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.