It was late at night and pouring with rain at the beginning of July in 1997.
Helen Sham-Ho emigrated from Hong Kong to Sydney in the 1960s, but she had returned to the city of her birth to witness an historic midnight ceremony — the moment Hong Kong was returned to China after more than a century of British rule.
“It was rainy, we couldn’t walk around in Hong Kong. I remember it very well that I was in the hotel watching the television of that significant moment at 12:00am,” she told the ABC.
“It was very significant in my mind, in my lifetime, it’s a part of my life story.”
Today marks 23 years since the handover under the One Country, Two Systems policy, in which China promised that “Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years”.
But China’s enactment yesterday of a sweeping national security law, following more than a year of dramatic pro-democracy protests, has left Hongkongers fearful that Beijing will tighten its grip on their freedoms.
Ms Sham-Ho, now a 76-year-old retired politician, was the first female Chinese-Australian parliamentarian in the New South Wales government from 1988 to 2003, and she recalls that moment in 1997 being one of great uncertainty.
“I was a member of parliament back then and China was emerging,” she said.
“[Although I came from the] colonial British culture and system, I was very interested in China.
“I knew, at the time, very little about China, so I was very suspicious about China. I think many Hong Kong people were very suspicious, because they don’t want their lives to change.”
‘Returning to the motherland’
Stan was a high school student in 1997, and later emigrated to Australia for higher education. For him at that time, July 1 was just another public holiday in Hong Kong.
“There was a lot of news saying that Hong Kong was returning to the motherland. The [local] government was celebrating, setting up events to celebrate this historic event,” the now 37-year-old, who asked not to disclose his surname, said.
“China was growing rapidly. There’s still some good news about China.”
But Stan said he noticed that many of his high school friends started moving overseas after 1997.
“For every class, you can see at least four or five people actually migrated to either the United States, Canada or Australia,” he said.
“It was sad because people were leaving. But now after 23 years, you can actually see why people [were] leaving.”
‘People feel that their rights are being taken away’
The automatous territory, by and large, has endured with its freedoms intact on the basis of the One Country, Two Systems policy until recent years.
In 2014, electoral reforms saw the city’s Admiralty district shut down in what was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution.
In March 2019, an extradition bill that would allow Beijing to summon alleged criminals to the mainland sparked protests from lawyers and activists.
“In the past two or three years, people feel that their rights are being taken away,” Stan said, citing interference from Beijing coupled with stagnated living standards and a choked-up economy.
“Hong Kong should maintain a system run by itself and it shouldn’t be governed by mainland [China’s] rule.”
But Ms Sham-Ho said she visited family and friends in Hong Kong frequently, and for her Hong Kong hasn’t changed since the handover.
“[There were] no significant changes that affect [people’s lives] like freedom of press, freedom of speech,” she said.
‘Ruined our creativity’
Jane Poon initially welcomed the handover as she thought Hong Kong would influence mainland China with its democratic values.
“We saw the [Chinese] army and the trucks moving slowly to the city under the rain,” she told the ABC.
But having worked in Hong Kong’s media industry for 30 years across showbusiness, newspapers and radio production, she said freedom of speech had been compromised, and that had taken a toll on the creative industry.
“Hong Kong’s entertainment business was at the top in Asia, but it’s not the same after 1997, especially in the recent 10 years, you can see the fall of our entertainment business,” she said.
“[There’s] a lot of censorship in all kinds of media industries, no matter in TV or press… when you read the articles or the news you can see the censorship.”
After returning to Australia in 2017 with her husband, Jane became an activist. She now runs the Victoria Hongkonger Association, lobbying the Australian Government to stand up for Hong Kong’s democracy.
Last year, almost 9,000 Hongkongers were arrested in pro-democracy protests.
“You can see the young people in Hong Kong [being] targeted by the Government and the Hong Kong police,” Ms Poon said.
“They are the next generation. They are the future.
“If our young people are beaten or targeted that way, what kind of future do we have in Hong Kong?”
New national security legislation sparks fears
The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress yesterday passed a sweeping national security law, according to Hong Kong media, which includes laws on sedition and subversion.
Under the law, the Central Government in Beijing will be allowed to set up a national security office in Hong Kong to collect and analyse intelligence and deal with criminal cases related to national security.
Many Hong Kong citizens fear that the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” has been broken, as massive emigration occurs and young Hong Kong students are seeking asylum internationally, including in Australia.
But authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly defended the legislation, saying it is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms.
The United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada recently criticised China, as they said the national security law would threaten freedom and breach the document that sets out Hong Kong’s partial autonomy, the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
However, Ms Sham-Ho said in her view, under the One Country, Two Systems principle, Beijing had the right to protect Hong Kong from foreign interference.
“I actually resent my own Prime Minister, trying to suggest the national security law is wrong in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is part of China,” she said.
‘I can’t see any future’
Tina Leung is a second-generation Australian Hongkonger. She said although her family emigrated to Australia before the handover, she can still relate to many of the protesters.
“This Western ideology of democracy is not even being slowly chipped away now, it’s kind of being hacked at,” she said.
“It does kind of bring this sadness because it’s really quite inevitable what the future is, it gets a little bit truer with [each new] protest.”
Ms Sham-Ho said Hongkongers should embrace being a part of China, adding that stability was the key to Hong Kong’s prosperity.
“With the damage done so far, I think the confidence is not there anymore for any overseas investors … but I do think the Hong Kong people deserve a stable situation,” she said.
For Ms Poon, Hong Kong’s future remains uncertain.
“Protests will be happening again … we have to rethink what strategy we have to take in the future to fight back [against] the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Government.”