Beijing has now acted to impose a new security law on Hong Kong, turning its back on the “one country, two systems” agreement to which it had committed when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. Hong Kong will be subject to the same sort of draconian infringements on liberty as mainland China, following a year of street protests demanding just the opposite. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has considered offering a path for British citizenship to some 3.5 million Hong Kong residents, now at risk of confronting police rule under the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a generous offer, but while it may help individuals, it won’t save Hong Kong.
Those who spent time in Hong Kong before its “handover” to the Communist government can’t help but mourn the events unfolding there. Beijing’s imposition of mainland-style limits on free speech, along with the stationing of security forces, marks the end of an era that combined free markets and individual liberty in the nominally self-governing territory. Hong Kong’s churches, synagogues, museums, charities, and independent private schools will slowly disappear. The rule of law and its independent judiciary, fundamental to the city’s role as an international financial capital, look to be headed for demise.
Under British rule for 156 years, Hong Kong had limited democracy: its legislative council reserved seats for select business interests. After 1997, when Britain transferred its sovereignty back to China, Hong Kong became a locus of liberty—notably a free press. Hong Kong’s technocratic leaders—including, at that time, a number of British expats—dreaded the criticism that regularly appeared in the Apple Daily (whose publisher, Jimmy Lau, has now been arrested) and the South China Morning Post, the best source of reportage about the mainland.
Hong Kong’s post-colonial era shows that cities thrive in freedom, an idea that I was reminded of on a 1998 visit to Odessa, another once-great city strangled by Communism. Established as a no-tariff free port by Catherine the Great in 1794, “the Pearl of the Black Sea” thrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Just as Hong Kong offered an oasis of liberty for post-1949 refugees from China—and later, ethnic Chinese “boat people” from Vietnam—so, too, did Odessa grow from a tiny village to a cosmopolitan center of trade and finance. Over time, the city drew on the energies of immigrants: Albanians, Armenian, Azeris, and, to a great extent, Jews. Pushkin wrote that Odessa’s air was “filled with all Europe.” The French invested heavily, and their château buildings, often dilapidated, could still be seen during my time there. Great fortunes were also made, including by Vienna’s Ephrussi family—immortalized in Edmund de Wall’s memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes—who began as Black Sea grain exporters.
This flourishing period came to an end when liberty died. Pogroms ravaged the Odessa Jews, who made up almost 40 percent of the population. Then came the Communists. A worker’s strike was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark propaganda film, Battleship Potemkin (1925), which covered the massacre of strikers on what became known as the Potemkin steps. Agitprop was followed by famine, after Odessa became part of the Soviet Union. The Jews, always alert to the onset of oppression, decamped for America or Palestine. In 1940, the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, author of the Odessa Stories, was arrested by Soviet secret police and executed.
While in Odessa, I visited the remnants of the city’s Jewish community: a synagogue that the Soviets had converted into a gymnasium. The French champagne vineyards were starting to return in the early post-socialist days in the late 1990s but the grand Parisian-style residences and commercial buildings had decayed; many were converted to Soviet-era “sanatoria”—labor-union vacation spots. The Potemkin steps were drawing tourists, as was the statue of the French Duc de Richelieu, a key figure in the city’s history of growth and liberty.
In Odessa, one could survey the remains of a once-free city, where culture and commerce for a time bred tolerance. So it has been in Hong Kong, where one could find African and Indian immigrants running small stores in crowded Mong Kok,where the Christian Brothers ran a great school; where parents demanded that English be permitted as their children’s “medium of instruction”; and where letters to the editor filled a page in the South China Morning Post, just as they had in the late North China Morning Post of Shanghai, which died when the Communists came to power.
Without all that, without liberty, Hong Kong—and the world—will be poorer.
Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images