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Hong Kong activists see continual encroachment by Beijing against the "one country, two systems" formula meant to govern the former British colony.     © Reuters

Hong Kong protests fade as China integrates former UK colony

Beijing's political pressure and infrastructure push erode 'one country, two systems'

TAKESHI KIHARA and MICHELLE CHAN, Nikkei staff writers | Hong Kong, Macau

HONG KONG -- The "one country, two systems" formula under which Beijing promised to administer Hong Kong looks worse for wear as the former British colony marks the 21st anniversary of its return to Chinese rule on July 1.

Hong Kong's legislature voted in June to let immigration officials from mainland China operate at West Kowloon station, the terminus of a new high-speed, cross-border train line. Mainland laws also will apply in a designated part of the station.

The separation of law enforcement has represented the linchpin of the "one country, two systems" formula applied to Hong Kong since 1997.

"This is a bad precedent," said Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller who came to prominence in late 2015 when he vanished from Hong Kong only to surface months later in the custody of mainland authorities. "What if [mainland officials] set up more checkpoints in different districts in Hong Kong in the future? We will have nowhere to escape. Many people may be detained by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong."

Yet the new ordinance sparked no widespread public protest. In 2014, students and other citizens occupied major streets in the territory for 79 days as they called for democratization in connection with an election to choose Hong Kong's chief executive, the region's top official.

The student-led pro-democracy protests, dubbed the "Umbrella Movement," brought Hong Kong to a standstill. But the movement failed to achieve its goals, and the push toward integrating the island with mainland China has gathered momentum instead.

Symbolizing the shift toward integration is the Greater Bay Area development initiative linking Hong Kong, Macau and several nearby cities in Guangdong Province as a huge metropolitan area. Construction proceeds steadily on the high-speed rail line linking Hong Kong with Guangzhou, as well as a long bridge to span the waters between Hong Kong and Macau.

Lam Wing-kee's store, Causeway Bay Books, was forced to close amid his disappearance and that of four of his colleagues. He told the Nikkei Asian Review last year, after his return to Hong Kong, that he planned to reopen his store in Taipei. However, Lam told Nikkei recently that his prospective local partner pulled out of the venture under pressure.

New initiatives and infrastructure, like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge that is to open soon, are designed to hasten Hong Kong's integration with neighboring Chinese cities.    © Reuters

Distributing books about the politics of Tibet and Taiwan has grown difficult in Hong Kong. Bookstores controlled by Chinese government agencies dominate as foreign-owned and independent shops close.

But protests by Hong Kong citizens have been limited, as many locals apparently wish to distance themselves from politics. A survey last year by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that one in every three Hong Kongers intended to emigrate to foreign countries, given the political pessimism surrounding the city.

Political activists in Hong Kong have been imprisoned during the past year, with one protester involved in a 2016 clash sentenced to seven years in jail.

Demosisto, a political party established by student leaders of the Umbrella Movement, said in May that it will cease trying to win a majority through elections, instead becoming a political organization focusing on social movements. The declaration came as local authorities refuse to permit Demosisto candidates.

Political activists have received prison sentences in Hong Kong in recent months.    © Reuters

Agnes Chow Ting, a Demosisto executive, was blocked from running in a legislative by-election in March.

The Umbrella Movement's failure caused a dramatic change in Hong Kong society, Chow said, and many people feel the government is so strong that nothing can be changed. Demosisto will continue working to boost interest by young people through social networking sites, she said.

Global advocacy group Human Rights Watch demanded Wednesday that Hong Kong's government lift restrictions on the right to run for election, as well as investigate the extent of Beijing's interference with publishing freedom in the territory. The New York-based watchdog made the statement in a letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Companies also sense changes in Hong Kong, and an erosion of its reputation as a free economic city could drive businesses elsewhere.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong polled U.S. companies with bases in the territory, and said 53% replied that the "one country, two systems" formula and the "rule of law" are being undermined.

A survey by KPMG, an international accounting firm, also showed that 46% of companies with global operations have their Asian headquarters in Singapore, compared with 37% in Hong Kong. Information technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Microsoft also tend to choose Singapore as the location for their Asian headquarters.

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