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The History Of Hong Kong Rejoining China


Let's turn our attention to China now and the Chinese Parliament's plans to enact national security legislation for Hong Kong. Many fear it will mark the beginning of the end for the free speech and political freedoms the territory was guaranteed when the United Kingdom turned Hong Kong over to China.

Well, to understand how China and Hong Kong arrived at this moment and what it means, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt. He is now our London correspondent, but Frank was there to cover the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and he's reported on the city for many years since. Hi, Frank.


KELLY: Take me back to that day more than two decades ago. What did it look like? What did it feel like?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it was a remarkable night. I remember being in - just along the edge of the harbor when they were lowering the British flag. And rain clouds came over the mountains and just dumped tons and tons of rain, so much that you couldn't actually hear people speaking. And it was interesting because China had promised Hong Kong, just as you were saying, that Hong Kong could enjoy the same way of life and freedoms for 50 years. And back then, Chris Patten, he was the last governor - British governor of Hong Kong. And he tried to strike an optimistic note.


CHRIS PATTEN: Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. And that is the unshakeable destiny.


KELLY: So to China's promise that Hong Kong could enjoy its way of life, what guarantees were supposed to be in place to ensure that they would keep their word for 50 years?

LANGFITT: Yeah, this was not a handshake deal. This was an international treaty between the U.K. and China. There's also the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini constitution, which guaranteed a high degree of autonomy, protecting free speech and assembly, things along those lines. What's happened, though, is that Hong Kong was supposed to enact a national security law. There were a lot of protests about this in opposition because they were afraid that the Beijing government, an authoritarian government, would try to use it to really crush free speech in Hong Kong. Now what the National People's Congress up in Beijing is effectively saying is if Hong Kong can't pass it, we will.

KELLY: I mean, as someone who was there from the beginning in '97, did you see this? Do other people who covered the handover see it coming?

LANGFITT: What's interesting - you know, back then, we actually wrote with a pretty, you know, pretty ominous tone. People were very concerned when the Chinese military came in across the border that there would be a lot of changes. But in the first six years, actually, nothing changed. And I think people were relatively optimistic.

But what happened really is, you go back to - I think 2012 is a real turning point when Xi Jinping got - came into charge in China. He took over a weak Communist Party. There were a lot of problems in China, and he moved to take control and bring Hong Kong to heel. Last year, they tried to put in an extradition law where people were very afraid that people from Hong Kong would be taken over and tried in Chinese courts. That sparked the huge protests. And from the perspective of Hong Kong people, they felt like the Communist Party was trying to strip them of their identity, which is so different than Mainland Chinese. From Xi's perspective, he saw the city as ungovernable. And many suspect the National Security Law could be used to really to, overtime, wipe out political opposition in Hong Kong.

KELLY: Give me a sense, Frank, of the reaction in Hong Kong and around the world to this move by China.

LANGFITT: A mix of, I'd say, anger and sadness. I mean, democracy activists in Hong Kong remain defiant. There's one pro-democracy lawmaker who called it the saddest day in Hong Kong history. But also - it was interesting. I was talking to Chris Patten, and he's very upset about this, and he blames Xi Jinping. This is what he said today when I called him.

PATTEN: It's part of Hong Kong's tragedy today that Hong Kong represents all those aspects of liberal values and liberal democracy, which he hates and which he regards as a real threat to the Chinese Communist Party.

LANGFITT: He says that this is really sign more of weakness and fear than anything else from Xi Jinping.

KELLY: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt, now our man in London - before that, he covered China for many years. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.