Hong Kong from the inside

Jul 23, 2020

Reporting by outsiders on Hong Kong tends to be over-simplistic and seen through Western eyes. We need to look at things through the eyes of Hong Kongers. The old Hong Kong is dead but the new one may emerge not quite like either the West or China would foresee.

Replacing simple stereotypical attacks on an evil and authoritarian China by a  greater understanding of China’s history and role would also help understand what is happening.

Hong Kong problems continue, dominated by the now third wave of the coronavirus and the city’s continuing political problems.  It’s been around one year since Hong Kong’s feng shui took an inauspicious downturn. A year ago, citizens went out on what seemed to be a last stand before the inevitable implementation of the extradition law, little knowing that this simple act would escalate into a whirling vortex of a typhoon, sweeping Hong Kong into its path of destruction. The last year has been marked by escalating protests and open goading of the Chinese authorities which has led to the implementation of the National Law. Residents in Hong Kong have watched as their beloved city has lost not only its political freedoms but also the basis of its economy which depends on its reputation as a viable operational hub. The old Hong Kong, as residents are already bemoaning, needed to be politically and legally transparent in order to do business and in that case where is the new Hong Kong heading?

The main focus of reporting on Hong Kong has been on its geopolitical role in the region, first as a colony of Britain and then as a Special Administrative Region ( SAR) of China. The international perspective mainly views Hong Kong as a pawn between China and the West and more recently with the tariffs on trade, the power play has focused on the United States. There is no doubt that Hong Kong is directly and rapidly affected by global events, but this view is not sufficient to explain what is happening here and in order to understand how Hong Kong came to this sad impasse, more needs to be understood about Hong Kong’s local dynamics.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong just before the handover, there was a joke about university students which was that they were more interested in the stock market figures than political figures. Supposedly people were ‘apolitical’, and there was a sense that society was more interested in doing business than in engaging in politics.

The Handover celebrations saw a population relieved to get rid of the British and while there were fears of the future, the general consensus was that China was rapidly opening up politically and economically and Hong Kong wanted to be part of this future. Even as far back as 10 years ago there was a sense of pride at the success of the Beijing Olympic games and that Hong Kong was a part of this success.

How then did this go so wrong? How did this city that was very much about live and let live in the interests of business become so divided into ideological partisan factions and a deep mistrust of authorities namely the Hong Kong government, the police and the CCP?

To begin with, from the international perspective, there is the historic argument that Hong Kong was part of China, ceded to the British in the 19th century Opium Wars and now Hong Kong has been returned back to the Chinese fold. There are problems with this argument which fails to look at the local perspective. The Hong Kong of today is not the same as it was in the 19th century. A sleepy fishing village, Hong Kong’s only interest to the British at that time was as a strategic, geographical outpost.

Their real prize was to exploit the riches of China, a fact that China has not forgotten.  It developed into a commercial hub dominated by British firms [hongs] which got their start as drug pushers. Historically, the humiliations and suffering of China in the 19th and 20th centuries from the exploitative ‘most favoured trading treaties’ with the British, Americans, French, Germans and Japanese is deeply felt and for this reason alone, China cannot let go of Hong Kong.

Under the British, Hong Kong acquired a veneer of Westernization. One example is language. English is and was spoken by the elites but even with widespread English language schooling, English is not spoken widely.  It is clear after living years in this city, that English is a functional language, useful for getting ahead in the job market but not really used socially and it is not deeply assimilated in a largely chauvinistic Cantonese culture. Mostly monocultural, most Hong Kongers are not terribly interested in other cultures and have mainly assimilated Western culture superficially. Fashion brands are coveted but mainly in the context of expressing status in the Chinese context.

This could explain some of the naivety of the protesters who have pinned their hopes on the USA and the UK to rescue their cause.  Hong Kong’s identity is as much from the successive wave of mainly Cantonese refugees hoping to find their fortune in Hong Kong as it is from the veneer of both British and Chinese mainland cultures. Initially hopeful of a benign Chinese regime, Hong Kong has seen its importance decline, with the rise of Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The regime has become more hardline in its approach to Hong Kong which has taken on a Western veneer of democracy but which in fact is more about preserving local culture and interests and above all to maintain a way of life that has earned Hong Kong the reputation of a freewheeling energetic capitalist city. Conflict has laid bare narrow partisan interests which include Chinese and Western elites, a middle class keenly aware of dwindling economic and social opportunities and Chinese triad allegiances in the New Territory villages.

The real tragedy is that there has been so little compromise on all sides including the Hong Kong government which has not done a good job of looking after local interests but has kept its head turned to China. Whether in name or in practice, in the modern world, Hong Kong merits a government that is representative of its own concerns and interests.  After a year of protracted and unfruitful turmoil, China has had enough and has made it clear that Hong Kong must toe the line. The result is an uneasy and resentful calm as the city now also battles Covid 19. Nevertheless, Hong Kong has a feisty and resilient spirit and it is a mistake to believe that it is all over.

The old Hong Kong is dead but the new one may emerge not quite like either the West or China would foresee.

The writer is a long term resident of Hong Kong who prefers to remain anonymous.

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