HONG KONG — Twenty years ago, millions of Chinese cheered as Britain ended its run as a global empire with the handover of Hong Kong — its last colony that mattered — to the communist government in Beijing.
The pageantry-filled ceremony on July 1, 1997, was a memorable affair and, despite a few holdouts, most said the omens were good. The British newspaper The Guardian trumpeted across its front page: “A last hurrah and an empire closes down.”
The stock market soared to a record high, fireworks lit up the skyline and the crowds even welcomed a fierce tropical rainstorm — seen as a sign of good luck among Chinese. The Prince of Wales bade farewell to the tune of “God Save the Queen” and all royal pomp and ceremony that London could muster.
But today, the mood on the streets of this bustling city is far more tempered as residents take stock of the changes wrought by 20 years of Chinese rule and worry about great uncertainties clouding their future.
Britain spent on massive infrastructure projects in its final years and left behind a quasi-central bank stuffed with cash and a highly effective Basic Law. China agreed to institute full democracy for Hong Kong by 2017 under the mantra “One country, two systems.”
Many longtime residents say they have a right to feel shortchanged by a handover deal cobbled together by a British government eager to please a potential trading giant.
Instead of full democracy, Hong Kong is still ruled by Beijing-vetted candidates who are elected from small groups of local elites. Political life is dominated by business interests often accused of trying too hard to please the regime on the mainland as opposed to serving the interests of their fellow Hong Kong residents. Cynics say there is now “One country, one-and-a-half systems” — with Hong Kong’s distinctiveness disappearing by the day.
The Basic Law, a proud pillar of Hong Kong society, is under threat, highlighted by the detention of troublesome book publishers whom security officials detained — some say abducted — off the streets of Hong Kong and elsewhere.
Mandarin, the dialect spoken in Beijing and in much of northern and southwestern China, has swamped the traditional Cantonese-speaking cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou and is now threatening Hong Kong’s identity. Closely linked to that is a rising tide of what the locals call “red capital” — huge investment sums pouring in from the mainland, challenging local tycoons and driving housing and office space prices to some of the highest levels in the world.
Population numbers support the fears of the pessimists. Hong Kong has grown by almost 1 million people since 1997, to 7.42 million, largely because of immigration from the mainland.
That shift is accentuated by the many who have left, particularly the young. The world’s fourth most densely populated city-state is saddled with a rapidly aging population. The median age is 43.4, compared with 34 in 1996.
Hong Kongers joke that the Handover is now “The Hangover,” amid local complaints that mainlanders are rude and uncouth. Many ordinary Chinese see the wealthier Hong Kong residents as ungrateful and in need of a few lessons in loyalty and humility.
The Chinese government clearly feels the strain, pushing a relentlessly positive image of the past 20 years and planning three days of celebration starting Thursday to mark the anniversary.
China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster, has been running news features daily hailing what it says are bonds that have been forged between China and Hong Kong in fields such as sports, the military and the arts.
Gavin Greenwood, a risk consultant with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates, said the huge amount of international money that still pours into the territory and its continuing ability to serve as a stable and experienced financial intermediary offers a degree of protection in the lead-up to 2047, when Hong Kong’s remaining borders with the rest of China will come down.
“The coming 30 years will be defined to the extent the emotional and often romantic aspirations of the young can be successfully managed by their more pragmatic and realistic elders to Beijing’s satisfaction,” Mr. Greenwood said.
The view from 1997
As the Handover neared two decades ago, Hong Kong’s outlook was solid but independence was far from assured — despite promises by Beijing that its economic and political systems would remain unchanged for 50 years. In the many bars and clubs, robust arguments over the territory’s prospects were plentiful.
Doomsday scenarios accompanied a stock market crash when the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis struck, but fears of an early demise of Hong Kong’s favored status proved groundless.
The worst-case scenario was that Hong Kong would be transformed into just another Chinese city, dictated by a hierarchy that defined itself by wealth and political connections on the mainland to the detriment of the local Cantonese.
“Hong Kong is unique in that it knows to the last second when its status will change on a given date. What it does not know is whether this will be a positive or negative experience,” said Mr. Greenwood.
As the deadline for universal suffrage loomed, doubts emerged over Beijing’s willingness to keep its word. An anxious student body took to the streets in late 2014 staging sit-ins and shutting down the central business district.
The Umbrella Movement was born, a major embarrassment for the central government. Authorities appeared genuinely stunned by the emergence of a Hong Kong independence movement after it became clear that full democratic rule for the 427-square-mile enclave was not in Beijing’s plans.
“Twenty years after the British relinquished control, the territory remains deeply divided by generational, class, economic and political expectations, interests and sentiments,” Mr. Greenwood said.
Ties between ordinary citizens, particularly youths, and the People’s Republic have continued to deteriorate. In Taiwan, the Mainland Affairs Council documented 169 breaches of intervention in the territory’s legal system, freedom of speech and the right to self-rule.
Hong Kong University pollsters found that the share of young people identifying as Chinese fell to 3.1 percent this month, the lowest ever, according to a phone survey of 1,000 people. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
Deepening divisions pose a risk of further instability, David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told The Associated Press.
Beijing “can’t figure out why 20 years after the transition, people in Hong Kong don’t love the mainland more,” Mr. Zweig told the news agency, adding that Hong Kongers don’t have a problem identifying as Chinese until their freedoms are restricted. Or, as many residents put it, they don’t want their home to become just another Chinese city.
“People like living in a free society,” he said, “and they want their kids to live in a free society.”
The tensions could come to a head with the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping for the Saturday celebration, coinciding with the inauguration of Beijing-backed Carrie Lam as the territory’s next leader and the release of China’s most famous dissident, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, after a diagnosis of cancer. Sit-in protests have already been staged, and a pro-independence group plans its annual pro-democracy march on Saturday, an event that has drawn big crowds in the past.
The Hong Kong consulting firm Steve Vickers & Associates is warning that authorities will take no chances amid a maximum state of alert throughout Mr. Xi’s visit.
“There is little doubt that demonstrations will be smothered by an overwhelming police presence. Consequently, smaller ‘hit-and-run’ demonstrations, orchestrated through social media are likely,” the firm said in a note. “These may in turn result in an overreaction by government if not carefully handled.”
A city-state once famous for its vibrancy and embrace of the new has become a place where many young Hong Kongers feel unwelcome. The young and educated with a dislike for Beijing’s authoritarian values are migrating and finding homes in the United States, Australia, Canada and Europe.
“People are not celebrating but worrying about Hong Kong’s future and its current situation,” Nathan Law, a leader of the Umbrella Movement demonstrations in 2014 and, at 23, the city’s youngest-ever lawmaker.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.