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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Hong Kong's first Olympic gold since handover brings rare unity

But politics remain near surface, as some fans shout over Chinese anthem

Hong Kong fencer Edgar Cheung Ka-long holds the Olympic gold medal for the foil event, held July 26 in Chiba, Japan.   © AP

HONG KONG -- The first Olympic gold medal won by a Hong Kong athlete since the territory's handover to China in 1997 has stirred an unusual sense of unity in a society so divided over political issues in recent years.

Fencing champion Edgar Cheung Ka-long became the city's hero after his victory Monday night in the foil event. The Olympic gold medal earns him various economic bonuses including from the government, which looks to use the win to bring people together. But fundamental differences among the public run deep.

In a rare scene in Hong Kong, the city's major newspapers on Tuesday morning all carried the same story in the same tone -- praising Cheung's gold in the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Ming Pao, arguably the most pro-democratic daily newspaper after Apple Daily was compelled to shut down last month, said he "won the honor for Hong Kong." Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, both on the other end of the political spectrum, touted him as the "god of sword" and proclaimed that his performance brought jubilation to the whole city.

The pro-Beijing Sing Tao Daily was the only major paper that did not publish the gold medal story on its front page, but the paper carried a full-page advertisement by Bank of East Asia and its subsidiary Blue Cross Insurance, which congratulated Cheung. The insurance company has been one of the few sponsors of fencing in Hong Kong, and Cheung was its ambassador on an occasional basis.

All major Hong Kong newspapers carried the same story with the same tone on Tuesday morning, which is very rare in a politically divided city. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

The Hong Kong government and pro-Beijing camp did not miss the opportunity to take part in sharing the sense of unity with the people.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement spontaneously after the event, noting she was closely following the fencing match. With a photo of her clapping in a front of a TV screen along with a dozen staffers, Lam applauded Cheung for "making history" for the territory, which "makes all Hong Kong people proud."

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, one of the most outspoken pro-Beijing politicians, touted the win as "truly outstanding" on his Facebook account Monday night. He described the event as the first Olympic gold medal "after the passage of Hong Kong's national security law" and called on everyone to join in the celebration.

Cheung is to receive 5 million Hong Kong dollars ($643,500) from a government program financed by Henderson Land Development, one of the territory's top real estate firms. Lam Tai-fai, a Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, also pledged to splash out HK$2.5 million, possibly from his own fund. Pricerite, a local general grocery shop, said it would provide all household furniture for him, expecting that someone will supply the housing.

City train operator MTR, of which the government owns a majority, said on its Facebook account that Cheung is granted a "lifetime ticket" for the gold medal that he won, while all other Olympic athletes for team Hong Kong will be given a free ride for a year. Kowloon Motor Bus is providing a one-year pass to all members of the territory's Olympic team, in commemoration of Hong Kong's first gold medal since Lee Lai-shan won hers in sailing at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Many ordinary Hong Kongers shared the moment with peers in various public viewing venues on Monday night.

Big screens provided by malls gave people places to gather by the thousands to cheer for their compatriot competing against the best from around the world. Social distancing rules, strictly enforced for gatherings like the commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, were not enforced by police on Monday night.

Despite the shared celebration, stark political differences did not dissipate. Indeed, they surfaced on site.

Video footage taken at a mall in Kwun Tong in the Kowloon district showed people shouting, "We are Hong Kong," to drown out the Chinese national anthem aired during the medal ceremony. The Instagram account that carried this footage was seen over 170,000 times within a day.

Another Instagram video showing the award ceremony replaced the Chinese anthem with "Glory to Hong Kong," a song of protest that appeared during the 2019 anti-government movement. The government considers part of the lyrics to be "separatist and subversive" and hence illegal under the national security law. This video has been played around 160,000 times so far.

"Of course, Hong Kong people are happy for a local gold medalist, but at the same time, they also take advantage of the event to express their long-suppressed emotions -- a sense of disgust and hostility toward Beijing," said Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief at Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

He said an increasing number of people in Hong Kong are cheering for Chinese national teams to lose during this year's Olympics. "We haven't seen such a situation before," Chung said.

Chung said the recent political developments, especially the imposition of the national security law, have given rise to such extreme cases.

"There have been few chances in the past year that people can shout 'Hong Kong Ga Yau' without getting in trouble," he said.

The phrase -- a rough equivalent to "Let's go, Hong Kong" -- was widely used by demonstrators during the 2019 protests. Some pro-government individuals interpret it as a slogan supporting Hong Kong independence, a crime under the national security law.

The veteran pollster observes that "instead of accepting the national identity Beijing tries to impose on them, people in Hong Kong become even more disobedient. They need to vent [their emotions], and the Olympics provide a chance."

During previous Olympic Games, by contrast, Hong Kongers had no problem supporting the achievements of Chinese athletes, he said, and some even shared the national pride with their mainland counterparts.

For example, in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the percentage of Hong Kong residents identifying themselves as Chinese even exceeded those identifying as Hong Kongers, according to Chung's research. But now the national pride does not resonate with the Hong Kong people.

The percentage of people who identify themselves as Chinese has dropped to a record low. Only 2.4% of Hong Kong people ages 18-29 considered themselves as Chinese, in a survey conducted in June.

Additional reporting by Nikki Sun and Cora Zhu.

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