world after Singapore (8.56/10, and freer than the United States (8.14/10). These scores are not exactly scientific, but they are the best available.

Business freedom and high wages are not nothing. Hong Kong is one of the wealthiest cities in Asia, with a gross domestic product per person of $68,000 — almost as high as the United States. Some 70,000 Americans live in the territory, many of them working for the 1,250 U.S. companies based there.

Political rights and civil liberties around the world are the subject of a report produced every year by the U.S. group Freedom House. On those counts, its most recent report gives Hong Kong a score of 42 out of 100 — half the score of the United States (83/100), but much higher than China (9/100). Hong Kong’s ranking is about the same as Nicaragua’s. (Again, these scores contain a good deal of judgment, but they are probably the best we have.)

In Hong Kong my old trade, journalism, is down but not entirely out. Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily is shut down, and Lai is in prison, convicted of violating the new national-security law. Foreign correspondents, who are less of a threat than the local press and are protected by their offshore passports, are still there. Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club — an eatery and watering hole I remember fondly — is still open.

“We do not plan to give up,” says the Club president Keith Richburg, in a statement on its web page. “It is still better, indeed imperative, that we continue to speak up as forcefully as we can when we can.”


Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Thanks, Bruce, for this look back at Hong Kong’s recent history, and remaining us that playing by Beijing’s rules is the lamentable result of 100 years of British colonial governance and pusillanimous post-colonial negotiation. I do not know what the US and Britain could have done to influence outcomes, but feel that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters deserved better from the “international community.”


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