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We’re fortunate in Hong Kong to be largely out-of-reach of the more Communist element of the People’s Republic.  While going to work in Beijing meant passing guards dressed in green military garb, the PLA is almost totally invisible in Hong Kong.  Here, people are free to criticize China, mourn those who died on June 4, 1989, question the death of Li Wangyang, and partially elect their representatives to District Councils and the Legislative Council.  There is a thriving civil society here, and it is inspiring to see it grow and evolve.

Hong Kong’s history and success – yes, intertwined with that of Britain’s – is something to be proud of. That’s why Hu Jintao’s visit to the territory this weekend to mark the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover is so depressing.

I can’t stress enough how proud I am to live in Hong Kong.  I’ve lived in several other cities in China, and enjoyed the experience immensely.  I spend much of my time in Mainland China and even run a business there.  But Mainland China doesn’t share my values the way Hong Kong does, and Hong Kong people do.

Nonetheless, it appears Hong Kong people are fighting a long battle that will be almost impossible to win.  At every turn, there is growing influence from Mainland China: millions of Mainland Chinese are pouring across the border each year, Beijing is pushing Hong Kong to adopt a “patriotic” curriculum for students, Mandarin is gaining in importance against centuries-old Cantonese, many believe self-censorship in the local media is on the rise, the SCMP has largely fallen into Mainland hands, and I could go on.  Each of these is a front in a war to maintain Hong Kong’s unique way of life, a war that sees Hong Kong badly outmatched by its northern neighbour and compatriot.

Is Hong Kong worth saving?

The question is, is Hong Kong’s way of life worth saving?  Why shouldn’t it integrate further with the Mainland?

Here’s why: freedom and hard work are valued here, far ahead of corruption and cronyism.  Yes, the latter two exist, but they don’t underpin society here the same way they do in Mainland China (for more on this, I highly recommend reading about the ICAC, an institution China badly needs).  I had a huge adjustment to make after four years in Mainland China, where my work only needed to be “good enough”. Here, perfection is expected.  Hong Kong is a small territory and in order for it to succeed as a global city, everyone needs to pull much more more than their own weight.  Hong Kong people realize this, and I’m proud to join in and do my part, too.

In addition, Hong Kong people are tremendously political; there are protests and rallies nearly every weekend.  This is a sign of a healthy and functioning civil society, something China sorely lacks.  Years in China taught me to be very careful about criticizing the government or country to Chinese friends or colleagues, but in Hong Kong there is no such concern.  Hong Kong people are able to look objectively at their own local and national governments and critique them, which is refreshing.

Hong Kong’s legal system gives each and every Hong Kong person proper protection, and ensures that things like food safety are properly regulated.  This is why Mainland people can be seen flocking to Hong Kong to stock up on things like baby powder.  Yes, there are some corrupt companies and people in Hong Kong, as there are everywhere, but a proper legal system ensures they are dealt with appropriately.  The city is plagued with other issues, such as pollution, a wealth gap, and soaring property market. However, a functioning free press allows people at all levels of society to confront the issues and try and find solutions, whereas discussing the most sensitive of social issues in China is verboten. Like democracy itself, this system is not perfect; but it’s much better than the alternative presented by Beijing.

Put simply, Hong Kong is ahead of China on the development curve.  In fact, as a Canadian, I often feel Hong Kong’s efficient bureaucracy, tax regime, work ethic and social structure are far ahead of my own country’s.  If anything, Hong Kong should be more heavily influencing the mainland, not vice versa.

So, in my view, Hong Kong’s unique way of life should absolutely be preserved.  Many Mainland Chinese people – and foreigners – in China would like to see the Mainland move towards a more open and free society, so why restrict it in a place where that has largely already been achieved?

The dystopian future

Therefore it saddens me to see business leaders and politicians who grew up in a sophisticated, international financial centre kowtow to Beijing’s Communist ruler of the day — but they must. It’s just a weird wrinkle of history.

Those images sure don’t fill Hong Kong people with optimism.  They’re skittish because they – and all of us – see the looming threat on the horizon.  Hong Kong simply isn’t big enough to fight off the Mainland’s influence over the long term and on multiple fronts.  Only the Basic Law – which China agreed to and ensures the continuation of Hong Kong’s system until 2047 – is keeping things in order.

Nobody knows what China’s long-term plans are for Hong Kong, but it would be short-sighted to drastically change the status quo. Unlike “Brand China”, which is not highly regarded worldwide, Hong Kong is generally well respected.  As an international financial centre, Hong Kong has had more success than London or New York in recent years.  It is a jewel in China’s crown — but not one China built itself entirely, which makes those in Beijing uneasy.

What saddened me most this past weekend was Beijing’s lack of respect for Hong Kong’s distinct culture.  There was the photo below, which graced the front pages of several local newspapers and filled my Facebook and Twitter feed:

Many joked: “Hong Kong or Pyongyang?” My question: was this necessary, considering the anxiety Hong Kong people feel already? (Some also wondered why four microphones were required, as the volume from one could’ve been turned up if he really needed it.)

Then there’s the case of a journalist who shouted a question at Hu Jintao regarding June 4.  He was taken away by police and “interrogated” for 15 minutes before being released.  In my view, the police will have to give a firm explanation of why the reporter was removed, because shouting out a question is a time-honoured journalistic tradition in the free world.

Most upsetting of all, to me, might seem like only the smallest of indignities to others: the lack of Cantonese at the swearing-in ceremony of new Chief Executive CY Leung.  It’s understood the ceremony must be in Putonghua, because many (if not all) of the delegates from Beijing are unable to understand the language of southern China.  But Cantonese is a hot button issue in both Hong Kong and Guangdong, and removing it entirely from the ceremony borders on insulting.  As of today, the two official languages in Hong Kong are English and Cantonese; the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR was sworn in in neither of the two official languages.

Winning over the people

Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated that it is tone deaf when it comes to Hong Kong.  As I’ve argued before, Beijing has several tools at its disposal to win over the local population, make them feel more comfortable being a part of China, and give them more hope for the future. A couple of things that could have been done differently this weekend:

Involve Britain

I know, I know, this is terribly unlikely.  While China views Britain’s involvement in Hong Kong as part of the country’s tortured history of humiliation, most Hong Kong people view Britain rather fondly.  (In fact, the British colonial flag for Hong Kong was flown by several people at today’s protest in Victoria Park). If people don’t overtly tell me they wish Britain still ruled the territory, many thank the UK for the gifts it bestowed on Hong Kong before handing the territory back to China.  Having a nominal role for the UK in the handover celebrations would be a conciliatory gesture that demonstrates China respects all contributions made to Hong Kong’s success and recognizes the territory’s unique history.

Ditch the Pyongyang-style military inspections

This should be self-explanatory.  The only reason this was done to show off China’s military might and rock solid control of the territory.  That may make people in Beijing feel warm and fuzzy, but did they consider the impact it would have on Hong Kong people? My guess is no.

Use Cantonese at the swearing-in ceremony

As I stated, Putonghua needs to be used here for the actual swearing in, but could Cantonese have been used as one of the languages for the introductions?  How about introducing the names of the participants in both languages?  A small gesture here would’ve gone a long way.  The fact Cantonese was not used at all has become the single biggest issue filling my Twitter feed at the moment.  Beijing has failed to understand that Cantonese is not just a southern language, it is a vital part of Hong Kong people’s identity.

Show support for current institutions; leave out threatening language

Hu Jintao deserves credit for the first part: he did make clear that the “One Country, Two Systems” principle needs to be preserved alongside Hong Kong’s unique legal and social systems.  What he didn’t need to say was that Hong Kong should resist foreign interference in the territory.  That kind of language may work in Beijing, but it sounds Stalinist down here.

The sad part about this is Beijing doesn’t have to do any of the above; Hong Kong belongs to China no matter how awkwardly it manages the territory.  One only wishes the leadership in Beijing were secure enough in its own ideas to accept and celebrate the diversity of the Chinese nation without the need to resort to threatening language or showcase its military might.

The question now, sadly, is how long Hong Kong can keep fighting the good fight.





  1. [...] Zhongnanhai Blog: Hu Jintao’s visit highlights Hong Kong’s dystopian future /* [...]

    • Ben says:

      Twenty percent of the HK population living in poverty may have something to do with it; the poor social services; the cage homes; the shoddy old age homes; pollution; lack of green spaces in the city.

      • AfterAll says:

        Thank God people like you are not controlling Hong Kong and for the most part remain in Europe.

  2. gregorylent says:

    tone-deafness is a tactic, used by usa, many countries around the world … my way or the highway is the message of power everywhere …

  3. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    To use Jiang Jia-min’s famous expression: You are sometimes naive. I was in H K attending an academic conference at a university. The topic is about criminal law in Mainland China. I was surrounded by spies from Beijing trying to find out what’s going on in H K. H K is not china for the time being but it is no longer the same. Wake up.

  4. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    90,000 people marched in H K to protest the introduction of patriotic education into the educational curriculum. The underlying reason is that H K people resent Beijing’s interference with the independent design of the educational curriculum in H K. Those promises of no change for 50 years and H K people governing H K are just empty promises.

  5. CY Leung will soon follow CH Tung’s example to leave office before the end of his term. He stirred up the frustration and anger of the H K people.

  6. [...] education protests, scandals involving coverage in the South China Morning Post, the increasing “Mainlandization” of Hong Kong, and upcoming Legco [...]

  7. Ronald Johnson says:

    Both parties will try the “nudge”,hopefully w/hk being more influential but the sands of time….