No matter when you visited Hong Kong, you'd always find its singular atmosphere: A slice of the Chinese world mixed with British-style rule of law. In Victoria Harbor, facing the Guangdong province, you could breathe the mixed perfumes of civil liberty and Chinese engineering as if it were a culmination of the Pearl River's own spirit.

Nothing is perfect in Hong Kong — neither their democratic system that has been used from 1997 to this day, nor the enormous gap in social equality, nor the constant obsession with money and the grim fate that awaits many migrant workers.

But "Hong Kong happiness" exists as well. It doesn't reside solely in the beauty of the place, its rocks strewn with vegetation that rise out of the sea and its optimistic, concentrated urbanism that is both proud of its modernity and respectful of its natural surroundings.

It is a happiness that also lies in the knowledge that this unique place gave a chance to scores of unfortunate refugees fleeing tragedies and who, through hard work and creativity, transformed the benevolent city into a powerful hub of economic, technological and financial development.

This may be giving in to junk exoticism or some form of neo-colonial nostalgia but, nonetheless, each trip brought delicious, Hong Kong-specific rituals: An evening gin and tonic on a rooftop bar overlooking the bay, reading the free local press under the wood panels of the Foreign Correspondents' Club and, on Saturdays, a visit to the races in the aptly-named Happy Valley — even if it was only to admire a rare Rolls Royce in the parking lot.

This unique place gave a chance to scores of unfortunate refugees fleeing tragedies.

Should we be speaking in the past tense? Did Chinese President Xi Jinping herald the end of a Chinese exception on May 28th? Is this the conclusion of the concept "one country, two systems," which had ensured Hong Kong would remain a liberal islet of 7.5 million inhabitants within the Chinese continental mass of 1.4 billion citizens?

When the British decided to give this colony — which had been taken in the mid-19th century — back to China, they signed a treaty. From 1997, when they left, to 2047, Hong Kong was supposed to benefit from a special status that allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. Possessing its own constitution, the island was to keep its civil liberties and even an independent justice system. In Hong Kong, in this particular legal environment called the rule of law, anybody — Chinese or foreigner — can win a trial against the government.

Last week, Beijing directly intervened in the affairs of the former colony, violating the spirit, if not the treaty, that defines Hong Kong.

The central authority imposed a national security law on the island. It aims at fighting "separatist, secessionist, subversive or terrorist" activities, an array of justifications commonly used by China to crush any opposition. Both young and old pro-democracy militants in Hong Kong saw through it. China wants them to be scared. China wants to silence them, to subdue them.


A protestor holds an umbrella with the words "Uphold Freedom, Against Evil Law" in Hong Kong Photo: Liau Chung-ren

There will be no major international reactions. The United States and Europe are busy with other matters. Western companies, for which Hong Kong is the gateway to the Chinese market, will stay put. Economically speaking, Hong Kong has lost its importance: 2.7% of the Chinese domestic product in 2019, against 27% in 1993.

Beijing's decision is consistent with the policies conducted by Xi Jinping since he came into power in 2012 of gradually eroding Hong Kong's autonomous status. The president is committed to strengthening the party's dominance and promoting an authoritarian government in general. This ensemble is presented as the key to economic success in political stability.

The counter examples of Hong Kong and Taiwan, which show that a successful economy can be achieved in democracy, look messy for China. To Xi's government, they are "anti-models" that need to be put back on the communist track.

The stakes here are not just economic, but also political. "You can't have economic success without also political freedoms and all the basic values that flow from that," Johannes Chan, who works as a legal scholar in Hong Kong, told the Financial Times.

The rule of law would then act as a key element of the climate of trust necessary for the success of the market. But that's precisely what Xi Jinping wants to challenge. He intends to prove the opposite, and even go further.

Today, Hong Kong is part of a huge project with the south of the continent — the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area — which is destined to be a gigantic high tech hub. Part of Xi's philosophy is that autocracy doesn't prevent either economic development or the emergence of a scientific and technological creative economy. The fierce repression of any criticism in the political sphere would be compatible with the flourishing of free scientific and technological thoughts.

The year 2047, which had been established as the end of Hong Kong's autonomous status, bore the mark of Western illusions. When the treaty was signed, the West was betting on a kind of convergence: China's economic success would lead to a form of political liberalization which would, in turn, further anchor Hong Kong's democracy. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what's happening.

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