My husband and I were both born in Beijing, but we became permanent residents of Canada in 2006. My husband still spends most of his time in Beijing to oversee his business, and renewing his Canadian permanent resident card is always time-consuming. In 2013, his application was returned twice because his photo didn't meet the requirements. Fixing it should've been simple, but my husband is exceptionally stubborn. He didn't think he should have to drive two hours from our home in the Beijing suburbs to the designated studio in the city. I couldn't persuade him, and we shelved the discussion.
Around Christmas 2013, we visited Hong Kong. On Mong Kok, Hong Kong's busiest street, we found a hole-in-the-wall currency exchange. While we were buying Hong Kong dollars, I noticed it shared a wall with a tiny photo studio. After our transaction was settled, I dragged him straight next door. Though it was cramped, it offered photos for a wide variety of purposes: Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese passports, Canadian permanent resident cards, American green cards...you name it. Ten minutes later, the owner stamped an official seal on the back of my husband's photos. Below the shop owner's contact information, it read, "I guarantee the true likeness of the person to this photo."
Four months later, his application was approved. It turned out that in Hong Kong, you could go to seemingly any little studio, and Immigration and Citizenship Canada would happily recognize the photo as legitimate. In Beijing, you could only go to designated shops within walking distance of the embassy.
Chinese people have long considered Hong Kong businesses to be more reputable than those in mainland China. It's where mainlanders go when they can't trust what's on the Chinese market. Buying baby formula in Hong Kong and selling it in mainland China has become incredibly profitable business, for example. Hong Kong was forced to impose a two-can limit for mainlanders returning to China via Shenzhen. And in July 2018, as China's vaccine scandal unfolded, parents rushed their children to Hong Kong to get vaccinated.
Many mainland Chinese are livid that Hongkongers want to preserve their independent judiciary system, but Hong Kong's credibility and reliability depend on that very rule of law. Hongkongers are fighting not only for themselves but also for the last safe haven for mainlanders. It is because Hong Kong still has an independent judiciary system that consumers from mainland China have access to untainted baby formula and immunizations.
As the Hong Kong protests continue, people worldwide are concerned that Chinese government might attempt to crush the protests with violence, as it did in Tiananmen Square. As a witness of the Tiananmen incident in 1989, I do spot similarities in the government's tactics now, especially in terms of rhetoric. At the instigation of the state propaganda machine, protesters are being called "Hong Kong poison," a phrase that plays on the fact that in Mandarin Chinese "independence" and "poison" share a pronunciation. Such propaganda is flourishing, especially online. But I believe the similarities to Tiananmen will stop at that level, and a military intervention is highly unlikely.
The reason is very simple: No city in mainland China could replace Hong Kong in terms of international trade. Just as Chinese mainlanders consider Hong Kong as a credible city, people in the Western world also consider Hong Kong the only credible city in China. As much as Beijing wants to compromise Hong Kong's independent judiciary system, it needs Hong Kong to maintain its semi-autonomous status to keep China's doors open.
This opinion piece was originally published by Newsweek on Aug. 30, 2019.