Big bash to mark 20 years since HK's return to China

A tram in Hong Kong adorned with artwork commemorating the 20th anniversary of the city's handover to China by Britain. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the city for the July 1 anniversary, his first trip there since coming to power
A tram in Hong Kong adorned with artwork commemorating the 20th anniversary of the city's handover to China by Britain. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the city for the July 1 anniversary, his first trip there since coming to power in 2012.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Grand festivities planned despite deep divide between pro-democracy, pro-Beijing camps

HONG KONG • A multimillion-dollar programme of events in Hong Kong will mark 20 years since the city was handed back to China by colonial ruler Britain, but critics say the show is out of step with political tensions.

The large-scale celebrations come despite increased concerns over Beijing meddling in the semi-autonomous city and deep political divisions between Hong Kong's pro-democracy and pro-China camps.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the city for the July 1 anniversary, with security exercises under way in preparation. It will be his first trip to Hong Kong since coming to power in 2012.

Hundreds of events, from art exhibitions to sports tournaments, will take place between now and the end of the year as part of the festivities, with the government proposing to spend HK$640 million (S$114.6 million).

Coloured lights and rainbow posters already adorn local neighbourhoods under the slogan "Together, Progress, Opportunity".

An official video of Cantopop stars performing a new song - Hong Kong, Our Home - is frequently broadcast on television networks.

The city's unpopular outgoing leader, Mr Leung Chun Ying, said the celebrations reflected the city's "vision of tomorrow" and aimed to engage all residents.

A 51-year-old resident, who gave his name only as Michael, said: "The handover, to me, is historically significant and worth commemorating because Hong Kong was originally a part of China."

Retiree Ah Yu, 76, agreed.

"The (anniversary) is important for Hong Kong because we are all Chinese," he said.

But others were sceptical.

"Are we celebrating the fact that we do not have freedom and have no democracy?" 67-year-old Ales Li asked.

"Why don't they use all these resources to mend divisions?"

The agreement made between Britain and China in 1997 was designed to secure Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status, protecting its freedoms and way of life for 50 years.

But Beijing stands accused of undermining the deal, triggering protests and a fledgling independence movement.

Some young residents said they felt the celebrations were simply a stunt.

"They are not really helpful to anyone," said university student Miranda Yeung, 20.

"They are a great publicity campaign and look very exciting to a tourist, but they do not really mean that much."

Others said the amount of money being spent was a waste in a city with a yawning wealth gap.

When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the central government had promised Hong Kongers a high degree of autonomy for the city, which would be governed under a "one country, two systems" framework. Beijing had also pledged to let Hong Kongers vote for their own leader.

Frustration over a lack of political reform boiled over and resulted in street protests in late 2014 and the emergence of groups demanding self-determination for Hong Kong or even a split from China.

That has sparked a backlash from Beijing, with Chinese authorities intervening to effectively bar two democratically elected pro-independence lawmakers from taking up their parliamentary seats in Hong Kong last year. The pair are now facing criminal charges over their behaviour in Parliament.

There are also concerns that Beijing is interfering in other areas, from the media to education.

Hong Kong's new pro-China leader, Mrs Carrie Lam, will also be sworn in on July 1. She has vowed to heal divisions but critics say the extensive handover festivities are unlikely to help.

As part of the celebrations, works of art from the Louvre and Egyptian mummies from the British Museum will be on show. There will also be an exhibition by Beijing's Palace Museum.

Other events include a jianzi tournament - a game where participants kick a shuttlecock about - and a performance by renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

But political analyst Willy Lam said the festivities were a display for Beijing.

"I expect there will be ugly scenes," he said.

"The police will be under heavy pressure to ensure that Xi Jinping will be out of earshot."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Big bash to mark 20 years since HK's return to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe