In retrospect, the era of Jiang Zemin, who has died at the age of 96, may well mark the most stable period of post-1997 handover Hong Kong. That might not be how most locals remember the time. After all, troubles came one after another, from financial crises to epidemics and a real estate collapse. But those crises that confronted the city either came from an external source or were out of its control, and they all eventually passed as normality returned. In fact, the property market collapse triggered by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) health crisis in 2003 turned out to be an extraordinary buying opportunity that turned the next decade and a half into a sustained bull run and made many families multimillionaires by simply owning a single flat. That stability was, to a large extent, thanks to Jiang’s flexibility in dealing with Hong Kong. Historical paradox One of the great historical paradoxes has been how the city’s success or failure – or rather the unending debate about that – was turned upside down in the transition from British colonialism to Chinese rule. Before the handover of sovereignty, for almost half a century, the city’s success was judged almost solely in economic terms, by both locals and foreigners alike. But thereafter, it has been considered mostly by political criteria and more specifically, by the pace of democratisation. ‘A shining pearl’: how Jiang Zemin’s warmth towards Hong Kong shone through By and large, Hong Kong’s colonisation by one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies was judged a success because of its economic rise, which also involved the deliberate suppression of democratic development by the colonial government, until its final years. No universal franchise or anything close to it, was ever contemplated. But that seemed to suit everyone, even the locals, who were just happy to be left alone to make money or at least a living. But after 1997, the city was abruptly put under the microscope for its “democracy” or lack thereof under the one-party state of China. If one were to reverse the criteria, Hong Kong would have fared quite well economically under Chinese rule because of the country’s phenomenal economic rise. The city’s gross domestic product per capita almost doubled between 1997 and 2021, to roughly US$50,000. Democratic politics The handover of Hong Kong can be said to be the start of its intense and era-defining politicisation. So, predictably, that has led to a great deal of controversy and misinformation. But Jiang largely fulfilled the “high degree of autonomy” guaranteed under the Basic Law and laid the foundations for the city’s democratisation, at least until the pan-democratic opposition vetoed the version of universal suffrage offered by Beijing for the election of the chief executive in 2015. A direct causal link can be drawn from that fateful veto to the riots and violent protests of 2019 and the political crackdown and electoral rollback thereafter. For the fireworks and colourful language the Chinese side once used to denounce the city’s last governor, Chris Patten, Jiang and his successor Hu Jintao not only restored but expanded the franchise beyond anything ever offered by the colonial government. Consider the actual expansion of the number of seats in the Legislative Council for direct and indirect voting. Legco had no directly elected seats until 1991. Starting with 18 out of 60, Patten merely expanded to 20 seats. He did take the number of functional constituencies, based on professions and trades, from 21 to 30. Jiang Zemin: the president who took China from Tiananmen pariah to rising power After the short-lived provisional Legco, which was Beijing’s angry response to Patten’s unilateral electoral reform, by 1998 Legco was restored to the same numbers of 30 seats for functional constituencies and 20 for direct (district) elections. (Ten electoral college seats would be completely phased out by 2004.) Despite some requalification of functional constituency voters, there was no difference from the last Legco under British rule. Meanwhile, directly elected seats expanded to 24 in 2000, 30 in 2004 and 35 in 2012. Functional constituency seats expanded from 30 to 35 in 2012. But those five so-called super-seats, classified as functional constituencies, were actually directly elected by geographical voters who lived in the respective five regions of Hong Kong. During the noughties, both the opposition and the government observed unwritten rules about protests on the one hand and governance on the other. The rules of the game were clear. Unfortunately, the game was up by the end of the decade, for both internal demographic reasons and external ones, though most didn’t realise it. Chinese leadership mourns ‘insurmountable loss’ as Jiang Zemin dies aged 96 A whole generation of young activists came of age after the handover, with no real experience of British colonial rule or attachment to mainland China. They preferred radical actions rather than patient negotiations and peaceful protests. In one of their biggest failures, the old-style pan-democrats ended up abnegating leadership and letting the increasingly radical and uncompromising activists take over the pan-democratic movement, which morphed into an anti-China advocacy for independence as a city state. Externally, the global financial crisis, triggered by the real estate market collapse in the United States, decisively ended what was called Chimerica, the symbiotic relationship between the world’s two largest economies. With the economic break came the political divorce, or decoupling, and the great power rivalry we see today. Unfortunately, Hong Kong is now trapped in this terribly bitter struggle. The game was up; the old rules no longer applied in Hong Kong. Great uncertainty results. Many people don’t appreciate Jiang and what he did for Hong Kong. I, for one, would like to say thank you, old man.