Twenty-five years have elapsed since Hong Kong was returned to China from British rule in 1997 — the halfway point of the 50 years in which the city was promised a “high degree of autonomy.” While it was inevitable that Hong Kong would become a very different place after the handover, few could have predicted just how different things would be 25 years later. For some, the changes are welcomed, with the city making strides in terms of certain economic and social indicators. But others believe that Hong Kong is going backward in terms of its core values.
As the city marks the 25th anniversary of the handover, let’s take a closer look at exactly how things have changed, for better and for worse.
1. MTR stations more than doubled
The MTR network has increased from three heavy rail lines in 1997 to 10 in 2022, with the total number of stations going up from 37 to 98. Besides the building of new lines including the South Island line and new stations such as Exhibition Centre, which opened 1.5 months ago, the big jump in the number of stations is a result of MTR Corporation’s merger with the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) Corporation, which operated the East Rail, West Rail and Ma On Shan lines. Because of the merger, MTR now also operates the Light Rail network.
2. Airport moved from Kai Tak to Chek Lap Kok, and is much bigger
Those flying in or out of Hong Kong no longer head to Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon but to Hong Kong International Airport in Chek Lap Kok, which is located to the north of Lantau Island. According to official statistics, the new airport handled about 71.5 million passengers prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, compared with the 29.5 million that Kai Tak Airport handled in 1996.
3. Changing skyline that goes higher and higher
Hong Kong’s iconic skyline continued to expand upward post-1997, with the two tallest buildings in the city — the International Commerce Centre (ICC) and Two International Finance Centre (IFC) — completed in 2010 and 2003 respectively. The neon lights on many of the high-rise buildings have also been replaced with more environmentally friendly LED lighting, but some Hongkongers say they miss the warm feel of the neon lights.
4. Changing coastline with the loss of two iconic piers
The coastline, especially along Victoria Harbour, also changed significantly. One of the reclaimed areas is used for the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District.
But there was also the contentious demolition of the former Star Ferry Pier in Central and Queen’s Pier to make way for reclamation works in Central for a six-lane road and a shopping center.
5. New infrastructure making travel to mainland China more convenient
Travel to the mainland and Macau has become more convenient with the addition of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge as well as the High Speed Rail.
6. Increasing GDP per capita
According to official figures, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita at current market prices increased from HK$211,592 (US$26,963) in 1997 to HK$387,110 in 2021.
7. Rising median income of domestic households
Official figures show the median monthly income of domestic households rose from HK$19,000 in July to September in 1997 to the latest figure of HK$28,000 in February to April in 2022.
8. Soaring property prices that are among the highest in the world
Property prices have soared in the last 25 years. For example, the average price for a private domestic unit on Hong Kong Island with a saleable area of less than 40 sq m went up from HK$69,206 per sq m in 1997 to a provisional figure of HK$189,659 per sq m in 2021.
9. Population on an upward trend until 2019
One of the most densely populated places in the world, Hong Kong’s population has been on a generally increasing trend from 6.5167 million in 1997 to a peak of 7.5205 million in 2019, before falling to 7.4031 million in 2021, according to official estimates. Some believe that the drop was caused by the city’s shrinking freedoms and strict Covid-19 measures.
10. Changing demographics
Besides the growth in population, the demographics of the city have also changed a lot since 1997 in terms of one-way permit holders — residents of mainland China who leave the mainland permanently to settle in Hong Kong to be with family. From 1997 to 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, around 33,900 to 57,500 one-way permit holders settled in Hong Kong at the end of each year, making up a large part of population growth in the city.
11. Longer life expectancies
Life expectancy has also been on a general upward trend since 1997, from 77.2 and 83.2 years old for men and women, respectively, to latest provisional figures of 83 and 87.7 years old. In fact, Hong Kong has, in recent years, topped global life expectancy rankings.
12. Ninefold increase in the number of Olympic medals
Windsurfer Lee Lai-shan was the first athlete to win an Olympic medal representing Hong Kong when she took home a gold medal for sailing in Atlanta 1996. Twenty-five years later, Hong Kong has nine Olympic medals, with six coming from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year, including fencer Cheung Ka-long’s gold and swimmer Siobhan Haughey’s two silver medals.
13. Larger Legislative Council with a different composition
After becoming a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong only held its first election for members of its legislature in 1998. Back then, the Legislative Council comprised 60 members, with 20 members from directly elected geographical constituencies, 10 seats from an election committee constituency and 30 members from functional constituencies, which include voters of specific professional groups. The pan-democratic coalition managed to get 20 seats, while the pro-establishment camp had 40.
The current legislature, which was formed after the 2021 election and after a Beijing-imposed electoral overhaul to ensure that only those considered “patriots” would be allowed to govern Hong Kong, has its number of seats increased to 90. Only 20 of those seats were directly elected — a significant reduction from the 40 of previous years, 30 of which were from functional constituencies, while 40 new seats were added and voted in by a election committee composed of Beijing loyalists. Under the new system, all but one of the legislators are from the pro-establishment camp. The only non-establishment lawmaker is Tik Chi-yuen, who was a vice-chairperson of the Democratic Party. After leaving the party, he founded the Third Side, which is a centrist party.
14. A national security law now exists, which critics say curtails freedoms
In 2020, Beijing imposed the National Security Law, which gives the police the power to arrest people for secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. While authorities say the law is necessary to safeguard national security in the aftermath of the massive protests that shook the city in 2019 and 2020, many feel it has led to the erosion of essential freedoms. More than 150 have been arrested under the law in the past two years.
15. Falling confidence in the fairness of Hong Kong’s judicial system
On a related note, public confidence in the fairness of the judicial system in Hong Kong has also plunged. According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI), Hongkongers’ appraisal of the degree of fairness in the city’s judicial system has fallen from a score of 6.7 in July 1997 to 4.7 in February 2022. The scale is from 0 to 10, with 10 being absolutely fair.
16. People getting dissatisfied with the government
According to the HKPORI, the net value of people’s satisfaction and dissatisfaction in the Hong Kong government has dropped from 22.5 percent in July 1997 to -40 percent in May 2022.
17. Decreasing confidence in the “One Country, Two Systems” policy
Under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, Hong Kong is meant to be a part of China but also retain its own systems and way of life. The city was promised it could maintain its established system under a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. But at the halfway point of that promise, public confidence in the framework has already fallen drastically. According to the HKPORI’s polls, the net value of Hongkongers’ confidence and lack of confidence in the policy has dropped from 45.5 percent shortly after the handover to -1.3 percent in February this year.
18. Basic Law, national security, and citizenship and social development now taught in schools
Students are now required to learn about the Basic Law and national security in schools, while upper secondary school students have to take a compulsory citizenship and social development subject for the Diploma of Secondary Education exam, the city’s main college entrance exam. While proponents believe that it is necessary for students to learn more about the city’s mini constitution and issues related to the mainland, opponents see the new introductions as political meddling due to what they say are questionable teaching materials.
19. Students to be taught Hong Kong was not a British colony
Students will soon be taught in schools that Hong Kong was never a British colony. According to local media reports, new textbooks for the city’s schools for the citizenship and social development subject will state the territory was never a British colony, but that the British “only exercised colonial rule” in Hong Kong. This is a change of narrative from 25 years ago, with Beijing contesting its loss of sovereignty over Hong Kong and the validity of treaties that ceded the territory close to two centuries ago.
20. Closure of several civil society groups
Many civil society groups that are pro-democracy have closed in Hong Kong following the implementation of the National Security Law. Some of them have been around since before 1997, including the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union founded in 1973, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions set up in 1990, Amnesty International Hong Kong founded in 1982 and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China set up in 1989, the year the Tiananmen Square crackdown took place.
21. Lights go out on June 4th vigil?
On a related note, the June Fourth vigil, which was organized by the alliance and had been held in Victoria Park since 1990, has also become a thing of the past. For the past three anniversaries, the Hong Kong government banned the event citing pandemic concerns and mobilized a massive police presence to stop people from entering the park. However, many residents of Hong Kong — which, along with Macau, were once the only two places in China where the sensitive date could be commemorated openly — continued to mark its anniversary online by posting photos of a candle.
22. Shutting down of Apple Daily
Besides civil society groups, we also bid farewell to pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. After several arrests related to national security and the freezing of its accounts, the paper — which was founded in 1995 — announced its closure for the safety of its staff. Its last print run was on June 24, 2021.
23. Long-running satirical current affairs program all but ended
A program produced by public broadcaster RTHK that satirized current affairs in Hong Kong, mainland China and the rest of the world, Headliner has been suspended indefinitely after the Communications Authority warned it for “insulting” the police force in an episode. The last episode of the program, which first aired in 1989, was broadcast on June 19, 2020.
24. Public confidence in freedom of speech plunges
According to the HKPORI’s polls, the public’s appraisal of freedom of speech plunged from 7.2 in August 1997 to 4.6 in February 2022. The scale is from 0 to 10, with 10 indicating absolute freedom.
25. Future looking bleaker
Twenty-five years on, Hongkongers are less confident about the city’s future. According to the HKPORI, the net value of people’s confidence and lack of confidence in Hong Kong’s future has dropped from 60.7 percent on July 15, 1997 to -7.5 percent in the period of February 21 to 24 this year.