Land grabs in Hong-Kong as Beijing challenges the freedoms of former British colony
Late on a recent morning, a woman slowly rode a bicycle beneath the trees along the sun-dappled shores of Sha Tau Kok, a small village on the Hong Kong-China border.
It was a rare moment of tranquility amid modern China's bustling urban sprawl. But now this crescent of greenery is at the centre of increasingly fraught tensions between the former British Colony and president Xi Jinping's Communist government in Beijing.
Six years ago, mainland authorities occupied a small parcel of land in the village – reportedly for military use – after diverting the course of a river.
Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, initially said her administration was unaware of any such land occupation.
But the apparent cross-border land-grab angered local residents, who have in turn criticised hamstrung city officials for failing to stand up to Beijing.
“How could the government not be aware?” Mr Yau, a local landowner, told local media when the border breach emerged last November. Mr Yau, who did not give his first name, said he feared losing the land his family grew rice on for generations.
The waterfront near Sha Tau Kok, a village at the heart of a land dispute between Hong Kong and mainland ChinaCredit: Sophia Yan/Telegraph
The Hong Kong government said in a statement that it was looking into the issue and that mainland personnel had agreed to refrain from using the land "until a consensus is reached on the boundary issue".
But to many here, it is yet another instance of mainland China challenging Hong Kong's traditional freedoms.
Under the 50-year handover agreement signed when the UK ceded Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the Chinese government promised to honour a “one country, two systems” arrangement in which the city would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy with its own legal system, multiple political parties, and freedom of speech all enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution.
Over the past two years, Mr Xi's government has grown increasingly audacious in challenging those liberties.
Temple caretaker David Ngai Credit: Sophia Yan/The Telegraph
Since 2017, Beijing has pressured city authorities to silence dissent by expelling elected officials, jailing activists, and outlawing political parties. Events with dissident artists and writers have been axed and some outspoken professors have lost their university contracts without explanation.
Last week Hong Kong lawmakers began discussing legislation that would make insulting the Chinese national anthem a crime, punishable by up to three years in prison – a law already on the books in Beijing.
In coming decades, “Hong Kong will be pretty much merged with Shenzhen,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a politics expert and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “And the Communist Party will be more and more active in Hong Kong.”
For residents of Sha Tau Kok, who have witnessed the rise of China from their backyards, the balance of power in the relationship is painfully obvious.
Skyscrapers in Shenzhen overlook the Hong-Kong China borderCredit: Sophia Yan/Telegraph
Under British rule, the village overlooked undeveloped rice paddies in China's Shenzhen province. While Hong Kong morphed into a booming international business hub, millions of Chinese flocked to the border demarcated by Chung Ying Street – “China Britain Street” – for a glimpse of the world beyond Communist rule. Some even defected.
Today, China is the world's second-largest economy, and the rice paddies have been replaced by skyscrapers enveloped by the cacophony of traffic.
More than a million mainland Chinese have streamed into Hong Kong over the last two decades, and trucks shuttle $300 billion in goods between the two jurisdictions each year.
A new bridge and high speed rail link - with a terminal subject to mainland laws - has cemented the sense of physical integration, and Mandarin has gradually replaced the city’s traditional dialect of Cantonese; on a recent Sunday, workers at a local dim sum restaurant didn’t even bother with the latter.
China has begun exercising “more control on our future,” David Ngai, 67, a temple caretaker in the village, told the Telegraph. “As the country is getting stronger, and the country is getting more wealthy, we have no choice – we got to depend on them.”
Joshua Wong, one of the main student leaders, said he would “not be surprised at all” if he was forced back in jail for the anniversary.Credit: Eddie Mulholland
Some fear the crackdown will escalate this year, which marks five years since the Umbrella Movement, a student-led pro-democracy protest lasting months that brought tens of thousands to the street demanding political reforms.
Joshua Wong, one of the main student leaders, has already served two prison sentences and said he would “not be surprised at all” if he was forced back in jail for the anniversary.
In the past, “political prisoners seemed to be things that only happen in mainland China,” Mr Wong told the Telegraph. “But after the Umbrella Movement, when activists including me [are] being locked up in jail, it just shows that the situation changes.”
The skinny 22-year-old says he remains committed to pro-democracy activism, despite being assaulted by pro-Beijing thugs and being banned from travel after authorities confiscated his passport.
But confidence elsewhere is faltering.
Many Hong Kong people are increasingly “resigned to the fact that as long as the government in Beijing is not a democratic one, particularly as Mr Xi is in power – a super nationalist who wants to crack the whip on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang - then there’s nothing Hong Kong can do,” said Mr Lam.
Some have opted to emigrate to the US, Canada, or Australia. And those who stay are beginning to realise they must “behave well,” said Mr Ngai, the temple caretaker.
“You’ve got to suit people in mainland China,” he said, comparing Beijing to an authoritative parent, and Hong Kong an obedient child. That’s the only way “to still enjoy [a] peaceful and calm life here.”