Geopolitical currents an ocean away have historically had an impact in transforming the cultural, ethnic, and urban landscape of Vancouver, and the single largest post-war, foreign catalyst was certainly the 15-year period of uncertainty beginning in the early 1980s over the future of British Hong Kong, which was further compounded by the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
This past Tuesday, June 4, was the 30th anniversary of the 1989 massacre, which culminated the months-long, student-led pro-democracy movement.
Weeks earlier before the massacre, martial law was declared and as many as 300,000 soldiers were mobilized into Beijing in response to the growing protest at Tiananmen Square that reached as many as 100,000 people at its peak.
With the protest deemed to be a threat to the Communist Party, an order was given by party leadership to send armed soldiers and tanks into the city centre during the early morning hours of June 4 and use brutal lethal force to put an end to the movement.
Death toll estimates, depending on source, range between a few hundred to several thousand.
In the backdrop of all of this was the question over Hong Kong’s future under certain Chinese rule.
Hong Kong was under British rule beginning in 1841, and the colony was subsequently expanded twice in 1860 into Kowloon and again in 1898 into the New Territories through a 99-year lease — expiring in 1997.
Discussions began in the early 1980s between the United Kingdom and China over Hong Kong, and British officials ultimately concluded Hong Kong limited to only Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula could not survive on its own without the New Territories, which accounted for 86% of Hong Kong’s land mass and a substantial portion of the population.
The impact of separating Hong Kong from its New Territories would be similar to the post-war separation of Berlin.
With little recourse, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, agreeing to transfer the full sovereignty of Hong Kong to China upon the end of the lease of the New Territories on July 1, 1997.
“On the Hong Kong side, suddenly, the relative trust that followed the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 was shattered and there were large demands for more immediate democracy before the handover in 1997,” Yves Tiberghien, the director emeritus of the UBC Institute of Asian Research and the executive director of the UBC China Council, told Daily Hive.
He says Hong Kong students in 1989 felt emotionally connected with Beijing students and their protest, and went to lengths that included holding their own movement in the colony in solidarity and donated tents and other supplies for the Tiananmen Square protest.
“After June 4, the well of goodwill and trust between the Mainland and Hong Kong was poisoned. For the Mainland, Hong Kong people were not trustworthy and they insist on changes in the Basic Law, which was being drafted at the time, including Article 23,” Tiberghien continued.
The mini-constitution provided by the Hong Kong Basic Law is the foundation of the 50-year “one country, two systems” arrangement for post-colonial Hong Kong that ensured that the Special Administrative Region (SAR), would be governed separately from the mainland, continuing the practice of free market capitalism, border control between Mainland China and Hong Kong, the use of a separate and independent judicial system, and providing Hong Kong citizens with basic rights and freedoms.
Article 23 remains particularly controversial, as it deals with national security that would ban acts of treason and secession. While Article 23 is a part of Basic Law, attempts to turn it into real legislation have failed.
In the aftermath of Tiananmen, Britain acknowledged the heightened need to reinforce Hong Kong’s democratic future.
Chris Patten, the last governor of British Hong Kong, intervened and expanded voting rights in 1994, but these unexpected measures were fiercely rejected by Beijing and ultimately dismantled upon the handover in 1997.
Amidst the prospect of economic turmoil and the end of the established way of life in Hong Kong, there was an uptick in emigration after 1984. However, what began as a stream turned into a mass migration flood after June 1989.
“Hong Kong professionals and middle class started to massively emigrate and seek a second home and passport,” said Tiberghien.
Families and their capital moved to other Commonwealth territories specifically Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, and London. A smaller number chose Singapore, San Francisco, and NYC.
Approximately one million people emigrated out of Hong Kong in the 1980s and in the wake of Tiananmen, up until 1997.
Vancouver, a mid-sized urban region, was particularly impacted by the tsunami waves of outflows from Hong Kong.
“They had a big impact on Vancouver and boosted its development, as well as its real estate prices,” added Tiberghien.
According to Duke University political science professor Melanie Manion, in her analysis of reform policies in the former colony, Corruption by Design, Hong Kong contributed nearly half of the people who entered Canada under the Immigrant Investor Program between 1986 and 1993, and over US$4.2 billion flowed from Hong Kong to Canada in 1992 alone.
Statistics Canada census data indicates the population of Chinese speakers in Metro Vancouver increased from 130,000 in 1991 to 198,000 in 1996, which entails the peak migration period in 1994 when close to 17,000 Hong Kong immigrants were recorded in BC.
The waves of new Hong Kong immigrants were most apparent in the Vancouver region suburban municipality of Richmond, where the proportion of Chinese mother-tongue speakers exploded from 8% in 1986 to 14% in 1991 and to 30% in 1996.
Data from the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board shows detached housing prices in the region were at $236,600 in June 1989, and it escalated over the coming years, reaching a pre-handover 1990s peak of $437,500 in February 1995. The housing boom can also be attributed to the Expo’ 86 World’s Fair’s impact on the city’s global image.
There was a long-lasting period of price stabilization after 1995 due to BC’s poor economic situation, but average prices for detached properties did not falter below $330,000.
In the book, The Vancouver Achievement: Urban Planning and Design, John Punter detailed the heightened real estate trends and shifts prompted by Hong Kong immigrants.
“Local agents noted that, at the end of the 1980s, 10% of all detached housing and 90% of all new homes were being purchased by people with Asian names. Many of these new houses were one-off constructions on empty lots, but in such areas as Arbutus Flats just south of Kitsilano, the transformation was particularly dramatic. Here buildings demolished numerous smaller 1920s and 1930s bungalows and replaced them with monster houses that maximized the allowable floor space,” wrote Punter.
This gave birth to the “monster house,” he continued, with many of the wealthy Hong Kong immigrants able to afford large houses in Vancouver’s most-sought neighbourhoods.
“Agents and builders began to cater specifically for Asian tastes, which were perceived to be quite distinctive in terms of architecture and landscaping. Especially sought after were larger homes with numerous bedrooms and bathrooms, which suited the immigrants’ large, often extended families.”
In 1989, in a single year, prices rose spectacularly by 30% directly because of investors from Hong Kong, wrote Punter.
Contemporary bouts of anti-Chinese racism, including the use of the ‘Hongcouver’ moniker, arose during this period.
Aside from the housing impact, demand for private school and university student spaces also escalated and, of course, the city’s food scene was completely transformed and elevated.
The Richmond-based T&T Supermarket chain, now owned by Loblaw Companies, quickly expanded in the 1990s and changed the grocery retail landscape in Metro Vancouver, with the company’s growth propelled by the growing Asian population.
Growth of numerous new Asian businesses and shopping malls in Richmond and to a lesser extent in East Vancouver, including the rise of numerous T&T Supermarket locations, also greatly contributed to the decline of Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, which, up until the 1990s, was still a flourishing and vibrant regional retail destination for Asian goods and cuisine.
And, following the new glowing reputation Vancouver earned from Expo ’86 and the movement of capital into the city by these immigrants, Hong Kong conglomerate billionaire Li Ka-shing jumpstarted Vancouver’s condominium tower boom. The resulting developments creating the foundation of what is now known as ‘Vancouverism’ architectural and urban planning style. Through his company, Concord Pacific, Vancouver’s downtown skyline grew with the addition of dozens of towers along the North False Creek waterfront, the site of Expo ’86.
Then July 1, 1997, finally came.
In the shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fears of Hong Kongers of an overnight transition into a repressive, authoritarian, communist dictatorship that clamped down on Hong Kong’s norms, free market economy, and rule of law — established firmly under British rule — did not materialize, at least not for the first few years under Chinese sovereignty.
Beijing initially controlled Hong Kong at arm’s length, as agreed upon by the Basic Law and the overarching “one country, two systems” principle.
As the long-feared new era of draconian governance did not happen, Hong Kongers realized that it was business as usual and emigration out of the region came nearly to a halt.
In fact, the migration patterns reversed: A sizeable proportion of newly immigrated Hong Kong citizens began returning to Hong Kong after 1997.
According to Statistics Canada, there were about 209,000 Hong Kong-born residents in the country in 2016, with nearly 72,000 residing in Metro Vancouver. In comparison, over 241,000 Hong Kong-born residents were in Canada in 1996, including about 86,000 in the Vancouver region.
As another indicator of the reverse migration, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada estimates there are approximately 300,000 Canadian passport holders living in Hong Kong under dual citizenship.
“By returning to Hong Kong, often leaving families behind to ensure citizenship, these migrants hedged their economic and political risks, with a foothold in two economies at different stages of the business cycle and the legal right to leave Hong Kong permanently if the political situation deteriorated,” wrote Manion.
While more recent emigration numbers are just a small fraction of the volumes experienced in the 1990s, recent statistics show nearly 1,300 new permanent residents from Hong Kong were admitted into Canada in 2017 — the largest since 1997. This represents a marginal growth from 2016, but a doubling of the numbers recorded from both 2014 and 2015.
Moreover, while outflows from Hong Kong dropped, they were replaced with new flows of Mainland Chinese-born residents beginning in the early 2000s. There were about 189,000 Mainland Chinese-born residents in Metro Vancouver in 2016, up from approximately 73,000 in 1996.
The increased outflows of Mainland Chinese were a result of the rise in the middle and upper classes of China due to significant economic reforms.
And price escalations in Metro Vancouver’s real estate market over much of the past decade were partially a product of capital outflows from China, in response to a sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched by the Communist Party in 2012 under President Xi Jinping. But beginning in late 2017, China also installed new measures to better restrict capital flight into foreign markets such as Vancouver.
The recent battle over a Huawei executive’s extradition, which continues to receive widespread attention in China and around the world, and the ongoing uncertainty over international trade are the latest geopolitical currents to affect Vancouver.
Tiberghien emphasizes there is much to worry with “the growing US-China trade war and sense of threat for the region resulting from the possible collapse of the US-China economic integration. These events can unleash great flows of people and great negative impact on economic growth and real estate across the region and Canada.”
As for any possibility that a continued change in Hong Kong’s economic and political climate could change Vancouver’s trajectory, this remains a possibility, albeit only remote at this time.
Hong Kong initially enjoyed much-limited autonomy under Chinese rule largely because of economic reasons.
According to World Bank data, when Britain handed over the colony back to China in 1997, the GDP of Hong Kong was approximately 20% the size of the entirety of China’s economy. For perspective, there were 6.5 million people in Hong Kong in 1997, whereas Mainland China had 1.23 billion.
But Hong Kong’s economic importance to China and as the country’s gateway to foreign investment quickly diminished soon after handover due to Community Party policies that resulted in tremendous economic growth in the Mainland, especially Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing.
Today, Hong Kong accounts for less than 3% of China’s total GDP.
Contravening Basic Law and “one country, two systems” principle, the line between China and Hong Kong has been increasingly eroded from 2002 onwards and especially in more recent years.
For instance, Beijing’s successful attempts to control Hong Kong’s SAR leadership, which escalated into the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 when students took to the street in protest, defy the limited autonomy agreed with the British.
Promises of universal suffrage have been wiped out, especially in the face of Beijing’s push to have full control of the candidate list that voters can choose from.
Earlier this year, under the direct influence of the Community Party, Hong Kong’s leader proposed drastic changes to the city’s legal system that would permit the extradition of anyone in Hong Kong to Mainland China to face trial under the Mainland China legal system.
This new extradition law means literally anyone in Hong Kong can be sent to China for trial without a review by Hong Kong’s legal system, as long as they are accused of a crime under Mainland China law — a clear violation of the separate judicial system established by the Joint Declaration. This includes citizens of Hong Kong, citizens of Mainland China in Hong Kong, and any foreigners travelling through the city.
In an interview with Bloomberg last month, Patten called the proposed extradition policy the “worst thing” to happen in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover.
“If China starts to treat Hong Kong as though it was simply part of the mainland, as though it were Shenzhen or Shanghai, sooner or later the international community will be encouraged to think, well, in that case that Hong Kong ceases to be special,” said Patten, with the current arrangement acting as a firewall between Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Under the new extradition law, with everyone in Hong Kong at risk of being subjected to the Mainland Chinese legal system, which is known to be corrupt and a repressive tool to control dissent, there would be “no real distinction between the courts, the security services, and what the [Communist Party] wants to happen.”
When, not if, this extradition law passes, it will amount to one of the most significant cuts to Hong Kong — and the latest cut to its death by a thousand cuts.
The passing of the extradition law could see some Canadians in Hong Kong return to Canada, and over time this could be compounded and accelerated by other deteriorations of Hong Kong.
Then there is also the Communist Party’s strategy of adding and strengthening the economic tethers between Hong Kong and Mainland China.
In 2017, Beijing announced it would push Hong Kong into the fold of its new Greater Bay Area plan — a large economic and urban region around the Pearl River Delta that also includes Macau, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.
Significant transportation infrastructure investments have been made to economically tie the super-region, extending deep into Mainland China, together. This includes the recently completed US$18.8-billion, 55-km-long Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge, the world’s longest sea crossing and the longest open-sea fixed link, as well as the US$5-billion, 26-km-long portion of the high-speed rail system in Hong Kong that links to Mainland China.
Increasingly deplorable housing market conditions could also force Hong Kong citizens and existing Canadian-Hong Kong dual citizens to consider relocating to places like Canada.
For many consecutive years, Hong Kong has been ranked by the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey as the least affordable housing market, based on the average house price divided by average household income. Vancouver is a distant second place in this price-income ratio ranking.
According to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Hong Kong’s tiny urban land mass has gained 1.5 million new largely Mandarin-speaking citizens from Mainland China — accounting for 20% of the city’s population — between 1997 and 2017, due to increases in the allowable Mainland Chinese entry quotas into Hong Kong following the handover.
As of this year, the average house price in Hong Kong has reached USD $1.23 million — up by about four times compared to the average prices in 2000. Vancouver’s average house price is currently USD$815,322, based on this particular global comparison by CBRE.
In March, facing a land supply crunch, Hong Kong’s leadership announced an audacious plan to build new massive islands between Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island (near Hong Kong Disneyland) to create 10 sq. km. of new developable land. This project will cost USD $80 billion, and will result in 260,000 new homes, with 70% of the units dedicated as public housing.
It remains to be seen how much of this housing plan will be realized.
Growing socioeconomic tensions and the forthcoming political and jurisdictional upheaval scheduled for 2047, the end of the 50-year period of Basic Law and “one country, two systems,” could theoretically lead to further instability and another exodus of Hong Kong citizens.
“It is true that the 2047 end of the 50-year special period for Hong Kong could have further impact on trust. But the sequence of events is hard to predict,” said Tiberghien.
But for this reason, Beijing’s decisions asserting its dominance on Hong Kong to date — ranging from economic, judicial, cultural, education, language, and domestic migration policies — can be seen as a strategical early assimilation of Hong Kong into Mainland China, in an effort to ensure a gradual, smooth transition of the city over time into the norms and practices of Mainland China come 2047.
If things continue to go sideways, there are at least 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong that can make a quick immediate return to Canada.