How has Hong Kong changed since Britain left? I moved to Hong Kong in June 1992. It was three years after the Tiananmen killings, two years after Next had been launched. Five years later, Britain left. Colonialism sailed off on the Royal Yacht Britannia. I did not move to China. China moved to me.
A prominent Hong Kong Chinese businessman, the kind of guy who is featured a lot in the local media, told me shortly before the Chinese takeover: “Hong Kong people don’t care about politics.” That was not true then -- but people could say that in the mid-1990s with a straight face. No one could say now that Hong Kong people do not care about politics! That is, in part, thanks to the city’s last Governor Chris Patten, who also arrived in June 1992 and who raised the bar for what it means to be a citizen.
What is better since 1997? Hong Kong people now have a voice, indeed many voices. They still do not have a meaningful vote, but they certainly have a lot of say. Hong Kong civil society, quietly growing since the 1950s, has blossomed. Environmental, social, and cultural issues all are up for public discussion and debate. Gender, diversity, and social welfare policies are all chewed over by an active and engaged citizenry.
This is a golden age for the forging of a Hong Kong identity. The Umbrella Movement rewrote the Hong Kong narrative. The Hong Kong mind is open as never before. Hong Kong people are developing their own identity, one that rejects the “growth at any cost” mentality and scoffs at the “we are all Chinese” story. The Umbrella Movement will be remembered in the history of modern China as a moment when the people of a small, improbable city spoke truth to power, literally in the shadow of the People’s Liberation Army garrison.
What is worse about Hong Kong? The no-go lines are getting brighter and being drawn ever more tightly. There is a lot less freedom of expression. The rule of law is under threat. Political leadership is absent and even administrative competence eroding. That much we know.
It is hard not to love the growing pride in Hong Kong, something that Next and Apple Daily have done so much to promote. But what do we understand of the dark side of this newfound Hong Kong identity? Pride in Hong Kong could tip into chauvinism. The pushback against mainlanders is in danger of becoming an anti-foreign backlash. Ironically, the government and the pan-Democrats are both working to close Hong Kong.
The closing of the Hong Kong mind can be seen in the decision to eliminate the government subvention for the English Schools Foundation. Who does that hurt? It hurts ESF students, whose parents are mostly Hong Kong permanent residents and who are mostly ethnically Asian. Making it more difficult for non-Cantonese to raise their children in the city is shortsighted.
This city was built not only by millions of Cantonese from Guangdong, and millions of non-Cantonese Chinese from the mainland and from Southeast Asia. It was also built by Scots and English and Americans -- and perhaps above all by those forgotten ones, Sikhs, Sindhis, Parsees, Nepalese, Tamils, and Marathis. Hong Kong was built by people like Paul Chater, an Armenian Jew who was born and grew up in Calcutta, and Elly Kadoorie, an Iraqi Jew born in Baghdad who came to Hong Kong by way of Bombay.
Great cities are open cities. To stay a great city, Hong Kong must keep the welcome mat out for the rest of the world. The world needs Hong Kong. Hong Kong needs the world even more. Please, don’t close your mind, Hong Kong.
caption:Don’t close your mind, please!
Compromise is part of life, and it comes with a democracy. Up until 1997 it was what occurred here. No, we did not have democracy, but our overlords in London were democrats, and it was through that light hand of governance that our people negotiated life.
We were always seen as a problem by Beijing, but under prior Chinese leaders, it was a problem to be managed not crushed. With Xi Jinping's ascension, remnants of our negotiated life vanished.
Xi is not a manager of problems; he tackles problems. He isn't content with the ambiguous state of affairs in Hong Kong. He doesn't accept that a challenge to Chinese Communist Party's authority should hang in the air in Hong Kong - or in China.
Such is our lot. Xi is the unelected leader of China, and as such the unelected leader of Hong Kong. Yet, while he has domain over our politics, and in many cases our livelihoods, mine included, he doesn't hold dominion over our judgment of what is right and wrong. In more biblical terms, he does not own our souls.
Unless of course we offer them up to him on a platter, as did the heads of our 10 universities. Let me be absolutely clear, it is silly to talk of independence for Hong Kong. As with the heads of our Anglican Church and Catholic Church, I agree with the idea that we can break away from China without bloodshed is sheer fantasy. Our future is in reform, not revolution.
But we can't have the leaders of our civil society doing the work of the communist party if we are to evolve towards a more democratic Hong Kong. A university head can certainly take any position on any issue, but to join a Beijing-backed petition silencing free speech?
Yes, we can expect businessmen, under the threat of sanctions, to fall in line when Beijing snaps its fingers. Yet, it's a sad commentary on the state of our higher learning institutions when they beat the Chamber of Commerce in kowtowing.
Was funding at stake? Jobs threatened? There's a difference between conceding under duress and mere currying favors. I admire many in our business community who held out against boycotting us here at Next Digital until the pressure became unbearable. But there is also a special place in hell for those who ransom the bones of our people for a buck, or a comfy academic position.
This brings us back to the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping. Had our Beijing masters not waged a war on our integrity, our learned leaders would have been spared of the urge to prostrate. Communists can tolerate neither a christian nor an atheist who refuses to kneel before them.
What Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul, Nelson Mandela, and Liu Xiaobo all understood was that, to enforce their unelected rule, tyrants would not accept silent acquiescence, but insist on total submission. Obedience is not measured by what one is willing to endure, but what one is willing to inflict on others. And for that they need our souls.
Hence the focus on our young. The impatience of youth has allowed, admittedly with some help from government, the independence idea to gain a small foothold. Its cost and impracticality have sentenced it to a fringe movement. Its only utility is to serve as a paper tiger for the Pro-Beijing camp to justify the escalation of political controls.
Yet, outside of all of this is a message that we know what Beijing fears. The young, whether graduate students or free-agent van drivers, have not bent to Beijing's pressure nor been bought by favor. While the vast majority of them will not rise up for independence, their political outlook and moral judgment remain independent - and free.
Their souls are intact. And not surprisingly Beijing is scared.
Thank goodness the Chinese Communist Party has only ever held 18 national congresses, because as the 19th congress looms next month, it is already filling newspaper pages and airwaves with unrecyclable torrents of bullshit that threaten both to overwhelm and bore everyone to death.
We are treated to allegedly informed appraisals of ideological shifts, claims of new initiatives and, most frequently, mounds of speculation about who’s in and who is out.
The reality however is that what is described as a discussion, even a debate, is absolutely nothing of the kind. All the major decisions have already been taken behind closed doors; the function of the congress is to provide a rubber stamp and put on a stilted performance designed to awe and cow the citizens of the PRC plus the rabble of useful foreign idiots who line up to add their support.
Not only is there no real debate or discussion nowadays, but even in the days when the Communist Party was not in power, the congress served as a way of enforcing the leadership’s decisions. Back then, there was perhaps a scintilla of debate, but it was largely conducted in coded language and minority voices were quickly snuffed out or, worse, extinguished.
The shell that remains and is called the CCP has long abandoned any real interest in Marxist ideology; indeed it is highly questionable whether even Mao Zedong had much interest in this subject, but he shrewdly played along with his Soviet paymasters, putting up a lively show.
If there is any lingering ideology, it largely consists of ultra nationalist bluster; Karl Marx’s internationalism has long been consigned to the dustbin of history. And, as far as guiding principles are concerned, well, that’s simple; they consist in their entity of methods of retaining power for a small self-perpetuating elite.
What marks out the party’s current leader Xi Jinping is how rapidly and comprehensively he has consolidated his personal dominance over the party. This congress will merely underline in public the process that is already well underway in private.
There will however be any number of speeches where fine sounding words such as ‘progress’, ‘responsibility’ and even ‘welfare of the people’ will be uttered but, like the PRC’s constitution, these words have very little meaning.
In this sense, the CCP is like all dictatorships that operate a system of mirrors and deflections designed on the one hand to reinforce and on the other to disguise the party’s control.
Of course the dictatorship system that most influenced the Chinese Communist Party was that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In this regard I still vividly recall my student days attending lectures on Russian history by Tibor Szamuely. In his broad Hungarian accent, he would regale us with detailed accounts of the Soviet constitution and how it worked. As he came to the end of his peroration he would raise his head and say ‘ladies and gentlemen, of course this has absolutely nothing to do with reality. The constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is no more than a work of fiction’. And so it is with the PRC’s constitution.
Meanwhile, here in Hong Kong, there is a marked reluctance to even talk about the Communist Party, despite the fact that the party is the pivotal force determining the SAR’s future. Moreover, local party members still keep their membership secret. Various bigwigs nonetheless strut around proudly proclaiming their presence on a clutch of state bodies and even go so far as to claim that they have some impact on policy.
The poor dears seem gloriously unaware that they are attending the wrong parties and the only party that matters is The Party. They don’t even get a toenail in the door of influencing this party’s policy and actually pretend that what happens in the CCP has no impact on Hong Kong. Dream on suckers!
caption : The well-oiled rubber-stamping machine in action.
Sixteen young people are behind bars, a price they willingly pay for their love of Hong Kong. While it is debatable if the price is too high, many of us who have made this city our home by choice can nevertheless empathize with their “localist” aspirations. Hong Kong is uniquely attractive and it is incumbent upon us all to preserve the local virtues that make us stand out.
First among these is tax. Imagine the newcomer from the “developed” world. For example, Australians earning a good salary have half of their gross wages deducted before they receive anything. On top of that they have to make compulsory retirement savings payments. There is a 10% GST on every dollar they spend. More taxes accumulate. Many other countries have similar burdens.
In Hong Kong we do things differently. The government takes nothing from your pay. The money is yours. MPF money goes into your account. The company you work for is not a tax collector. Taxes are levied later, but at rates that are not wholly out of proportion to the services delivered to you.
At the top of that list of services is safety. We are a remarkably safe city for its size. There are not the “no go” areas that can be found in almost every metropolis. Crime rates are low and the crimes that happen are rarely random acts of violence inflicted on the innocent and vulnerable. Children are safe and can travel alone on public transport.
And that transport works like in few other cities. The trip to and from the airport is swift and comfortable. Choices for transport are many and largely affordable. Cars are a wonderful luxury, but no necessity to live here. The convenience and pervasive commerce of our ever expanding business districts is probably only rivaled by Manhattan.
Education is often criticized, but with money and skill one can, after navigating the arduous admissions processes, find a huge number of choices. Education is delivered in multiple languages, with different educational philosophies by teachers who are reasonably paid and conscientious. We attract teachers from around the world who produce outcomes that rank highly internationally.
Setting up a business here is simple and low-cost, and the rules are fairly clear. There is a cornucopia of agents to assist the process. When you open your doors, you are assuming a serious responsibility and the requirements for employers are serious but straightforward compared to most countries. You can contract for labor, hire and fire – but you had better treat good employees well, because they do have choices.
Admittedly, our rulebook is growing longer, there are businesses that are hard to enter, and the licensing burden is gradually expanding to create more barriers. Yet these rules are usually simple, easily found and enforced in a “black letter” way so that you know where you stand.
Accessing health care is usually a matter of turning up to a doctor’s office or hospital and paying for service. It is an unbelievably more complex process in most countries.
These conveniences can seem prosaic and are easily taken for granted. However, they are founded on a rich vein of culture that is our real strength. The native Cantonese culture is enterprising and resourceful; it is also respectful of others and conscientious. There is an important element of trust that is built from business, civic, religious and clan associations that provide mutual aid and rarely rely on the coercive power of government for support.
And we are an emporium for every kind of food imaginable. For those from other countries, almost every comfort food is available on the shelves of supermarkets or in small specialty stores catering to every taste. Travel the world and people envy you for living in our visually spectacular city.
These local virtues are built on liberty. Those young people behind bars grew up with these virtues. In their defiance, they sounded an alarm that these virtues, hence our liberties, are under threat. We ignore this alarm at our perils.
Caption:Under threat. (Apple Daily photo)
As the anguish over the prison terms passed on some of our youthful protesters ring out from the well-padded international liberal elite, you can’t help but feel that they would do rather better looking at themselves, and their own countries’ histories.
In particular, when it comes to democratic matters, Britain has little to teach the world if it recalls the bizarre treatment that it handed out to the suffragettes, who were merely seeking the vote for women, which involved locking 1,000 of them up in appalling prison conditions, for breaches such as not paying fines, a little over a hundred years ago.
Yes, times move on and values change, but the reality is that ours is essentially a conservative society and the very muted protests in support of the sentenced individuals reflect the fact that our people respect the rule of law, abhor public violence, and believe that those who resort to public violence should be punished firmly.
We are not pre-apartheid South Africa and for those who think that their opinions are so important that they have to express them to a global audience, they should read Mandela’s brilliant speech at the Rivonia Trial, where he lucidly explained the African National Congress decision to undertake a campaign of violence and to fully accept the consequences: “This then is what the ANC is fighting for. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience.”
In this remarkable speech, Mandela essentially asked the judge to sentence him to death, in accordance with the law. The life sentence that he eventually got was taken as a display of weakness on the part of the regime and marked the start of its downfall some three decades later, proving once more that the pen really is mightier than the sword.
A lesson that Mr Joshua Wong may wish to consider while he has time on his hands.
Anyway, we can be sure of one thing - these events will fade as the city gets on with its own business and as our strongly independent citizens continue their daily routines and make their own way in the world, paying little heed to much that is outside their own sphere of activities.
And this is of course one of our great strengths.
Our institutions are generally very weak, as we were never prepared properly for the withdrawal of the colonial government. The political system here actually dissipates rather than concentrates authority, while policy formation and implementation is, at best, poor. For most elected politicians, such weak controls over the levers of power would be seen as a disaster and something that needs correcting immediately.
But here, in Hong Kong, the political mess so often bemoaned actually ensures that people live in little fear of ad hoc government intervention in their lives as they continue to be proudly self-sufficient.
It may be sacrilege to say it, but the large vacuums within our economy and society that our ineffective system of administration and decision making has created over the decades is the key to the continued success of our city and the people that make it.
The independence and entrepreneurialism needed to survive and prosper in a society such as ours is certainly not to everyone’s liking, but for those who are attracted to Hong Kong - those who want to work hard to make their way without much of a safety net - the city surely ranks alongside New York and London as being the most dynamic on the planet.
Attitude is the word.
Hong Kong has attitude and for as long as it keeps its rough, tough edge it will prosper. Whether our electoral system is ideal or not, at least our society offers everybody, unlike Mandela’s apartheid South Africa, a fair crack of the whip and the chance to become whatever they want.
Which, in a way, is what democracy is really about in the first place.
Caption:“if needs be, ... I am prepared to die.”
Payment in full does not always come in one bill. Since 1997 we have had to wait to find out the price China is willing to pay to subjugate us – and the price we are willing to pay to resist it.
Yes, Beijing has been manipulating our government and politics since even before the handover. Democratic activists have been harassed, pro-Beijing politicians feted with favors and cash, and advertising boycotts used to silence the media. Of late, even our borders have been violated as Lee Po and his partner booksellers, were dragged away. But by the standard of brutality Beijing has inflicted on the Chinese people, what we experienced in these early days of the handover was indeed a light touch.
But not any more. Does anyone doubt that Rimsky Yeun, along with a compliant judiciary, has executed an order from Beijing to imprison three young men for crimes that more than two years ago earned them no jail time?
Now, as it is in China, defiance of the regime will carry a physical price – jail. In other words, Xi Jinping has exerted a price for advocating for more democracy in Hong Kong – one's personal freedom. It is also the price Xi is willing to pay in terms of retribution and impact on China. He is broadcasting to the world that he is willing to have our world-class city in tatters if that is what it takes to make us kneel.
How to go forward? Will the people of Hong Kong, who at every chance vote for democracy, just quietly submit to the North? Certainly not the 30,000 plus that turned out this past Sunday to march against the sentences of Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law.
But just as Beijing has changed the rules and increased the punishment, so too will those hoping for greater democracy in Hong Kong have to adjust to these new rules. It is time for the head to reign over the heart. The sloppiness and infighting that have become hallmarks of our democracy movement must end.
Independence from China has never been on the table, and the democracy movement would do well not to deliver a gift to Beijing by embracing it. It was heartening to hear the soon-to-be-jailed Edward Leung, of Hong Kong Indigenous, say this past Sunday, "In the past we had different strategies, different ideologies during the whole struggle – at this moment we think solidarity is the most important thing."
As important as solidarity, the democracy movement must be strategic in picking battles. Going to the barricades on every issue dilutes focus on the main concern of protecting our freedoms.
Most important, if there is a risk of jail, then make it on our terms, which is imprisonment for non-violent civil disobedience. No rock throwing, no burning of trash cans. If Beijing is to throw us in jail, make them justify it to our people – and the world – why they are jailing peaceful protesters. Make Xi pay the price.
As Beijing's dark cloud of oppression descends on us, Joshua, Alex, and Nathan are known the world over for being jailed for holding umbrellas up against unelected tyrants. Part of me smiles, as I think Xi has no idea of the power he has just vested in them. But that carries forward only if the thousands who follow these brave young men match their grace under pressure and refuse to take the Commies’ bait to act out.
Peaceful, law-abiding, believers in merit, and above all freedom-loving, our people form an amazing society. The brutal tactics of the North are an anathema to our values. Yet, we have the upper hand; for it is from practicing these values that we can best advance our cause and find protection for our freedoms.
Freedom for all has always been held for ransom by tyrants. There will be no easy road to freedom under Xi, but the three young men are paying the price to show us the way.
Caption:Showing us the way.
Living in Hong Kong you sometimes feel that cynicism is an inadequate response to what’s going on and that sarcasm is not really up to the task of trying to make sense of it all.
To illustrate this feeling here are some recent random examples. Put together they constitute a pattern of behavior.
There are strict laws in place forbidding Mainland law enforcement officials from operating in the SAR, yet Democratic Party member Howard Lam alleges he was hustled over the border, beaten up and dumped back in Hong Kong after been warned not to maintain contact with Liu Xia, widow of Liu Xiabo. In a society where the police could be relied upon to thoroughly investigate this matter without fear of political meddling, confidence in the value of the investigation would be high; however following the disinterred police response to the abdication of the Causeway Bay booksellers, confidence is low.
The new Chief Executive has nothing to say here but she had plenty to say about her August visit to Beijing where wise and extremely helpful Mainland officials are, apparently, going to help us develop as an international financial center, yes, that’s what she said with a straight face.
Guangdong authorities, presumably also wise and helpful, took three days before bothering to inform their Hong Kong counterparts that a collision in the Pearl River Delta has produced a major oil slick heading to the South of Hong Kong. The new undersecretary for the environment said there was no delay here even though measures could have been taken to reduce local sea and beach pollution. Our supine officials fully understand that they are not allowed to criticize their Mainland counterparts.
The head of a Tuen Mun primary school is alleged not only to have artificially inflated the school’s registration roll to ensure higher government subsidies but also forced teachers to stand at border crossing stations handing out leaflets to attract more pupils and, bizarrely, bullied them into buying cake coupons for the school in return for being granted sick leave.
Although we have a vast and overbearing education bureaucracy, how come none of the bureaucrats spotted any of this while doling money out to the school? And what about the schools supervisory committee, were they asleep on the job or simply complicit here? The time-servers who proliferate in the public sector underwhelm at every opportunity.
Then there are the growing allegations over abuse at juvenile detention centers. The Correctional Services Department, predictably, says that this is news to them because all previous reports of abuse have either been withdrawn, rejected or are still under review. The disciplined services are very good at protecting their own people but where is the protection for citizens who are in their custody – yes, I know that includes criminals but the strength of civil society is tested not at its strongest but its weakest points.
Meanwhile property developers are busy rolling out new plans for nano-apartments that, given the price of local property, are about the only thing many buyers and renters can afford. In allegedly prosperous Hong Kong, people are being crammed into smaller and smaller living spaces yet the government claims that tackling the housing problem is one of its highest priorities.
The reality is that the government is largely oblivious to the housing problem as it focuses on the different issue of the property problem and addresses this with a series of consistently ineffective measures aimed at lowering prices. If the government were really interested in housing matters it would be focusing on social housing and improved home ownership arrangements.
A golden, or should I say a tattered thread, connects all these random examples of official arrogance, stupidity and a woeful lack of interest in standing up for the citizens that public servants are supposed to serve. And they wonder why Hong Kong people protest so much.
Caption:Our reward for toadying to the Mainland.