Only patriots can lead Hong Kong into a new era of democracy and prosperity. That is the new slogan launched by Xi Jinping in a city where dissent has been jailed and political opposition crushed.

The message convinces in Beijing. Not so much in a region that once had a reputation as one of Asia’s most vibrant and free centers, but now looks more like any other province in China than ever before.

The reality is that in Hong Kong there is a lack of those convinced patriots that Xi wants for the new era. Chinese identity is not as entrenched as the president would like.

For this reason, some time ago it was proposed to introduce it to the new generations, rewriting in the classroom a history in which it is ensured that democracy came to Hong Kong when it ceased to be a British colony.

This was stated by Xi this Friday during the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the handover of the city by Great Britain. “After reunifying with the motherland, Hong Kongers became masters of their own city,” he said.

On his first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began, the leader vowed to uphold the “one country, two systems” model, under which Hong Kong was promised some autonomy and freedoms for 50 years.

But Beijing’s commitment has not even lasted a quarter of a century. From London and Washington, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have accused the Chinese government of not respecting the agreement that ended British colonial rule in 1997.

“It is clear that the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing no longer see democratic participation, fundamental freedoms and independent media as part of this vision agreed upon 25 years ago. The authorities have jailed the opposition, erased independent media and weakened the democratic institutions. They have made an effort to deprive Hong Kongers of what they were promised,” Blinken said after Xi delivered a speech insisting that Hong Kong should only be ruled by patriots.

“After much turmoil, people have learned a painful lesson that Hong Kong cannot be disorderly, cannot afford to be. Stability has been restored,” said Xi, who was accompanied by the new local chief executive. , John Lee, who was sworn in to begin a five-year term.

“Hong Kong should be able to maintain its capitalist system for a long period of time, with a high level of autonomy. But all Hong Kongers should be able to respect and safeguard the nation’s fundamental socialist system,” the Chinese president said.

The British flag flew atop Hong Kong’s Government House when Paul Lee opened his toy store just off Victoria Harbour. It was 1992 and a new governor had just arrived in the colony, Chris Patten, who had the mission of preparing the city for five years to integrate back into China after 155 years under the British empire.

Lee remembers Patten as a less autocratic and despotic leader than the ones he used to send London on the Asian adventure, someone who tried to sneak a wave of reforms into the local executive so that a strong democratic opposition could have a voice inside Hong Kong after of the transfer of sovereignty.

The Chinese flag flies today at the top of the Hong Kong Parliament. Lee’s toy store is still standing, but in ruins like so many other businesses in a city that he has been closed for two and a half years. Lee followed Xi Jinping’s speech and the inauguration of the new head of the local government on television on Friday morning. Exactly 25 years ago, on the night of July 1, 1997, the toymaker witnessed the farewell of the last governor of Hong Kong live.

After returning the territory to China, Chris Patten and Prince Charles left on a royal family yacht, escorted by a flotilla of British warships, sailing off into the sunset. “Many of us like myself then felt trapped between a new homeland, China, for which we had no affection, and an imperial homeland that had betrayed us. Our only flag was Hong Kong,” recalls Lee.

“There were a few years in which sentiment towards China grew as the city became a major global financial center. Investments poured in everywhere, the city vibrated while the rest of the country experienced a unique economic boom. There was respect and consensus among the city leaders,” continues the toymaker.

“From 2012, when Xi Jinping seized power in Beijing, the authorities became less tolerant of civil liberties and Chinese nationalist movements grew. That was only the beginning of a change of direction that culminated in the national security law passed last year. Now, the Hong Kong that we bragged about so much no longer exists,” he says.

Lee has a son in his twenties, Josean, who left last year to live in Taiwan for fear of being arrested after having participated in the 2019 pro-democracy protests and having been part of the defunct Demosisto, a political formation that defended autonomy. all of Hong Kong. “The Chinese dictatorship has cleansed the city of political opposition.

Curricula have been changed and books censored to foster a feeling of patriotism among the youngest, who are the most distant from Beijing’s ideology. But now more than ever people identify as Hongkongers, rejecting the Chinese identity,” said Josean from Taipei.

Dozens of Hong Kongers like the toymaker’s son decided to go into exile after the approval of a draconian national security law that was Beijing’s response to the most forceful anti-government protests on Chinese soil since those in Tiananmen Square.

Since the application of the law, everything has happened like an authoritarian work in several installments: sweeping of the pro-democratic opposition in Parliament, arrests of activists and closure of newspapers; accusations of sedition against those who shouted independence proclamations; censorship of critical books in libraries and schools; reinforcement of “patriotic education” in the classrooms.

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