Hong Kong returns to its old self: economically rich but politically neutral

Jul 12, 2021

The city is not losing a democracy it never had but simply going back to being an apolitical community focusing on finance and trade, as it had always been, after a brief and anomalous period of intense and often violent politicisation.

Popular as it is, the “localist” and international narrative about free and democratic Hong Kong being killed off by Beijing is a complete myth. The electoral reforms that the city had experienced after the 1997 handover of sovereignty were the outcome of an accidental combination of “one country, two systems”, relative international peace between China and the West, and Beijing’s leniency towards Hong Kong.

It was the political liberation – which began in the mid-1990s and picked up pace after the handover until the mid-2010s – that was unprecedented. Now under the shadow of the national security law and Beijing’s crackdown, the city is reverting to the historical mean. It is not that Hong Kong is losing a democracy it never had; it is simply going back to being an apolitical community focusing on finance and trade, as it had always been, except for a brief period of intense politicisation.

The myth of a once-free and democratic Hong Kong, however, is understandable and completely believable for young people, who had no adult experience of colonial rule before the 1990s, so their actual experience has been confined to a very narrow period of Hong Kong’s recent history which, in reality, represents more of an anomaly than the norm.

The political turmoil of recent years, culminating with the violent unrest of 2019 and the subsequent crackdown as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, barely changed the economic fundamentals of the city.

The economy expanded by 7.9 per cent in the first quarter this year, a V-shaped rebound in gross domestic product (GDP) after a record 9.1 per cent contraction in the same period last year. The crucial stock and property markets are on the upswing. Real estate prices, which have increased by 3.1 per cent so far this year, are projected to gain 5 to 10 per cent for the full year. The government’s fiscal outlook is expected to return to an annual surplus.

Despite anecdotes about a wave of emigration because of the new political environment, it will not be sustained, if it is happening at all. As Keith Kerr, president of the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong (Reda), puts it: “Some people are leaving, but some people are moving here to Hong Kong. For every person moving out, there’s probably at least the same number, if not more people coming in, so I don’t think that really is going to affect demand in the medium to longer term.”

Hong Kong has always been a trade and economic hub, not a place for political agitation. The British colonial masters made sure of that. Our political masters in Beijing will do likewise after the ill-fated political experiment of recent years. And with the full integration of the city with the Greater Bay Area that is set to become one of the world’s great economic engines of growth, the city’s future success is almost guaranteed.

As for its political fortune, it will be tied to that of the rest of the country, for better or worse. But that has always been the case.

This article has been republished from The South China Morning Post 5 July 2021. Click here to read the original article.

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