A Borrowed Time Over the past six months, demonstrations in Hong Kong have increasingly become more violent and more determined. What started out as a protest against a proposed extradition law has now become a call for China to recognize Hong Kong's semi-autonomy. But what is at the root of this tumultuous relationship between Hong Kong and China? This week, how Hong Kong became one of the most important, and most contested, cities in the world.
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A Borrowed Time

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A Borrowed Time

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hong Kong is a Chinese name and means island of fragrant waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE TSANG: Hong Kong was really at the edge of Qing Empire. It was a barren island with hardly a house upon it. It was a collection of a number of fishing villages, a little bit of farming and also a place that pirates often used as a base for operations. It really wasn't a particularly valuable piece of real estate that concerned the government in Beijing all that much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in Hong Kong Sunday. They were protesting a bill that would allow suspected criminals in the city to be sent to mainland China for trial.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Mass demonstrations and unrest show no sign of abating more than two months after they were sparked by a controversial extradition bill.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: For the second Sunday in a row, enormous crowds are marching through central Hong Kong.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...In some cases, violently.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It is being called one of the worst days of clashes here in months.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: A teenage boy was shot.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: He's still in hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: The new government that shall soon replace you will avenge for every single atrocity you have committed against us. This means war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

ARABLOUEI: Hey, I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode - Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: If you've been following the news in Hong Kong, you know that Asia's financial capital has had a really intense six months with massive protests breaking out. The organizers claim they've brought millions of Hong Kongers to the streets.

ARABLOUEI: The protests are still going and are some of the most violent in Hong Kong's modern history. In response, the police are using tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and a young protester was even shot by a police officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ARABLOUEI: All of this erupted over an extradition bill that was proposed earlier this year by the Hong Kong legislators. The bill would essentially allow Hong Kong to send people to the Chinese mainland to be tried for certain crimes, a major erosion of the unique autonomy Hong Kong has had for more than 20 years.

ABDELFATAH: This pushed a lot of people to the edge because they see this as the newest and perhaps boldest instance of China stepping on Hong Kong's toes. And it's complicated because Hong Kong is what's called semi-autonomous, meaning it has some degree of freedom and self-governance and isn't under China's complete rule.

ARABLOUEI: The state of Hong Kong's current and future autonomy is at the heart of these ongoing tensions with China, tensions that have been building for decades. So how did we get here? How did these tensions begin and what, after nearly two centuries, are Hong Kongers fighting for and against?

ABDELFATAH: In this episode, we'll look at the shared history between Hong Kong and China and one agreement that was supposed to seal the future for the global city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: We begin with a war on drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: It was the 18th century, and China was raking in profits from trading things around the world. Western powers like Great Britain weren't doing so well. So Britain decided that in order to compete with China, they needed to trade the Chinese something that would fly off the shelves.

VICTORIA TIN-BOR HUI: They got the idea of selling opium to China, and that then completely turned the trade balance in the opposite direction.

ABDELFATAH: Great for Britain, but it came at a cost for China.

V HUI: And there were efforts in China because opium is something that's addictive, and it got many people sick. And the courts decided that they had to do something about it.

ABDELFATAH: This is Victoria Tin-bor Hui. She's a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

V HUI: I'm from Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong. I did my undergrad in Hong Kong. So then I've been talking a lot about Hong Kong lately.

ARABLOUEI: Back to the trade war. The opium that was coming into China was a problem because it was hurting their society and economic progress. So they retaliated by confiscating over 1,000 tons of opium. Britain was outraged and demanded that China pay for those drugs. And the ruling power at this time, the Qing Empire, refused.

V HUI: And then that triggered the first Opium War.

ARABLOUEI: And Britain invaded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: China was the most powerful empire in East Asia, but its military was still no match for Great Britain. So after three years of fighting, China asked for a truce.

TSANG: That was concluded by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842.

ARABLOUEI: This is Steve Tsang.

TSANG: Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the SOAS China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London.

ARABLOUEI: One of Britain's demands in this peace treaty was for China to hand over one of its territories - the small, little-known, undeveloped island called Hong Kong.

TSANG: It was a collection of a number of fishing villages, a little bit of farming and also a place that pirates often used as a base for operations.

V HUI: The population was very small, maybe just several thousand people.

ABDELFATAH: Because of this, the Qing Empire didn't consider the island all that important. But the U.K. saw the benefits. Hong Kong Island had a natural harbor, which offered the western power a strong eastern trade base.

V HUI: And also as kind of this gateway to the rest of Asia as well.

ABDELFATAH: The Qing Empire wasn't thrilled about handing anything over to Britain, but they figured if it had to be something, it might as well be Hong Kong.

V HUI: The Brits wanted to have - just a whole pile of barren rocks. So whatever.

ABDELFATAH: This pile of barren rocks was given to Britain in 1842, which was the first of three handoffs that slowly but surely gave the British all the tiny islands and surrounding territories that we know today as Hong Kong.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The geography of the Hong Kong colony consists, basically, of three areas - Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula...

ABDELFATAH: Stage two happened in 1860, after the Second Opium War, when Britain gained the Kowloon Peninsula.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And the New Territories.

TSANG: And then the third stage of expansions was the leasing of the New Territories in 1898 for 99 years.

ARABLOUEI: This 99-year lease gave Britain all the remaining territories of Hong Kong, but with it came an expiration date - 1997. This marked the beginning of what China called a century of humiliation...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: ...While Hong Kong, now entirely under British rule, began its modern makeover.

TSANG: You started to see Hong Kong being transformed from a collection of fishing villages and a few farmhouses and the occasional pirates using Hong Kong as a base into a thriving town, and it developed into a city.

ARABLOUEI: A city that was sounding pretty good to folks in neighboring Chinese provinces, who started moving in.

TSANG: Simply because it provided opportunity, it provided safety because British law prevailed, and British law was far more open, fair and just than how law was applied in China at the time.

ABDELFATAH: From the beginning, Hong Kong was a refuge from turmoil in mainland China.

V HUI: People were just, essentially, refugees coming from China into Hong Kong. And my parents, themselves, they left China, too, and walked into Hong Kong.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, they just crossed the border?

V HUI: Yeah, they crossed the border because at the time, the borders were really - were not very well patrolled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Many Chinese families have escaped in these fishing junks to Hong Kong. To raise the $45 passage money, they sold their lifelong possessions in China.

V HUI: Hong Kong was, for quite a long time, a borrowed place at a borrowed time.

ARABLOUEI: A borrowed place at a borrowed time - this was a saying in colonial Hong Kong that referred to the economically open society established under British control. People came from mainland China for refuge, but they also came to make money. All types of people - rich elites from Shanghai, working-class people, rural farmers. Even if they knew it wouldn't last, they wanted to get in on this independent economy. But they still saw themselves as Chinese.

V HUI: A lot of those people who fled China, they still continued to see themselves as Chinese. So there wasn't a separate sense of identity among Hong Kong people.

ABDELFATAH: At least not yet. When we come back, Chinese people in Hong Kong start to become Hong Kongers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: All right. So by the 1930s, there were nearly a million people living in Hong Kong. It was no longer the barren, rocky island filled with fishermen and pirates. Migrants continued crossing the border to get in on a flourishing economy. Then in 1937, Japan invaded China, and thousands more refugees arrived.

ARABLOUEI: Hong Kong was only a safe place for a few short years because, in 1941, just hours after Pearl Harbor, Japan also attacked Hong Kong. Britain tried to defend their colony, but they lost.

TSANG: And Hong Kong was put under Japanese military control, which was very, very brutal. But the really important point here is that, for the first time since the 19th century, the idea of the invincibility of the white man and, in particular, the invincibility of the British Empire was not only challenged but indeed broken.

ABDELFATAH: The Japanese takeover during World War II challenged assumptions of white supremacy for the Chinese, which is important because even though Hong Kong offered certain freedoms and opportunities, Chinese folks were still treated as second-class citizens by the British. But when the war finally ended...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The last of the major Japanese surrenders were signed in Hong Kong on September the 16. Hong Kong was formerly surrendered. The colony was British again.

TSANG: The idea that the European colonial empires could simply restore the status quo was not really very realistic.

ABDELFATAH: And this time Britain realized that the Chinese were no longer going to tolerate second-class status. So when the British governor returned to power...

TSANG: He had to make changes to post-war Hong Kong. And he started to look at political reform.

ARABLOUEI: For the first time, the Chinese population had a voice.

TSANG: And therefore a reason to feel that they are citizens of British Hong Kong and a commitment to the future of maintaining Hong Kong as a British colony.

ARABLOUEI: Gaining respect from Hong Kongers was crucial for Britain because China was suddenly making eyes at Hong Kong again and wanted it back.

TSANG: In the course of the Second World War, the leader of China, Chiang Kai-shek, asked for the first time for the British to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. So the British knew that.

ARABLOUEI: And so as Hong Kong started to look a bit more democratic, China started to look a lot more communist - Maoist to be exact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: On October 1, 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaims the birth of the People's Republic of China in the new communist capital of Beijing. Our country will never again be an insulted nation, says Mao. We have stood up.

ARABLOUEI: When Chairman Mao and the Communist Party took over China in 1949, both sides immediately closed their borders, and the long trend of open migration between China and Hong Kong came to a screeching halt.

TSANG: So for the first time after 1949, Hong Kong had a settled population. And this settled population will change, and they developed a very strong, clear sense of identity as Hong Kong people by the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: A natural cozy haven for junks and liners alike. But the approach to Kai Tak Airport is as spectacular as a hop across the Andes.

TSANG: And by the beginning of the 1970s, Hong Kong became a significant financial center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: The runway juts 8,000 feet into the water, and every day Boeings bring in businessmen, engineers and economists keen to observe and join in the expansion of Asia's fastest-growing economy.

TSANG: And Hong Kong became much richer practically by the year in the 1970s. And people also started to be able to afford luxuries, light entertainment and leisure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUI MA SHUANG XING")

SAM HUI: (Singing in foreign language).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Between 1961 and 1981, Hong Kong achieved some of the highest sustained rates of economic growth in the world. And it looked it, with skyscrapers and resorts lining the once jagged harbor. Hong Kong had become the goose that laid golden eggs. But at the peak of its prosperity, the future of that fortune was reentering murky waters. The 99-year lease was inching closer towards its expiration date.

V HUI: So by that time, Hong Kong really was a crown jewel in - essentially for the British. So there were these looming uncertainties.

ARABLOUEI: In order to hold onto a piece of the pie, Britain needed a game plan. When we come back, negotiations and an agreement that don't turn out as planned.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Will you now please take the three required oaths?

MURRAY MACLEHOSE: (Foreign language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: This is Sir Murray Maclehose being sworn in as Hong Kong's 25th governor in 1971.

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MACLEHOSE: I, Crawford Murray Maclehose, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law, so help me God.

ABDELFATAH: Murray Maclehose was Hong Kong's longest-serving governor. In over 10 years of his tenure, you could say he was well-liked.

TSANG: And he was able to build up a very strong relationship with the people. He was jokingly called by many people in Hong Kong as the Big Mac because he was also physically a very big Scotsman.

ABDELFATAH: Big Mac was over 6 feet tall, and photos show him towering over the room like a friendly giant. And Big Mac had a whole slew of nicknames, including Jock the Sock and Murray in a Hurry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACLEHOSE: Yes. Yes, I was in a hurry (laughter).

ARABLOUEI: And he was a character, a character who wanted to be seen as a man of the people. Maclehose ditched the governor's uniform for short-sleeved, open-neck shirts. He passed on a governor's limo and chose to walk - literally walk - to meetings instead.

TSANG: He was the man to establish the credibility of the colonial government as a government that would listen to people in Hong Kong and would look after people's interests in Hong Kong. So he was a bit of a progressive in his own mind.

ARABLOUEI: By the end of the 1970s, Maclehose was thinking ahead. While it was possible to wait until the very last minute, Britain chose to initiate talks in advance.

TSANG: But there was an enormous gamble.

ARABLOUEI: There were nearly 5 million people living in Hong Kong whose future was at stake.

TSANG: And the idea that you simply put the future of so many British nationals - even though they're not U.K. citizens - on a bit of a gamble would have been irresponsible.

ARABLOUEI: So they started negotiations.

TSANG: At first, the Chinese government was not particularly keen to engage in negotiations. But it didn't take very long for them to realize that it would be in their interest to negotiate.

ABDELFATAH: In 1979, Murray in a Hurry went to Beijing to meet with the leader of the People's Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACLEHOSE: I was very excited. He is a very great man. And to meet him was a great excitement to me.

ABDELFATAH: The visit was, really, to test the waters and find out what China's intentions were with this looming 1997 expiration date. And one of the main concerns was real estate. Business leaders and developers began to worry about what would happen to their property leases if and when Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese sovereignty. Maclehose was worried this would sink property values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACLEHOSE: And this would be very bad for Hong Kong and incidentally for China because so much capital in Hong Kong was wrapped up in property.

ABDELFATAH: So in that meeting, he proposed that the British be able to continue to issue new property leases as a temporary solution to maintain confidence in the economy. But something got lost in translation.

TSANG: The Chinese government misunderstood what he said, to which Deng Xiaoping's response was quite simply that we will never negotiate about the lease.

ARABLOUEI: Deng Xiaoping thought that Maclehose was suggesting that they extend the 99-year lease, and slightly offended, he clapped back with a vow that China would fully recover Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: It's long been understood that it was Sir Murray who sprung the Hong Kong question on the Chinese leader, forcing Deng, many say, to reject anything that suggested a loss of Chinese sovereignty over the territory.

TSANG: So when Maclehose returned to Hong Kong, when he walked down the plane and was met by the chief secretary of Hong Kong, Sir Jack Cater, the first thing Maclehose told Jack Cater was that - disaster, disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: The meeting was a failure. For the next couple of years, China worked on policy proposals while London prepared for the formal talks. And that responsibility fell not on Maclehose, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER: The Iron Lady of the Western World.

ARABLOUEI: ...Britain's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

V HUI: Margaret Thatcher was apparently thinking that, well, you know, Hong Kong island, the Kowloon Peninsula was ceded to us for perpetuity. So maybe we can return only the New Territories. Maybe we could convince Beijing that, while we return sovereignty to them, but we continue to maintain administration in Hong Kong.

TSANG: Thatcher wanted the Chinese government to agree to the British being able to continue to govern Hong Kong, even though it would technically become Chinese sovereign territory. So there was a kind of formula for using sovereignty to exchange for governing rights.

ABDELFATAH: In 1982, Margaret Thatcher went to Beijing to meet with Deng Xiaoping. And all of Hong Kong was watching, hoping that somehow, some way their future would be safely secured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THATCHER: When I was talking to him and said we had done so well for the people of Hong Kong that could we keep the sovereignty of Hong Kong Island and the administration?

ABDELFATAH: She took a tough stand, as per usual, and told Deng Xiaoping that Hong Kong's economic prosperity was dependent on Britain's continued governance. His response?

TSANG: Over my dead body. So the beginning of negotiation was not easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V HUI: And there was this very famous scene of her just slipping as she walked out of the Great Hall of the People.

ABDELFATAH: Leaving the meeting, she fell down the steps of the building. A rush of men in suits lifted her off the ground as she brushed herself off.

V HUI: And Hong Kong people just basically - our hearts sank. We watched this on TV news - uh-oh, this is not going well.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, like it was an omen?

V HUI: Yeah, like an omen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V HUI: During the various rounds of negotiations, after each round, there were - it was always a standard answer. Wow, this round of talks has been useful and constructive. People didn't know what was going on, and everyone was watching very nervously.

ARABLOUEI: What were they worried about?

V HUI: They worry that Beijing was just going to take back Hong Kong. When you have all these uncertainties, then people don't know what to do

ABDELFATAH: Because there was nothing they could do. Throughout two years of talks, Hong Kongers never had an official seat at the negotiating table.

V HUI: So they were negotiating over Hong Kong people's future but without any participation of Hong Kong people. People were expecting the worst. People were saying - were expecting that, you know, China's going to take back Hong Kong, and Hong Kong will become just like another Chinese city.

ABDELFATAH: China successfully strong-armed Margaret Thatcher and got her to drop the idea of a continued British administration in Hong Kong.

TSANG: The idea that they would allow Hong Kongers to stay on beyond 1997 was simply something that the Communist Party and Deng Xiaoping would not contemplate, and they had the capacities to insist on that.

ABDELFATAH: And in 1984, an agreement was reached.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THATCHER: The joint declaration on the future of Hong Kong, which we have just signed on behalf of our two governments is a landmark in the life of the territory.

ABDELFATAH: Blinded by flashing cameras and surrounded by their respective entourages, Thatcher and the premier of China sat side by side to sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

V HUI: I remember that I was in secondary school for the signing ceremony. The entire school just stopped all the classes. We were all shuffled to different classrooms with these tiny TVs, and we were all watching it.

TSANG: People in Hong Kong - here, we're talking about the general public - were not consulted until the agreement was reached and then the agreement was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: But do you think Britain would have negotiated much harder to fight protections for Hong Kong?

THATCHER: We could not have negotiated any harder than we did.

TSANG: It was basically a take-it-or-leave-it kind of a deal that people were being offered. And of course, people in Hong Kong took it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: Britain acknowledges that when the lease runs out in 1997 on most of the territory, the whole of Hong Kong will revert to China.

ARABLOUEI: The Chinese government outlined what they called a one country, two system model. This meant that Hong Kong would be returned to China in 1997, but it could continue to operate in the exact same way it had over the past 100 years. It would enjoy the same freedoms...

V HUI: And the rights to free speech, free press...

ARABLOUEI: And to a free market economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THATCHER: These are fundamental freedoms, and they must continue.

ARABLOUEI: Hong Kong would come under China's control, and China agreed to let the region maintain some political and social autonomy. The policy was set for a 50-year period, starting in 1997 and going to 2047. After the agreement was signed, China went out of its way to reassure the people of Hong Kong.

V HUI: Don't worry. Everything is going to be the same. Whatever you guys like about Hong Kong, whatever you value about Hong Kong - the rule of law, your freedoms to do all those things, you make money to do anything you like - everything is going to stay the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Hong Kong tried to stay calm. They had no choice but to believe Beijing's promise to honor this special status, which meant Hong Kongers needed to figure out what they wanted Hong Kong to look like.

V HUI: And so in that era, these young professionals were thinking, oh, we can rule Hong Kong. So let's really talk about how we can rule Hong Kong. So Hong Kong's democracy movement was really born in the mid-1980s. People were very optimistic. Let's really map our future. Let's write our future. Let's - let us press the Hong Kong government to actually begin democratic reforms so that we can be prepared to rule ourselves after 1997.

ABDELFATAH: A democratic spirit also got into the minds of some mainlanders. In just a few years after the ink dried on the Sino-British Joint Declaration...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: Thousands of demonstrators blocked the streets with their bodies.

ABDELFATAH: ...The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests erupted.

ARABLOUEI: For a month straight, students gathered in Beijing and called for basic democratic reforms.

TSANG: That was the first time that something like that was being allowed to take place.

ARABLOUEI: And the people in Hong Kong saw this as a sign of hope. They thought...

TSANG: If the Beijing protests could result in political reforms in China, a move towards democratization, a change away from communist authoritarianism, then Hong Kong will have a much better future.

V HUI: Hong Kong people were all applauding this one prominent slogan - today's Tiananmen, tomorrow's Hong Kong. The hope was that if China itself becomes democratic, then Hong Kong's reunification with China would have been no problem.

ARABLOUEI: Hong Kong provided resources and helped the movement grow. At its height, about 1 million people took over the square.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVIST: It's very important to let the people in the world to know the situation in China. Deng Xiaoping is very stubborn. He should go down, you know, immediately. That's very important.

ARABLOUEI: But on June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping ordered a crackdown. And by morning...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: Scattered protests continue to sputter, and there are new reports of skirmishes and violence in the wake of this weekend's massive military assault aimed at smashing China's pro-democracy demonstrations.

ARABLOUEI: 300,000 troops rolled in with tanks and opened fire on the crowd...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #15: They just killed another one in the square.

ARABLOUEI: ...Killing demonstrators and bystanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #16: The students are gone. The air reeks with the smell of gunpowder. A gray pall of smoke hangs over the square.

TSANG: People in Hong Kong were absolutely shattered. They were emotionally destroyed.

ARABLOUEI: Hundreds, if not thousands, were murdered point blank by their own government - a government that was about to re-inherit Hong Kong.

V HUI: So the idea of, you know, today's Tiananmen, tomorrow's China - it's meaning was completely turned upside down. If today they could fire at protesters and kill these protesters in Beijing and in different cities in China, what would they do to us after 1997?

ABDELFATAH: People were terrified. Those who could afford it made plans to leave Hong Kong and started seeking foreign passports. Those who stayed mourned.

TSANG: Something like over half a million people just pour out into the streets out of a total population of 6 million. They march in silence to mourn what happened in Beijing.

ABDELFATAH: The demonstrations sent a strong message to Beijing. Tiananmen Square revealed Hong Kong's subversive base. Hong Kong was now a threat.

V HUI: So that completely strained Hong Kong-Beijing relations from then on.

ABDELFATAH: Pressures continued to mount, right up to the official handover of Hong Kong, which the Chinese sometimes call the return.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: In the late evening of June 30th, 1997, the ceremonies began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V HUI: I still remember that evening of the handover, when the British were rolling down - pulling down the flag, and then the Chinese flag was getting hoisted, and then the last governor was leaving. And it was pouring. And I was in the streets, and then all the people around me were saying, oh, even God is crying for Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V HUI: And then I went home, and I watched CNN at midnight, and the screen changed from just Hong Kong to Hong Kong, comma, China.

ARABLOUEI: And on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was officially handed back over to China.

V HUI: It was a very, very strange feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: There were some small protests, but mainly it was quiet. People in Hong Kong knew they had to accept their fate; they had no other choice. Some Hong Kongers were genuinely going to miss the British, who - let's not forget - were the colonizers.

TSANG: You had parents taking their children to the Hong Kong government offices and other places to have pictures taken with those colonial symbols before they were taken down.

ARABLOUEI: But not everyone felt that way. There were some Hong Kong people that saw the handover in a positive light.

TSANG: You also at the same time have many in Hong Kong who feel that it's good for the colonial era to end. We are proud Chinese again. We may be a very special kind of Chinese, but we are Chinese nonetheless. And the following day, the sun came out. It was all right again.

ABDELFATAH: China could have made Hong Kong's worst fears come true immediately. It could have gone back on its word and violated the agreement, imposed its own rules, squashed the free market and democratic aspirations. But that didn't happen - not right away.

V HUI: So in Hong Kong there's also this saying of how you can kill a frog in lukewarm water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V HUI: They saw that Hong Kong's prosperity, Hong Kong's special status, was a value to China's economic development. And in the past several decades, Hong Kong has served that role very well.

ABDELFATAH: Deng Xiaoping was playing the long game.

V HUI: So Deng Xiaoping was a very smart person. He realized that it was much better to keep Hong Kong the way it was and to offer all these reassurances so that Hong Kong could then really serve his agenda to build up China's economy.

ABDELFATAH: But Beijing started appointing Chinese loyalists to various positions, slowly eroding Hong Kong's government.

TSANG: People in Hong Kong interpret one country, two systems as a guarantee that their way of life and their system would be protected for at least 50 years. The Chinese government's interpretation of it will be that sometime between 1997 and 2047 changes will happen in Hong Kong so that by 2047 Hong Kong will be fully, properly Chinese again.

V HUI: For many mainlanders, the return of Hong Kong marks the end of China's century of humiliation. Hong Kong for them is China's. And Hong Kong should be returned to China. Hong Kong is a part of China. And if Hong Kong people don't like Beijing, well, you guys - there's something wrong with you guys. So most of the mainland Chinese, they really support Beijing's position on Hong Kong.

ARABLOUEI: The thing is, in the years after the handover, more and more mainland Chinese people came to work in Hong Kong. And the more that happened, the more Hong Kongers were like, wow, we are truly not the same; we've spent over a century living under different governments, different economies and different cultures.

TSANG: And they more wanted (ph) to assert their own identity even more.

ARABLOUEI: Which frustrated China to know end.

TSANG: And you also have the Chinese government and people in China increasingly feeling that all these Hong Kong people are kind of almost like spoiled children - always asking for more. They already get more than anybody else in China's court, and they keep on asking for more and more of their rights being protected.

ARABLOUEI: Still, China's infringement was relatively slow going.

V HUI: Until 2003.

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ABDELFATAH: Six years after the handover, the government of Hong Kong introduced an amendment to Article 23, commonly known as the National Security Bill. It was essentially an anti-subversion law that many Hong Kongers saw as a threat to their civil liberties.

TSANG: For the first time after 1989, again you had half a million people marching in the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the Article 23 legislation.

ABDELFATAH: It was the largest protest in Hong Kong since the Tiananmen massacre. And it worked. China shelved the bill indefinitely, but then regrouped and came back even harder.

TSANG: Around 2012, a demand from Chinese governments that Hong Kong should change its educational curriculums and make Hong Kong's education curriculum patriotic. And then to have the high school students in Hong Kong coming out and say, but this brainwashing us. We don't want brainwashing; we want a proper, free, liberal education.

ABDELFATAH: This is the environment Xi Jinping walked into when he became the leader of China in 2013. And a year later...

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BRIAN WILLIAMS: In the streets, a sea of umbrellas - the symbol of a mass demonstration underway in Hong Kong.

ABDELFATAH: Students and Young People formed the Umbrella Movement, a series of sit-in protests that opposed Beijing's decision to have more say and control over Hong Kong's electoral system.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #17: Hundreds of thousands packed the streets of downtown Hong Kong, as police fired as many as 87 cans of tear gas - determined demonstrators shielding themselves with umbrellas and spawning the so-called Umbrella Revolution.

TSANG: And in the last three or four years, you even have some of them beginning to talk about, maybe we needed to look at self-determination because Hong Kong, as a Chinese colony, will never be allowed to have democracy.

ARABLOUEI: And those words of self-determination and independence caught the ears of Beijing.

TSANG: Red light flash all across Beijing and the Chinese government - and they come up with an even harder approach, and that is the background to the events that erupted in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019.

ARABLOUEI: Which brings us back to the beginning of this episode and to the current protests that are still going strong and only escalating.

V HUI: Beijing has violated these promises and has been trying to really encroach into Hong Kong, controlling Hong Kong more and more, eroding its autonomy. So all of those have then really got Hong Kong's young people to feel that they have no future. That has really triggered this resistance from young people. And at the same time, we also want to understand that this trend has been increasing over time, and it didn't just fall from the sky.

TSANG: Now you are talking about a younger generation of people in Hong Kong who feel that they must now stand up and fight for the core values of Hong Kong. The kind of language they're using is that, if we don't fight, we may not have a chance to fight for Hong Kong's core value any longer. So we will now make our last stand. We may all fall. But if we have to fall, at least we fall having defended our values.

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ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...

ARABLOUEI: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

ABDELFATAH: Jamie York.

ARABLOUEI: Lu Olkowski.

ABDELFATAH: Jordana Hochman.

ARABLOUEI: And N’Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann and Jason Fuller.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, and Halloween is almost here, and we want to know - are you zombie obsessed? If so, tell us. Leave us a voicemail at 872-588-8805 saying why you love zombies so much. And feel free to add your favorite zombie movie or anything zombie related. Again, that number is 872-588-8805.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.

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