Hong Kong, Asia’s financial heart—a city of skyscrapers and tycoons, real-estate cartels and matchbox housing—doesn’t stop ever, simply because, as they say, “Hong Kong loves nothing more than the colour of money.”
Hong Kong, Asia’s financial heart—a city of skyscrapers and tycoons, real-estate cartels and matchbox housing—doesn’t stop ever, simply because, as they say, “Hong Kong loves nothing more than the colour of money.” But Hong Kong’s market mentality, said to be the driving factor behind its rise, fails to explain the recent inordinate interest of Hong Kongers in matters political, such as the recent election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE) which pitted three candidates—Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, John Tsang Chun-wah and Woo Kwok-hing—in an election that was “predetermined, preordained and prehugged,” as a commentator lamented. Elections aside, the campaign trail itself exposed the growing fault lines between China and Hong Kong. If economics be China’s golden principle, why is it that, despite economic integration, there is an unquiet on the eastern front?
“Gifts from Beijing” constitutes a long list: from the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA, 2003) which provides Hong Kong priority access to China’s market; China as Hong Kong’s largest trading partner; Hong Kong as the largest offshore centre for the RMB to China’s favourable Individual Visit Scheme (IVS, 2003, covering 49 cities in mainland China), enabling an estimated 45.8 million mainlanders accounting for 77% of total arrivals visiting Hong Kong in 2015. It is mainly the Chinese tourists who are seen climbing the Victoria Peak and taking selfies on the Star Ferry.
Then is China-backed infrastructure and connectivity, by way of Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge (HZMB), and Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express rail (XRL) that will connect Hong Kong with Beijing and Shanghai, later this year or next.
But have these economic goodies softened Hong Kong is the big question? An acrimonious campaign trail with Carrie Lam at the receiving end was reflective of a fraying China-Hong Kong “one country, two systems” relation.
Earlier in January 2016, scuffles, protests and arrests broke out as Hong Kongers rallied around street hawkers (many of whom made fish-ball noodles) targeted in a clean-up campaign. This “Fishball Revolution” was interpreted as a move to counter the mainland’s attempt to homogenise and assimilate Hong Kong’s unique street culture and identity.
Just months earlier, following elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in September 2016, which saw the highest voter turnout in the history of Hong Kong, two elected LegCo members were barred from office, following one of them draping a flag that said, “Hong Kong is not China,” and the other using an offensive slang during oath-taking.
Hong Kongers too have been spewing venom in discussions, online forums, with one instance of netizens getting after former movie star Siao Fong-fong for supporting Lam. It appears a majority of Hong Kongers, if given a choice, would prefer the American-educated savvy political candidate. But the race from day one belonged to Beijing’s chosen one. The CE is elected through an electoral college, not universal suffrage, as Hong Kongers would want.
In 2014, this issue of universal suffrage saw protests against Beijing’s proposal for a committee that would nominate all candidates for the CE (thereby ensuring Beijing’s de facto control). This snowballed into “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” and finally culminated as the “Umbrella Movement,” which, as we all know, was a 79-day sit-in protest by students, youngsters and common folk.
The year 2014 also marked an extraordinary shift and turning point in Hong Kong’s politics, which until then had been the bastion of seasoned political players and the old guard, dominated by the pan-democrats (pro-democracy) and pro-establishment parties (pro-Beijing).
Since the 1990s, there had been many small political parties, independents, realignments and changing affiliations, but it boiled down to the pan-democrats versus the pro-establishment parties.
Hong Kong’s pan-democrats are a medley of parties from the popular Democratic Party to the Civic Party; from the Labour Party to the League of Social Democrats and People Power. It is believed that the Chinese daily, Apple Daily run by Jimmy Lai, throws its weight behind the political bent of the above parties.
Not surprisingly, Beijing has its own fan club, cheerleaders and sing-along preachers who preach what they sing: To love the motherland. Pro-establishment parties such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) which is the largest party, the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the Liberal Party have dailies such as Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao backing them. But things have changed since the “Umbrella Movement”. As scholar Malte Philipp Kaeding observes, a new generation of activists—radical and youthful—as the new political vanguard has arrived.
The new political vanguard is so young that some of them are barely done with their acne—well-known faces such as Joshua Wong is 20, Nathan Law is 23, Yau Wai-Ching is 25 and Sixtus Leung is 30 years of age.
John Lennon would approve of the young Hong Kong dreamers whose banners say, “You may say, I am a dreamer; But I am not the only one.” They constitute the third force of “localists” spearheading outfits such as Demosisto, Youngspiration, AllinHK (which is an alliance of five parties) and Democracy Groundwork.
For a while, Hong Kong’s political ground has been shifting because of perceived “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong. Scholar Sonny Shiu-hing Lo has noted that locals feel that even Hong Kong’s local police is going China’s (notorious) Public Security way, becoming “gong-anised” (meaning like China’s Public Security) and that Hong Kong is witnessing increasing self-censorship.
You May Also Want To Watch:
In 2011, an ethnographer Chen Yun’s book, Hong Kong as a City State, appeared on the racks which raked up the theme why Hong Kong could be another Singapore. In 2012, Apple Daily put out a full-page advertisement featuring locusts (some mainlanders use the pejorative term “locusts” for mainlanders). The Chinese response came from a Beijing professor who called Hong Kongers “running dogs of British government.” The year 2012 also saw a protest against mainlanders who preferred to give birth in Hong Kong as children born in Hong Kong get the right of abode.
There is no doubt that Hong Kong has “no economic lard” versus Beijing. There is no doubt, too, that Hong Kong is a convenient lever for China-baiters to brow-beat China into a corner. But on the other hand, China itself has an uneasy, dialectical, dichotomous relationship with a model of its own creation: “One country, two systems,” where saying it has been easy, but granting autonomy in practice and upholding it as a model for Taiwan has been difficult. Across the straits, Taiwan is watching. Presumably, the one who laughs last, laughs the most.
The dichotomy is evident as China gears to prep up Hong Kong for July 2017, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, possibly topped by a visit by none other than President Xi Jinping. On one hand, there is jubilation, a celebration of the possibility of “one country, two systems”; on the other hand, as China sets into motion “Operation Thunderbolt” aimed against organised crime in Hong Kong and conducts one of the largest drills ever to prevent riots, the unquiet in Hong Kong and the fragility of China’s economic goodies is there to see.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of Finding India in China. Views are personal