20 years after Chinese takeover, Hong Kong no longer shining star

When the British left 20 years ago, Hong Kong was seen as a rare blend of East and West that China might seek to emulate. Now, increasingly, it’s a cautionary tale.

HONG KONG —

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place — technically a special administrative region of China — could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

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Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches Saturday, that perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China might want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the territory’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, it is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

“More and more, there is a sense of futility,” said Anson Chan, the second-highest official in the Hong Kong government in the years before and after the handover to Chinese rule. She blames Beijing’s interference for the territory’s woes. “We have this enormous giant at our doorstep,” she said, “and the rest of the world does not seem to question whatever the enormous giant does.”

Others spread the blame more broadly. They point to the opposition’s reluctance to compromise and policies that weaken political parties, including multiseat legislative districts that allow…

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