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  1. Opinion

Ruth: A postcard from Hong Kong

HONG KONG

It was probably just a hint that this celebration was not entirely embraced by the citizenry when many advertisements in the local media invited consumers to shop until they dropped in recognition of the "20th Anniversary."

The 20th anniversary of what? In the United States, stores lure customers in honor of the Fourth of July, or Memorial Day, or Labor Day, or Presidents Day. Not here.

It presents a bit of a marketing problem when you are asking the public to engage in commerce to pay homage to the 20th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to a brutally repressive mainland Chinese regime that suppresses free speech and only promises more of the same in the decades to come.

However, all those Bentleys and Teslas on the streets do look awfully nice.

After 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese in 1997 on a principle called "one country, two systems." That was supposed to mean that while Hong Kong would now be under Chinese sovereignty, the 7.4 million people living on the 30-square-mile island would retain their autonomy and legal and governmental systems.

And why not? After all, Hong Kong was and remains a vital economic cash cow now under Chinese control. If it wasn't broke, why fix it?

Yet over the past two decades Beijing has steadily chipped away at Hong Kong's autonomy while cracking down on dissidents, including high-profile abductions of several of the city's booksellers.

Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, has recently acknowledged in a series of interviews he wishes he had done more to protect the city's democratic ideals.

Chinese President Xi Jinping left little doubt where he sees Hong Kong's future relationship with Beijing. And for pro-democracy advocates who took to the streets to protest the 20th anniversary of (whatever), Xi's message to the masses had to be chilling.

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the central government or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible," Xi said. "Hong Kong needs to improve its systems to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests."

Just in case anyone thought he was being too nuanced, the president sent China's lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, up Hong Kong Harbor to say hello.

Xi's performance in Hong Kong was met with rapturous praise by the Chinese media. "Xi's Rallying Cry For Hong Kong," read the banner front-page headline in the South China Morning Post. "Liaoning's Warm Welcome," noted the China Daily.

Television coverage was practically a continuous loop of Xi inspecting the troops and basking in the adoring gaze of the assembled masses.

President Donald Trump had to be consumed by envy over Xi's loving press clips.

But it was not all air kisses and adulation for Xi in the streets. Pro-democracy protests still went on. At least 60,000 demonstrators vented their displeasure toward Beijing during Xi's visit, a figure estimated to be down from previous anti-China events.

The day after Xi's "let's not get too carried away with all this democracy stuff" speech, about 1,000 protesters assembled near the Causeway Bay subway station, many decked out in yellow T-shirts, the color of the pro-democracy movement. Many were waving signs that read "People United Will Never be Defeated," and "Power To The People," as the police presence grew around them.

Speakers competed for the attention of the crowd, including Leung Kwok-hung, who is something of a legend among Hong Kong politicians with his long hair blowing in the wind and seemingly ever present Che Guevara T-shirt. Think of this chap as the Bernie Sanders of Asia.

At one point, according to a protester who was kind enough to interpret, a shouting match between one of the demonstrators and the police was met with security officials threatening to start shooting people. Cooler heads prevailed. When you are reveling in the glorious "20th Anniversary" of whatever, the last thing you need are body bags to go along with the lavish fireworks.

What's to come next? You get the feeling from spending time here that while Hong Kong is firmly in the grasp of Xi's regime, it is hardly rolling over to Beijing rule and sees the "20th Anniversary" as another day to be endured in a loveless arranged marriage.

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