The sinking ship
More confirmation that Hong Kong is changing. How does China’s leadership envision the city’s future?
I’m so sorry for the long delay between newsletters/podcasts, I’ve had covid! Also, RIP Shinzo Abe.
“The boat restaurant sank” my husband informed me in the middle of June. I confess, it took me a while to get what he was talking about. Despite the fact that I had visited the gaudy floating restaurant at least twice during our three years in Hong Kong, it felt more like a distant memory. Or a fever dream. Either way, it seems to mark the end of an era in the city; the symbolic demise of a by-gone era.
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For readers who are new to this newsletter, I used to live in Hong Kong from 2017 until mid-2020, just in time to see the protests bring the city together, too late to watch covid tear it apart. I did a few podcasts on the protests too, if you’re interested in getting a little historical background on the relationship between Hong Kong, China, the UK, the handover process, as well as hearing a protester's thoughts on the future of Hong Kong. Revisiting some of what they said, it’s amazing how spot on some of their predictions were. Though even the most savvy HK youth probably couldn’t have expected today’s situation.
If you ever visited the city in the 90s, 00s, or 10s, then I don’t think much had really changed up until I left. Hong Kong was extremely free, extremely hot, and extremely unequal. But despite all the city’s negatives, it did have its good sides. It was no paradise, but there was definitely an allure, a sense of joy and, if you were a well-off expat, a lot of fun to be had. As flamboyant as the ship restaurant was, it was symbolic of this idea of Hong Kong. Flashy, overpriced, and not a little outdated, it also had a sense of the whimsical, being both a landmark and a tourist attraction, while also showing just how unique Hong Kong could be sometimes. You wouldn’t find something like that floating in the middle of the Thames.
But this Hong Kong is quickly disappearing under the CCP’s auspices. Under their increasingly overt leadership, many changes have taken place just in the last few years that have made the city unrecognisable, causing both the fun-loving expats and lifelong locals to pack up and leave. A lot of changes were already taking place when I was there. More input from Beijing meant more mainland friendly policies in education and law, more mainlanders in my graduate programme, and more pro-Beijing students in the undergraduate classes I taught. But it still had that bright, sunny side. Pro-Beijing students in my class got along just fine with protesters sitting next to them in sloganed t-shirts and black masks. The campus was shockingly tolerant to those students who studied for exams during the day and clashed with police in the evening. That was until protests hit big time and campuses closed due to covid. After the summer of 2019, everything changed, for good.
We've discussed in a few other newsletters the changes occurring in Hong Kong (even after some insisted that nothing was going to change under the CCP, no I will never, ever, let that go), so consider this a sort of continuation of that series. But we’re going to put our usual spin on it - what's the mainland’s perspective on all this change? Is it really all that bad? And why are foreigners being roughed-up in relatively upscale dining establishments?
The subtle and the not-so-subtle
I guess the news that Carrie Lam has stepped down as Chief Executive is the biggest and most important update. Apparently, a poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute showed she was the least popular Hong Kong chief executive since 1997. Probably something to do with all those protests or something. I don’t know.
Anyway, her replacement, John Lee, took over on July 1st after winning an election in which he was the only candidate (and yet somehow still not managing to win 100% of the votes), on which he spent around HK$9m (US$1.1m) campaigning. With democracy nicely quashed following the protest crackdowns over the past few years, it’s safe to say that Lee was chosen as a pro-Beijing favourite who will have no trouble carrying out mainland commands with patriotic zeal.
While Lee is unpopular with the people, he’s great for the party. An ex-policeman and former head of security for the island, he oversees a city with a police budget that has grown 45% over the past five years, and has essentially transformed into a police state. According to the Economist, “the authorities have established an anonymous hotline for Hong Kongers to report on each other. More than a quarter of a million such reports have been lodged over the past two years.” Academics, fearful of being silenced, have become mouth-pieces for the state. Once powerful advocates for the people’s rights, legal professionals and local grassroots organisations no longer dare to challenge the authority of the state. Bank accounts are frozen on demand; activists are detained without bail.
China seems happy with Lee’s plan to go hard on the National Security Law, as well as address deep-rooted social issues. To them, Lee is no hardliner, but rather a necessary force for good:
“he did what was necessary to restore order and stability in the city; that was his job. Indeed, he and his predecessor Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor showed far greater tolerance and humanity to violent protesters and rioters than was shown by the US government to the pro-Donald Trump rioters who stormed the US Capitol in January 2021, and by the Canadian government toward the truckers' protests this year.”
As part of its attempt to erase everything about the old Hong Kong, the CCP is also attempting to remove traces of its colonial past, introducing new liberal studies textbooks that will deny the Chinese territory was ever a British colony. On the surface, this seems like a hilarious change, as one of China’s main gripes with the West is that they are land-grabbing colonialists who use imperialism to oppress and subjugate people around the world, including China in the 20th century. Giving the UK a get-out-of-jail-free card on this point just seems strange to me, but China is not denying that HK was occupied by the UK. Besides, the changes play a much more important role than correcting a mere technicality.
The book is just one of four that are being introduced as part of a new course to indoctrinate HK students in patriotism, Chinese identity, and the importance of national security. Hong Kong was at risk when it was occupied by foreign powers, and the National Security law is necessary to make sure it doesn’t fall out of Chinese hands again. The people of China need to work together to make sure that doesn’t happen, and if a little bit of free speech is curtailed along the way, so be it.
Perhaps a slightly more subtle change is what I like to think of as the quiet cultural oppression. A local film festival had two screenings cancelled just hours before they were due to be played for audiences. One was on the 2020 Taiwan presidential elections, the other was on authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, the city’s social scene is under attack by strict covid rules that punish party-goers and apparently those looking for a bite to eat. Failure to produce a Rapid Antigen test or vaccine passport spells trouble for bars and restaurants, as police have raided over 160 businesses and fined 69 people so far. The authorities claim they’re trying to stop a rise in covid cases, but it can’t but seem a little like overkill, especially for a sector already crippled by lockdowns.
This oppression of Hong Kong’s nightlife is mixed with a subtle intolerance towards foreigners (many of the establishments targeted are popular with expats), apart from probably just being another way to bring the people of the city under control and slightly fearful of the new authority in town. As if there weren’t enough reasons to want to leave…
Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly easier for mainland Chinese people to move to the city, or even just work there during the day and travel back in the evenings. Hong Kong is steadily becoming more integrated with the mainland, both socially and economically, and, inevitably, politically too.
Not all change
There’s a tendency for people to view any change in Hong Kong in a negative light, or, as China Daily puts it, people “view the changes that they would not like to happen as "evidence" of the "deviation" from the principle of One Country Two Systems (OCTS).” But what is OCTS if not the acknowledgement that Hong Kong’s rampant capitalism is only possible with support of the CCP and the sacrifice of any sort of autonomy? One could quite easily argue that some change would be in the best interest of the people of HK.
For example, according to the Chinese press, the new Chief Executive is already focused on tackling the major problems of reopening the border “to resume Hong Kong's status as an international hub, civil servant pay rises and fixing housing woes.” If the CCP can get a handle on outrageous house prices and corruption in the city, then that would be a major win for the people of HK, authoritarianism or not. Tiny, unlivable apartments, temporary makeshift dwellings on the side of the road, and the infamous cage homes were still a thing when I lived in HK, and I have no doubt that conditions have not improved since covid began.
But it’s worth noting that these are not even things that they can get a handle on in the mainland. Corruption has been an ongoing issue that does not seem to be ending any time soon. Just a few weeks ago, victims of a regional bank scandal found themselves prevented from attending protests as their health codes were turned red by authorities without them testing positive for covid. This could end up being one of China’s largest financial scandals, and while the culprits are being punished, it shows that China still has pockets of lawlessness, where people skirt under the eyes of the law, bribing officials just low enough on the radar to get away with pretty major crimes, at least for a while. I’m not even going to insult you by going over the Evergrande scandal again.
But some change is better than none, surely? If the UK and US (and Europe….in fact, the whole Western world) are anything to go by, capitalism is on the decline anyway. Maybe Hong Kong really does need a big shake up to make sure it continues to prosper and thrive. But the question, as always, is at what cost will this prosperity come?
Just another Chinese city
25 years after the handover, Hong Kong is on track to be fully absorbed into China proper, well before the 50-year deadline. After all, Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council said himself that “"50 years unchanged" is a philosophical concept, not an absolute measurement; given that "one country, two systems" remains on the right track, it is unnecessary to change the framework after 50 years.”
All the promises of a gradual handover, the idea of some sort of 2047 deadline, all the other talk from the CCP that nothing would change that people who love China were clinging on to as if they would honour their word when they literally have no reason to do so… yeah that’s all gone now. The CCP had no intention - and no need - to keep its word to a global audience that it never respected in the first place, let alone its own people.
Hong Kong is changing for good, and the pace of change doesn't show signs of slowing down any time soon. The sinking of the floating restaurant is just another example of the drastic transformation Hong Kong is going through. It seems to have taken the old Hong Kong down with it. Time will tell what will be left of the old city, and what will be completely remade in the party’s image.
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