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25 years ago, Britain handed control of Hong Kong back to China

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. The 1st of July, 1997, will be a day worth remembering forever. That's what then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin said during the historic handover of the city of Hong Kong from Britain to China. It was supposed to mark a 50-year period of transition when Hong Kong would maintain economic and political freedoms. That transition has taken a brutal turn, with China cracking down on those freedoms. Hong Kong residents held mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019, even adopting a song from "Les Miserables" as an anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men.

BLOCK: For a view to the future of Hong Kong, we're going to hear now from two people who have only known a Hong Kong after British rule. They're both 25, born in 1997. Anna Kwok was born and raised in Hong Kong, but has lived overseas for years. She lives now in Washington, D.C., where she directs the nonprofit Hong Kong Democracy Council. Anna, welcome.

ANNA KWOK: Thank you, Melissa, for having me today.

BLOCK: And we're joined also by a friend of Anna's who still lives in Hong Kong, where he works in finance. We have agreed to shield his identity because he's worried his views can make him a target of government reprisal. For this conversation, we'll call him T. That's the initial of his last name. T, welcome to you.

T: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: As we said, you're the same age as this new relationship between Hong Kong and China, so your lives really mirror the arc of that history. How did growing up in those years, do you think, shape your understanding of Hong Kong in a way that maybe generations before do not understand?

KWOK: I think part of it is a lot of frustration. People always say that, oh, you were born in 1997, and that means something, right? And when you were still young, people would say, oh, you are going to be the leader of tomorrow and you're going to be the future. But then my question would be, so why did I not get a chance to decide on my own future? I was born into this arrangement of one country, two system that is proven to be a complete failure from the start.

T: Since we were born, we are told by the government or the propaganda - I would use the word - we are someone special, right? But at the same time, since Hong Kong has returned to China's governance, they're trying to draw the connection between Hong Kong and China people. What we have been treated is the other way round, I would say.

BLOCK: Anna, you were living overseas during the big protest waves that swept through Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019. What was it like for you to be away from Hong Kong during those times, to watch it from afar?

KWOK: For both times, it was a huge sense of guilt that I was not there with my friends. Not only my friends, but really, Hong Kongers in general. When the tear gases were, you know, thrown or dispersed by the police, I was not there to taste it with my people.

BLOCK: T, I'm curious to hear your thoughts as you hear Anna talk about that, about feeling guilty for missing out, feeling that she missed some really important part of history and taking part in that history.

T: How Anna shared those feelings - also mine, even living in Hong Kong. This sort of guilt will always appear. Seeing some of my friends getting arrested or beaten, I guess it made me try to think about, how can I contribute to the community?

BLOCK: Yeah. How did you resolve that question for yourself, T, when you said you had to decide, how can I contribute?

T: I believe getting into finance could create much more value for me through my friends with those community because on one hand, many politically active young generations, they're quite against getting into finance because it's about making money. I'm trying to justify with myself that I'm not letting myself get corrupted in this way. I believe, after all, you can really earn money to help the people that you believe deserve to be helped.

KWOK: As I was listening to T, one thing that stood out to me is the question of how to make ourselves useful, right? Just to give a bit of backstory, there was a point where I had to decide between going back to Hong Kong and, you know, risking being arrested and jailed or staying behind in the United States and work on whatever projects or campaigns that I could think of, including advocacy work. And actually, someone told me very bluntly, if you want to go back to Hong Kong and serve jail time, that is actually a very selfish decision. And what they meant was that you were only going back because you don't want to feel guilty, but actually, you are not going to contribute much to the movement by being in jail because I'm not a public figure at that time that could really raise any attention from the international media. But instead, I have to think about it as a long game.

BLOCK: I'd like to have you both think forward a bit and think about whether you think change is possible in Hong Kong. You're looking at this period of a crackdown, authoritarian government in Hong Kong, more and more control from China. What do you think about when you think about the other end of this tunnel? What happens in 2047, which is the 50-year mark of the transition?

T: I can't really put a timeline. In a way, change has to be possible - right? - or else I'll be just gone, not staying in Hong Kong if the game is set. But at the same time, the change will not arrive soon when we're talking about that case. We know that hope is important, but at the same time, it could be toxic.

KWOK: Yes, definitely. Too much hope can be toxic. But then, at the same time, having no hope at all is fatal. Going back to what you talked about earlier about change, the only constant in life would be change, but it's the matter of how to make the change. But I think a lot of times, I wonder, when people talk about liberate Hong Kong, revolutions of our times, like the slogan that we have, what is the Hong Kong they want to see after the liberation? If we're given the chance to have a referendum in Hong Kong somehow tomorrow, what kind of society we want to build - that is actually the fundamental question that needs answering even more so than the question about what we have to do now.

BLOCK: You two have been friends for some time. How has that friendship sustained you during these times that have been so difficult in Hong Kong with such crackdowns?

KWOK: We used to play mahjong every week together with our friend group. But that is no longer the case. And sometimes, I see on social media that they got together and play mahjong. And of course, I'm going to wonder, oh, did they talk about me? Like, did they mention me? But at the same time, I'm quite sure that, you know, I'm on their mind. That is something very important for you to have the motivation to go back to Hong Kong. And that is really, I think, the essence of what I'm trying to fight for, is to continue and sustain the bond I have with people I love and the city I love.

BLOCK: Well, I hope both of you can meet over mahjong tiles in the not too distant future.

KWOK: Yeah.

T: I surely do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Anna Kwok directs the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington, D.C. T - we're using only his initial - works in finance in Hong Kong. Both of them born in 1997, the year Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.