I apologize for the absence of The Dismal Optimist over recent months. Some necessary back surgery intervened. As Cher once said to Opra, getting old “sucks”
A POSITIVE VIEW OF THE FUTURE OF HONG KONG
In response to the passage of the National Security Law for Hong Kong by the Chinese Central government, Western media and politicians are predicting gloom and doom for the future of Hong Kong.
I disagree. As a former part time Hong Kong resident, I’m an optimist on Hong Kong’s future. The National Security Law will prove to be a vital pivot in putting Hong Kong back on the path of prosperity. No city can prosper when large numbers of its citizens are throwing bombs, disrupting its transportation system and looting its universities. All in the name of an impossible dream called independence.
The new National Security Law specifies four crimes—subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces that endanger security. The details are still coming out but the Law will be enforced by Hong Kong authorities and supposedly will not interfere with Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms. Will the Central Government live up to this and interfere with Hong Kong’s freedoms? We’ll see. The only answer that can be given is that Beijing isn’t stupid and doesn’t want to kill the golden goose. Since the Handover in 1997, Beijing has respected Hong Kong’s rights.
My views are definitely in the minority among the predominant Western media. Tuttutting about China’s faults is one of the favorite pastimes of Western media and politicians. Both are imbued with a sense of racially based moral superiority that seems to have survived both the end of colonialism and, in the American case, numerous ill-fated and genocidal foreign wars such as Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq. The West always thinks it knows best. It doesn’t occur to the West that Hong Kong is none of its business.
The United States under Trump has initiated a tech war against China. In a totally cynical fashion, the US has seemed to support HK protestors. But the US in reality only wants to hurt China. And hurting Hong Kong means hurting China. The US doesn’t want non-white China to replace it as world hegemon. It could care less about the future of Hong Kong. President Trump has already signed the so-called Hong Kong Autonomy Act as well as an executive order ending Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment. This reminds one of what was supposedly said by one American commander in Vietnam, “we must destroy the village in order to save it.”
The Promise of Hong Kong
It would take a book to adequately explain all the attractions of Hong Kong. Certainly Beijing doesn’t need to be convinced of its value. Hong Kong’s fine harbor, its potential to regain its position– post virus and post protestors–as a luxury good and tourist mecca and its excellent mostly English medium universities come immediately to mind. One observer actually predicted (I think with a straight face) that Hong Kong could become a haven for the rich, another Monaco.(https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3090618/national-security-law-could-turn-hong-kong-asias-monaco)
Hong Kong’s physical location enables it to act as a financial intermediary between China and the West. Despite all its troubles Hong Kong has retained its position as one of the world’s great financial centers. Three major banks tower over the city and issue their own currency notes—Bank of China (HK), HSBC and Standard Chartered. The Hong Kong dollar is freely convertible into other currencies. The Hong Kong currency board arrangement has functioned magnificently during all Hong Kong’s recent troubles. Finally the Hong Kong Stock Exchange has become the logical market for Chinese IPOs. Rules on different voting shares have been loosened as have rules for biotech firms. And the Stock Connect plan plugs the Hong Kong Exchange into China’s immense savings pool. With Stock Connect the Hong Kong Exchange is opened to three investor bases—International, Hong Kong and Mainland China.
The risk to Hong Kong as a financial center is that the US, in its desire to punish China for passing the National Securities Law, could if it wanted do damage to Hong Kong as a financial center. The dollar is the world’s international currency and under the currency board system the Hong Kong dollar is backed up by US dollar liquid assets. If the US were to try to hurt Hong Kong as a financial center it would be a reckless, immoral step that could cause a world financial panic. Fortunately, this threat seems to have receded. The US moves to curtail Hong Kong’s special status as a trading port will be survivable.
There is one major flaw in the Hong Kong picture. Many believe that the real cause of unhappiness in Hong Kong is not details in the Basic Law or other legal niceties but rather Hong Kong’s miserable housing conditions inasmuch as this affects the poorer section of the population. Hong Kong has it in its power to rectify this. And it should start now. Hong Kong authorities should take a trip to Singapore where the government has an extensive and successful public housing program. Increase supply. That should be the goal.
The People of Hong Kong—Orphans of Empire
In the post WW II period, in colony after colony of the once mighty British Empire, the Union Jack came down and the local flag went up. Eloquent speeches accompanied what was a new beginning. Jawaharlal Nehru, the new prime minister of India and probably the most eloquent of the new postcolonial leaders, proclaimed that his country had “a tryst with destiny.”
The 1997 Handover of Hong Kong was different. The Union Jack came down with a lugubrious Prince Charles looking on. The flag of the Peoples Republic of China went up in place of the Union Jack. Under the British, Hong Kongers had developed a separate identity from China. But unlike the myriad of ex-British colonies, Hong Kong was not being given independence. Rather it was being handed back to a country that many Hong Kongers mistrusted and whose parents had left. No plebiscite was ever held asking Hong Kongers what they wanted. Nobody ever proclaimed that Hong Kong had a tryst with destiny. It’s easy to see why many Hong Kongers are unhappy.
Britain and China knew that history dictated that things had to be this way. In 1840 and 1861 in wars forcing China to buy Indian opium and in 1898 in a 99 year lease forced on a fading Qing Dynasty, Britain took over Hong Kong. In 1860 British and French troops looted and burned the immense and priceless Yuanmingyuan, the Imperial Summer Palace. They repeated this orgy of destruction and looting in Beijing in 1900. There were other humiliations, too many to list here. For China these were humiliations that could never be forgotten. They were undoubtably in Chairman Mao’s mind when in 1949 he stood before thousands in Tiananmen Square at the founding of the Peoples Republic. “The Chinese People have stood up!”, he proclaimed. Less eloquent than the Indian leader but with a powerful historically based passion. No Chinese leader, Communist or non-Communist, could ever grant independence to a Hong Kong that had been so unjustly acquired by Britain. And thereby promote the disunity of China.
Mao’s successor, the ever-practical Deng Xiaoping, came up with a solution. He knew Hong Kong was a priceless capitalist jewel that had to play a key role in China’s development. But it had to go back to China in 1997, whether this was a good idea or not. Deng’s solution: One country, two systems. Hong Kong could keep all its freedoms, the media, the British judicial system, private property, it could even have an electoral system it never had under the British. In 1984 in a deal worked out with Mrs. Thatcher this principle was embodied in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Based on this Declaration, Hong Kong’s constitution, the so-called Basic Law was crafted. The Basic Law provides for a Hong Kong that is probably freer than any country in Asia.
In my opinion, since 1997 with perhaps one or two exceptions China has lived up to its part of the Basic Law. But Hong Kong has not. Article 23 of the Basic Law called for the passage of a security law. Hong refused to pass this. Moreover, its police force seemed at times overwhelmed both by protestors who had no respect for persons or property and by a legal system lacking a security law. As the protest movement evolved, it became clear that its real goal was independence for Hong Kong. Something that, because of the history is absolutely impossible—even if by Western standards of democracy is justified. The protestors were wasting their time and needlessly damaging Hong Kong. And they certainly didn’t care about the Basic Law.
The UK is the former colonial power. It had to give back the land to China, i.e. the territory of Hong Kong. But it didn’t have to give back the people. It has a responsibility for them since in a sense it created them. Better late than never– British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now offering 3 million Hong Kongers the right to live in the UK. (We’ll see if the British people will be thrilled about that.)
So the Empire is finally facing up to its responsibility for its Hong Kong orphans. If Hong Kongers are so unhappy becoming part of China, they should leave and China should be happy to see them go. My own guess is that, except for the died-in-the-wool ideologues, not many Hong Kongers will want to leave a culturally agreeable Hong Kong for a depressed and possibly hostile post-Brexit Britain where nobody understands Cantonese and they can’t get Cantonese-style goose legs.
Another fact stands out. Despite the protests, the virus and the global recession, Hong Kong house prices have not declined and remain the most expensive in the world. Probably a substantial number of wealthy Hong Kong homeowners have a second passport and could have already left if they had wanted. Somebody likes it there.