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Hong Kong protests

Fear of 'Chinafication' spurs Hong Kong's youth to protest

Beijing's long shadow chips away at the city's identity

Protesters try to break into the Legislative Council building on July 1, the 22th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Turmoil in Hong Kong grew with protesters storming the legislative building on Monday, as fears that the mainland could swallow the city economically, politically and culturally boil over.

In the early hours of Tuesday, riot police moved into the legislature and cleared out the demonstrators, after using tear gas to open their way through. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, in a pre-dawn news conference, acknowledged that some protesters had been out for an orderly march, but criticized those who vandalized the government building. "This is something we should seriously condemn," she said.

Once hailed as one of Asia's four "little dragons" along with Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, Hong Kong's importance in the global economy has been eclipsed by China's rise. Hong Kong's younger generations in particular worry about what this means for the city's future.

"The government is not responding to demonstrators' demands," a 21-year-old college student said at Monday's protest, which coincided with the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.

"Democratic elections will be vital in the long term because the public's voice is not being reflected in government policy," the student said.

"The political situation is getting worse and worse," said a 40-something nurse. "Unless the government addresses our concerns, our society will only grow more divided and unstable."

Two million Hong Kongers took to the streets last month to protest a controversial bill to allow extraditions to mainland China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city's top-ranking official, later said she will "accept the reality" that the bill will expire in July.

But protesters want her to withdraw the bill entirely instead of just shelving it. Meanwhile, 165,000 China supporters held their own rally on Sunday, highlighting rifts within the city.

Much of the tension traces back to anxieties about Hong Kong's position in relation to the mainland. The Hong Kong economy was equal to 2.7% of the mainland's in 2018, a fraction of its peak of 24%. Beijing, Shanghai and neighboring Shenzhen have all overtaken Hong Kong in gross domestic product.

The city, once the world's leader in container throughput, has dropped to seventh place behind several mainland cities, and mainland-based companies now account for nearly 70% of the market capitalization of all companies listed on the Hong Kong bourse.

China's rise has affected day-to-day life as well. Fifty-one million mainland tourists visit Hong Kong a year, greatly outnumbering its 7.4 million residents. Another 100 mainlanders permanently move to the city every day, and over 1 million have settled in Hong Kong since the handover.

More stores have begun accepting payments in yuan in addition to Hong Kong dollars, while Chinese investment is pushing up property prices and making it difficult for ordinary Hong Kongers to buy homes. Standard Mandarin, the mainland's official language, is being taught more widely in the traditionally Cantonese-speaking city.

Beijing is eager to increase its economic control over Hong Kong, such as through greater cooperation between the city, Macao and Guangdong Province. But such efforts have only inflamed the Hong Kong public. A record 76% of respondents to the latest poll by the University of Hong Kong identified themselves primarily as Hong Kongers.

"Backed by the motherland and open to the world, Hong Kong has continued to leverage its unique advantages under 'One Country, Two Systems,'" Lam said at a Monday speech commemorating the handover. Many believe "two systems" has taken a back seat to "one country."

The mainland has tightened its political grip on Hong Kong after the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when protesters occupied the city's thoroughfare for weeks demanding democratic elections for the city's top leader. Their demands were ignored and several pro-democratic lawmakers were barred from serving in the Legislative Council.

"The recent protests are ultimately caused by a distrust in the chief executive, who is selected without the input of the public," said Kazuo Yukawa, a professor at Asia University in Tokyo. "They highlighted the limitations of 'One Country, Two Systems.'"

Demonstrators have begun calling for democratic elections again, in addition to a withdrawal of the extradition bill. Criticism against Chinese President Xi Jinping is also on the rise. But Beijing considers a challenge against its authority a red line. With the Group of 20 summit now over, it could crack down on the unrest in Hong Kong.

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