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A politically divided Hong Kong readies for a key anniversary — and a presidential visit

  • July 1 this year marks Hong Kong's 20th anniversary of returning to China from British rule.
  • Although Hong Kong and China have increased business ties, politics remains a sticking point for many.
  • "I am still optimistic that the day will come for us to determine the future because time is on our side," pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong told CNBC.
  • Wong has since been detained.

HONG KONG — July 1 this year marks Hong Kong's 20th anniversary of returning to China from British rule. While there are many events planned by the city's government to celebrate the handover, the day is also known to be one of protest for citizens — especially for those who are demanding democracy.

In the past two decades, Hong Kong became one of China's special administrative regions, and has been administered by a locally-formed government under the "one country, two systems" principle laid out by the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984.

There have been increasing ties, especially economic and business relations, between China and Hong Kong, such as establishing stock connects in 2014 and 2016. But politically speaking, they are still far away from reaching a consensus on the topic of democracy.

In late 2014, the disagreement on the election method of the chief executive, the city's leader, reached a boiling point and sparked the Umbrella Movement, resulting in a rare scene of hundreds and thousands of people occupying Hong Kong's downtown for 79 days.

The movement demanded the Chinese government allow "true universal suffrage," explaining that term as the right to have each citizen have one vote in the Chief Executive election and nominate the candidates, as opposed to Beijing's proposal of allowing each person to vote on candidates nominated by a small committee.

"According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration ... China and also U.K. government promised to allow Hong Kong (to) implement democracy with one person one vote. However, China just ignored a promise for more than 20 years … Hong Kong people want to get back our rights, to have election instead of selection," said Joshua Wong, one of the high school student leaders during the Umbrella Movement.

"Unfortunately, we cannot achieve universal suffrage and democracy during the movement, however, we still continue our battle," he told CNBC in May. "We knew that against the largest authoritarian regime to get back our right is just a long-term battle."

Wong organized his first mass protest at age 14 in 2012 against a national education curriculum. And now a 20 years old university student, the same age as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, he continues to concern about the city's future.

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"In 2047, I would be at the age of 50 years old. I am not sure after three decades (whether) Hong Kong can still remain its uniqueness with democracy or universal suffrage or not, or in the worst case it'll be 'one country, one system'. But I will say that, instead of allowing those elites, those pro-China upper-classes to dominate our future, I am still optimistic that the day will come for us to determine the future because time is on our side" said Wong.

Wong, along with several other pro-democracy activists, was detained by authorities earlier this week as Hong Kong prepared to mark the handover anniversary with a visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A politically divisive Hong Kong

Since the 2014 protest, many in Hong Kong's general public entered a new age of political division, especially between generations.

So while some residents shared Wong's concern, some don't.

"I will tell young people to not join protests, it's meaningless, and you're civilized. I am not trying to challenge them, but you need to carry out your duty, to work hard, that is very important," said 60 year-old Tai Yin Ling, while worrying that her children and grandchildren will face greater competition from mainland immigrants. "As for other things, to fight for this and that: Honestly, is it really that simple for you to fight for something? I don't think so."

Ms. Chung, a 65 year old retiree, told CNBC: "I don't know why Hong Kong people always argue about 'one country, two systems.' It is not arguable. I am very proud and excited because this is China, we are Chinese."

Miss Leung, a 35-year-old educator told CNBC, however, that the tourism boost from China has helped Hong Kong, yet it is "still falling behind because universal suffrage is still not in place after 20 years."

As for the anniversary day itself, opinions were mixed.

"I think I am not going to do something like protesting, or attending any official ceremony for celebration. I am not going to do that because, of course, it is not a day worth celebrating. (And) after the Umbrella Revolution, I don't think that there is anything that we can do to improve the political situation just by going on a protest," 18-year-old university student Edward Li said.

China unlikely to give in

With the Chinese president scheduled to stay in Hong Kong between June 29 and July 1, the city is on high security alert and it is doubtful whether protest demands will reach Xi. Yet despite what some Hong Kongers might wish for their city's future, China's policy towards the SAR will likely continue unless there is a major change in the communist government's policy and composition.

Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing looks at Hong Kong's demand for democracy "through the same lens as they are considering Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang."

The Xi government sees the allowance of western-style universal suffrage as a "destabilizing development" and a threat to China's national security, Lam said, so Beijing will not possibly allow it in Hong Kong.

And even though pro-democracy activists, like Wong, have been seeking international support from countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., Lam said "it is very doubtful whether Beijing cares about the criticisms from the U.S. or from the EU because Beijing is convinced that it will soon become a super power."

"It will soon close the gap with the U.S. So, whatever the members of Congress may say about Hong Kong, or whatever the U.S. government may say about Hong Kong, I don't think they really care," Lam said, adding that the overriding consideration is whether the rule of law in Hong Kong will remain in place, so the city can maintain its competitiveness and attraction for foreign investments.

— Candice Tang and Celia Lai contributed to this report.