Hong Kong is not dying after all.

Jun 7, 2021

On 25 May, the China Centre at Jesus College, Cambridge University, hosted a significant online, two-hour seminar on The Future of Hong Kong.

The speakers, in the order in which they spoke, were: Emeritus Professor David Zweig (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology); Grenville Cross SC (former Director of Public Prosecutions in Hong Kong); Isabel Hilton OBE (London-based writer and broadcaster, founder and advisor, China Dialogue Trust); and Ronny Tong SC (Hong Kong Executive Council Member).

What emerged from the seminar can fairly be summarized as Two Tales of One City. The first tale presented a stoutly realistic but positive review of what the future may hold for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) following the violent upheaval and radical reforms of the last two years. The second tale offered an essentially gloomy, regretful view of where Hong Kong finds itself today. It argues that this outcome was avoidable and explains why it prefigures more gloom to come.

Cross and Tong look at the HKSAR in their different ways but together, their analyses underpin the first tale. Zweig and especially Hilton lay down the foundations of the second tale.

A proposed new Extradition Bill provided the pretext for very large mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019. By early June 2019, major political rioting had spun off from the peaceful protests. The Extradition Bill was suspended and then withdrawn as the fearsome violence intensified.

The initial insurrection rapidly turned into an extremely violent and horrifically damaging multi-month insurgency. All of this unfolded as the US was intensifying its nakedly confrontational project to contain the rise of China.

Cross and Tong both saw these events of 2019 as pivotal.

Cross argued that the work of the Hong Kong Police was crucial in restoring freedom from fear which had been a key axis of the Rule of Law regime in Hong Kong for decades prior to 2019. The subsequent major constitutional reforms introduced by Beijing, in conformity with the Basic Law of the HKSAR, were focused on ensuring that the events of 2019 could not recur and that the HKSAR would be fully repositioned to take the best advantage of the distinctive opportunities offered under the One Country Two Systems (OCTS) formula. These radical amendments (a new National Security Law and electoral reforms) were a logical and measured response, he maintained, to the extraordinary breakdown in the political-social order from mid-2019.

Ronny Tong was the final speaker. He spoke lucidly and with feeling, largely in response to the other presentations. He noted that the ascendant Western measure of liberties in Hong Kong could candidly be summarized as the greater the distance Hong Kong maintains from Beijing the greater are its freedoms; the closer Hong Kong gets to Beijing, the more its freedoms wilt. This, he said, is a false basis for any such assessment.

For Hilton and Zweig, the insurrection was notably less pivotal for the same reason. For them, it was a segment, albeit violent, embedded within the far wider and more significant protest movement.

David Zweig focussed on evident deep concerns about the nature of Hong Kong identity for significant numbers of HKSAR residents. Hilton and Zweig both spoke of the paranoia which, they claimed, shaped thinking and wrong-headed responses in Beijing. One was left with the clear impression that these paranoia-based responses may be important in explaining the violence and destruction that Hong Kong had experienced. Had there been more level-headed (liberal-style?) decision-making, certain severe outcomes may have been avoided. This sort of (misguided in my view) reasoning relies on maintaining that the perpetrators significantly lacked personal agency: Beijing; the HKSAR Government, the Police or other factors somehow forced them to take violent, destructive action.

Isabel Hilton also reminded us about the broad 99% criminal law conviction rate in China. The figure is accurate but many who use it fail to inform themselves of the wider context. In Civil Law in East Asia, this sort of conviction rate is not uncommon. A short web search reveals that comparable rates are 99% in Japan, 97% in South Korea and over 90% in Taiwan, for example.

Next Isabel Hilton reflected on how the HKSAR may be set to suffer a brain-drain and other related difficulties (as Hong Kong residents relocate to more free jurisdictions) which could place its socio-economic future in greater jeopardy. Yet local evidence clearly and steadily suggests otherwise. To be fair, this is more accessible when you are living in Hong Kong rather than reasoning from London. Thus, despite the shocking upheaval arising from the insurrection and the continuing problems related to coping with the COVID pandemic, both the residential property market (now approaching record highs) and the stock market has remained remarkably firm.

An expert commentator on local television recently noted that across the major business and professional zones in the HKSAR, the increasingly prominent language you hear is Putonghua or Mandarin, the primary language of China. Hong Kong today can – and does – draw on a huge, increasing pool of fully bilingual (or better) professional talent from across the border. Whatever brain-drain may unfold will be more than made up for through this ongoing brain-flow. I teach Mainland post-graduate students in law at Hong Kong University each year. Their skill-set is very good, indeed, and the best are exceptionally gifted.

In 1995, Forbes magazine ran a long story titled ‘The Death of Hong Kong’. It provided an extended catalogue of reasons why the sky was almost sure to fall once the HKSAR was established. We have now come to another notable turning point in Hong Kong’s history and it has helped germinate a fresh harvest of calamity prognoses. These disconsolate predictions are premised, fundamentally, on a longing for a Hong Kong which retains a cherished, embedded Liberal-Euro-essence. The fact that this is not how matters have transpired is understood to confirm both: a new dark stain on Beijing’s record; and a failure by Beijing to comply with the conditions set for the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 (and penalties may apply). What happened in 2019 was, overall, far more a heroic crusade to secure this prized outcome, rather than an insurrection.

The premises of this analysis are, however, ill-grounded.

Richard Hughes, the memorable China and Hong Kong-based Australian journalist and reputed, long-term MI6 agent, wrote in his 1968 book, ‘Borrowed Place – Borrowed Time’, that “Hong Kong is China”. He states this on page 1 and repeats it. What happened in 1997, confirmed that Hughes spoke the truth in 1968. The return of Hong Kong to Beijing, by the British, was on the basis that the HKSAR would be run in a particular, separate way, under the OCTS regime until at least 2047. But the resumption and exercise of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong was in no sense conditional on any kind of ongoing, semi-formal British or Western approval.

That said, there is a powerful political-legal basis, drawing on the Basic Law of the HKSAR above all, for keeping score on how fairly and freely the HKSAR is able to operate, year by year, under the OCTS regime. That scorecard is not perfect but, after almost 24 years – including a recent extended, terrifying insurgency – it remains in remarkably good shape.

This important seminar brought together four articulate speakers all of whom have strong views on Hong Kong. The ensuing discussion did a remarkable job of highlighting how varied such views are today. Intriguingly, these views still coalesced around the first tale and the second tale of one city set out above.

The melancholy second tale is favoured by many. It anchors their understanding of where the roots of Hong Kong lie, what has gone wrong and how its future is set to unfold. It is, however, substantiated within a pivotal mood of longing and regret which, while understandable, fails to come to grips with the essential reality that Hong Kong is, fundamentally and immutably, a part of China, subject to the conditionality particularized in the Basic Law.

The first tale presents a full-bodied understanding of how the HKSAR must ensure that OCTS can never, again, be used as basis to threaten national security, and how Hong Kong now has a renewed opportunity to prepare itself to do as well as it can, over coming decades, under that system.

Over time, the death of Hong Kong has been repeatedly predicted. Hong Kong’s remarkable resilience has, with determined regularity, subsequently derailed these prophecies. Today Hong Kong look measurably better placed than most of the Western developed world, to cope, over the long term, with whatever the future may bring. This stimulating and informing seminar did not, itself, establish this. Neither, however, did it shift the needle away from this basic assessment.

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