Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Hong Kong has amazing resilience. It bounces back from traumatic events, even while some are declaring its ruination. This ability to pick itself up, shake off the events and then move on, demonstrated time and time again. Authors of doom-laden books make a decent living out of getting their predictions wrong. Meanwhile, Hong Kong gets on with life. Let’s examine a couple of these instances.
The Handover - 1997
There was money to be made in the run-up to the handover. A steady stream of TV documentaries and books appeared. These came in two broad types. The first celebrated the history, usually with a heavy emphasis on the colonial pomp. The second type of offering gave us demise and ruination. The fall of Hong Kong. Most of this stuff was self-indulgent rubbish by people who’d not lived here. Never mind having an understanding of the place. A narrative of gloom played to a certain audience. It helped people justify their decisions to go, whilst doing Hong Kong a grave disservice.
British journalists fed their readers egos by suggesting the place would collapse without the steady hand of Albion. These veiled racist pieces gave no account of the hardworking, enterprising Chinese. They did most of the heavy lifting in Hong Kong. Today, it’s laughable to read these books and reflect on the patronising media coverage.
For the record, Hong Kong is still here. It’s GDP has risen 87% since 1997. Yes, it has many challenging issues. Yet, guess what? It's not fallen.
Asian Financial Crisis -1997
The causes of the 1997 Asian financial crisis are disputed. What is not disputed is its impact and the events that unfolded in Hong Kong. With the markets in turmoil, speculators started a move against the Hong Kong dollar. They thought they'd make a large easy profit. The Hong Kong dollar, linked to the US dollar since 1983 to give stability, saw a period of volatility. In a bold move, the Hong Kong government fought off the speculators. It spent $1 billion of its reserves in the process. The speculators got burnt and the peg held. In the process, the stock market lost 23% of its value in three days. Confidence was tested.
That was not the end of the game. The speculators came back in August 1998. They’d recognised a weakness in the currency overnight exchange rates. This allowed them to profit from short-selling shares. In response, the government started buying up shares on the Hang Seng Index. Having spent US$15 billion on shares, the speculators withdrew to lick their wounds. When it was all over the government was the largest shareholder of many companies. Starting in 1999, it divested itself of the shares making a profit of US$4 billion in the process. Not a bad result. The whole episode demonstrated that Hong Kong had financial clout. This backed by a determination and nerve to take on the market.
I was front and centre responding to this crisis. I commanded the first police formation to deal with the disease. It took me a week to get people to sit up and take notice. But that’s another story. SARS emerged in Foshan City on the mainland in November 2002. By early 2003 doctors in China realised they had an epidemic on their hands. Reports to Beijing set off alarms. Whilst informing the WHO, the Chinese sought to play down the crisis. Unfortunately, events were about to expose the disease to the world. Putting Hong Kong at its epicentre.
On 21st February 2003, Dr. Liu Jianglun, who had treated SARS in Guangzhou, arrived in Hong Kong. He knew he had the illness. The next day he checks into the Kwong Wah Hospital telling staff he has a virulent disease. In the meantime, he’d spread the virus through the Metropole Hotel. From there it went on a journey to Vietnam, Canada, Singapore and Ireland. By 4th March Dr. Liu is dead. The next day a woman dies in Canada. She’d stayed on the same floor as Dr. Liu. Five of her relatives are also infected.
Johnny Chen who stayed opposite Dr. Liu at the Metropole has since travelled to Vietnam. He’s taken ill, returned to Hong Kong and treated at the Prince of Wales Hospital. He dies on 13th March, not before setting off another cluster of cases. This time its health care workers. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government is saying there is no cause for concern. The World Health Organisation takes a different view. It places Hong Kong on a travel alert. In response, the Secretary for Health, Dr Yeoh, accuses the WHO of spreading panic. At the same time, Air China flight 112 from Hong Kong to Beijing is recorded to have 24 infections aboard.
Professor Sydney Chung of the Chinese University comes out on 17th March to say the disease is spreading through the community. Dr. Yeoh finally admits the truth. By the time Hong Kong is removed from the WHO list of SARS-affected areas on 23rd June, 348 are dead from 1,755 infections. That data tells you nothing of the other impacts. A government shaken to its core. Damaged and struggling. Misleading the public, then an inadequate initial response eroded public confidence. Portrayed as the centre of the outbreak, Hong Kong shudders. That title is unfair as the disease emerged on the mainland. It's too late, the dye is cast.
Long term, trust in the government slipped. The Chief Executive, Tung Chi-wah, was out of his depth. It was only a matter of time before he went. Dr. Yeoh and other officials sought to recover by orchestrating the clean-up. But, the damage is done.
The community fought back with grassroots initiatives. Simultaneously, funding to promote Hong Kong flushes onto the international stage. The economic impacts soon lapsed as the innovative Hong Kong people got back to business. Yet, it's inescapable that citizens looked at their government with deep suspicion. Moves to introduce anti-sedition laws (Article 23) that summer brought an unprecedented wave of protests. Half a million citizens marched in a massive display of dissatisfaction. Their voices echoed all the way to Beijing. Article 23 is withdrawn as the political landscape shifted. SARS exposed deficiencies in Hong Kong governance that continue to this day.
Occupy - 2014
I’ve written about Occupy elsewhere here. What is worth emphasising is how people got on with their daily routine. Despite major thoroughfares blocked and other disruptive activities, people carried on. After the initial violence, a period of stalemate existed for many weeks as each side waited. Access routes to the central business district are blocked. Obstructions in Causeway Bay and Mongkok disrupt the routine. Without faltering, the public switched routes. Buses and trams diverted. The MTR system bypassed the barricades, whilst people took to walking in. Businesses had to accept staff arriving late or be more flexible on their hours.
Working from home flourished. Facilitated by the internet and ease of access to computers. Executives opted out of going to the office. There is evidence that a trend emerged of moving offices away from core districts. Satellite business districts emerged in Kwun Tong and around Tai Koo Place in Quarry Bay.
It’s fair to say that many enjoyed the open car-free space created in Central. Certainly air pollution eased as traffic was forced off the roads. Yet, public patience wore thin the longer the obstruction continued. Sentiment turned against the occupiers it matters dragged on. Especially when bouts of violence revealed the ugly side of their campaign.
As Occupy wound down crumbling under the weight of its own hubris, the Hong Kong public wanted an end. The protesters had overstayed their welcome. The one residual impact is the polarisation of opinion. Even today, three years after the event, the scars linger. Friends broke up, families disputed. Hanging around like an unwelcome relative is the bastard child of Occupy. The ill-conceived and heretical independence movement.
The next crisis is no doubt around the corner. Whether its political, environmental or health-related who knows. What I do know is that Hong Kong is ready. It’s innovative, flexible and stoic people will face the challenge. Then triumph.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.