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Thursday, February 22, 2024

A closer look at Hong Kong 10 years after reunification with mainland China

By Augustine TanHONG KONG – The Basic Law – Hong Kong’s constitution – in Article 5 states unambiguously: “The socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”Ten years on, Hong Kong and the lifestyle of local residents may seem unchanged. But living in this city, one can still feel changes over the past decade, some tangible and some more intangible. And it is Hong Kong people themselves who are largely responsible for such changes.The tangible changes stem more from economic setbacks over the decade than any actions by the central government in Beijing. In themselves they have not been ground-shaking, at least not for now.It is the intangibles, almost invisible to non-Chinese residents and to visitors that are making a new Hong Kong. It is a more docile, less assertive city. The innate sense of superiority over any and every Chinese mainlander has almost completely evaporated; Ah Chaan, the name of a country bumpkin created by television to represent the average mainlander has been scrubbed from everyday language, if not from memory.The Hongkonger is on the way to becoming a mainlander. And indeed, some Hong Kong people feel humiliated nowadays when they travel across the border to Shenzhen and find themselves being called “Kong Chaan” if they fail to spend money generously.The journey began mere hours after the midnight handover on July 1, 1997. Certainly neither Beijing nor anyone in Hong Kong expected or wanted it to begin so soon. In fact, some in this city never expected it to happen at all, in this or the next lifetime.It was the Asian financial crisis that broke out on July 2, 1997, with the collapse of the Thai baht, followed by a string of more painfully and deadly crises that knocked the aplomb and arrogance out of Hong Kong people.In face of these woes – financial crisis, bird flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), an unprecedented 8% unemployment rate, negative equity – Hong Kong people grabbed the soft options. Face, pride, a deep sense of superiority so typically Hong Kong, were all flung aside as they went with begging bowl to Beijing.The central government of China, with little hesitation but a lot of knowing nods, threw out one lifeline after another. It is still doing it, although with the occasional reminder that these are all short-term remedies and Hong Kong must resolve its fundamental contradictions.But who cares? The good times are back and Hong Kong is swinging again. That is what the foreign visitors and the resident expatriate see.What they are also seeing are these tangibles:·1. Half a million Hong Kong people, mainly middle-class, tertiary-educated ones, are now working on the mainland. That’s almost the same number of moneyed middle-class professionals who fled to Canada, Australia and the United States in the last few years of British rule.·2. Their places in Hong Kong have been taken over by an almost equal number of mainlanders, mainly poor, who have settled here for good. Most at the lower economic end are women who have married Hong Kong men. The yen for the less demanding mainland woman as wife or mistress is not likely to die out soon, leaving behind an ever-growing army of single Hong Kong women.·3. Hong Kong is no longer the second-busiest container port in Asia behind Singapore. Shanghai has superseded it and so will Shenzhen soon; thus Hong Kong is assured of its continued slide.·4. Before the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, anyone in a local restaurant speaking Mandarin, the national language, could expect to be drowned out by someone at the next table rudely and deliberately bawling out a Cantonese song. Now Mandarin is heard everywhere.·5. Night after night, in restaurants and nightclubs, the big spenders are mainlanders. Hong Kong people await their tips. Hong Kong’s own big spenders are throwing their money left and right – in Beijing and Shanghai.By allowing almost unrestricted investments either way, plus a whole wagonload of preferential economic treats that have sent share prices soaring, to the delight of Hong Kong, Beijing has unwittingly encouraged Hong Kong people to put off their day of reckoning.Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may even believe that the day of reckoning will not come at all if Hong Kong is totally hitched to the global rising star that is China.That is what he did when he pronounced the death of “positive non-intervention”, which had taken Hong Kong to the pinnacle of the global free market in previous decades, and meshed the city into China’s Five-Year Plan. There was little outcry over this, and what there was came mainly from politicos and expatriate commentators. Hong Kong people, in the main, kept their thinking to themselves.They know, for certain, that the economy continues to balance unsteadily on a rebounding real-estate market. There are not enough rich Hong Kong people to keep this going. If this strikingly precarious feature of Hong Kong is to continue in their lifetimes, there will have to be a greater infusion of mainland money.There was little rejoicing when Hong Kong’s stock market surpassed New York’s in trading turnover to make it the world’s largest financial market. Even if trading at ever higher levels goes on every day from now on, it is at best ephemeral; Shanghai is taking over.Nothing underscored this more than the recent rise of the yuan, the mainland’s currency, now trading slightly higher than the Hong Kong dollar. Time had been when Hong Kong people thought their dollar would eventually be the currency of all China. Before the handover, many mainlanders gave credence to this belief by hoarding the Hong Kong dollar.The day the Hong Kong dollar fell below the yuan, an elderly man just back from Shenzhen ran screaming out of the Sai Wan Ho subway station: “No one in Shenzhen is accepting the Hong Kong dollar! The Hong Kong dollar is going to be like the Japanese yen after the war!”Just weeks before that, when Chinese television showed how mainland tourists had been cheated by Hong Kong jewelers, the heads of the tourist industry caught the first plane to Beijing to promise remedial action. Arrests, punishments and restitution quickly followed.That was hardly surprising. One of the biggest favors that Beijing has bestowed on Hong Kong since the handover was its lifting of regulations that limited visitors to large tour groups and allowing individuals to visit, and spend in, Hong Kong.In the past the tourist chiefs would simply have stood firm in Hong Kong and rebutted such allegations – even though everyone in town knew that “Ah Chaan” was there to be humbugged. And, indeed, he was humbugged, day after day.It is not an entirely one-way street. Beijing, too, has learned to put up with some of Hong Kong idiosyncrasies like the annual vigils marking the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre and the now-annual July 1 pro-democracy marches. It makes less noise about such demonstrations because it has learned how effective its “lessons in patriotism” have been.These lessons have included airing the national anthem several times a day, sending ever larger numbers of students to various parts of China for holiday camps, providing more university places for Hong Kong students on the mainland, and many, many other temptations.Such activities may be paying off. A study by Hong Kong University showed that for the first time since the handover 10 years ago, a majority of secondary students consider themselves “Chinese” rather than “Hongkongers”.When the Legislative Council elections come around again next year, there is a good chance that Hong Kong people will send an even stronger message to Beijing: we know which side of our bread is buttered.While Beijing pampers Hong Kong and Hong Kong people temper their resistance to mainland rule, badly needed reforms and restructuring of the economy have been quietly laid aside.This neglect will come back to haunt Hong Kong. And when the second decade under Chinese rule comes to be celebrated, Hong Kong people may have so much to thank Beijing for that they might even consider tearing up the Basic Law.Augustine Tan is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.Note: This article was first published on Asia Times Online.

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