Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Hong Kong’s story is one of survival. It’s confounded the naysayers time and time again. The return of Chinese sovereignty was another instance when it shook off the critics. We are still here, our GDP continues to grow. In the sweep of history, this has meant going from drug trafficking to general trade and to shipping. Next came garment and toy making, and most recently, business services.
We’ve shaken off SARS, the odd financial crisis, riots, civil disobedience plus rampant corruption. And Chinese rule was always inevitable. Yet it came with a high degree of autonomy. The alarmists predicted doom, civil rights abuses and mass arrests. It didn’t happen. Indeed, China has remained hands-off until the ill-conceived Occupy movement provoked their attention. It’s off-spring, the nonsensical independence movement has rattled them.
Simply put, a very small group of agitators is acting to provoke Beijing. This situation is made worse by the failure of the Pan Dems as a group to condemn these activities. Should Beijing view Hong Kong as a centre for separatist activity, the consequences could be serious. The community needs to come together to reject the independence calls.
As it was, Occupy crumbled away. Nothing of its size appears in the offing. It’s leaders dissipated their energies. Of course, they continue to make appearances overseas talking about their struggle. Yet, the inescapable fact is that the tide turned against them. Meanwhile, the deluded author of Occupy continues his futile scheming earning the criticism of all sides.
With political development stalled, Beijing has no motivation to revisit the issue. A tactical error by the Pan Dems in 2015 closed that door. That’s no bad thing. Like others, I take the view that a period of calm in the political arena would do Hong Kong much good. All sides need to tone down the rhetoric to allow rational conversations to proceed. Yelling and posturing only beget hardline statements from the other side.
The current arrangements that govern Hong Kong expire in 2047. That’s only 30 years away. Without a doubt, Beijing will decide the shape of things beyond that date. Going against the naysayers again, I’ll predict a revised form of “one country, two systems”. No one, least of all Beijing, wants to see Hong Kong fail. What does it say that the British made this place thrive and prosper, but China ran it down? That would be a massive loss of face. Moreover, any prospect of the big prize, unification with Taiwan, would disappear.
Also, Hong Kong remains a true international finance centre. This status serves China’s interests. Despite claims to the contrary, Shanghai is some time off becoming an equal to Hong Kong on that score. Access to information, open communication and an independent legal system anchor that status. Thus, it is in Beijing’s interests to honour its commitments.
Granted there have been instances that cause concern. Yet what is remarkable is how little Beijing has impinged on Hong Kong. It exercised considerable patience during the Occupy protests. It could have asserted the Hong Kong government had lost control of the situation. Instead, Beijing waited.
There is evidence enough that Hong Kong would struggle to survive without the largess of China. All the hectoring, shouting through megaphones by Pan Dems, can't change the facts. None of that matters. The facts are unassailable. Hong Kong takes its water, power and food from the mainland. Approximately 45 % of trade is with the mainland. We are connected, interconnected, locked in a symbiotic embrace. The sooner that people in Hong Kong acknowledge that, the better.
Looking to future, the naysayers and doom merchants wish to paint a bleak outlook. They are wrong again. All things considered, Hong Kong is in a favourable position to take advantage of new economic order. Geography, a common law legal system plus the free flow of information are in our favour. Then you have the unquestionable tenacity and skills of the local population. This creates a locus of exceptional opportunity.
Do Hong Kong people still have the verve to seize the moment? Time will tell
Milk powder. Who’d have thought that milk power would become a political issue? More specifically, what has milk power got to do with Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland? The answer is everything. Following the 2008 mainland plastic in milk powder scandal, mothers no longer trusted their local producers. In response, a whole industry developed of acquiring milk powder from Hong Kong. In the process, this made it impossible for Hong Kong parents to source milk powder in the city.
Thousands of parallel importers scoured the city, hoovering up all the milk power. Laws proved necessary to curtail the practice. This episode was part of a series of events that fueled anti-mainland sentiment. These events have had a profound impact on governance, perceptions of Hong Kong’s standing and its position in the world.
Before 1997, the people of Hong Kong enjoyed a special status that marked them as different from their mainland brothers and sisters. This feeds a self-belief. Many perceived themselves as more cultured, worldly and dignified. Unfortunately, this self-image is now challenged on all fronts. Mainlanders have the money, access to the world, plus an increasing sophistication. Hong Kong is looking like an old frumpy aunt who has been outshone and usurped by an arrogant upstart relative.
Let us face it, 1997 was a confusing and unsettling event for some. Whilst, a good part of the public embraced the future recognising Hong Kong’s position in China, others were uneasy. An unknown future, coupled with recent events, including the Tiananmen killings, resonated around their heads. Some opted to leave, moving overseas to make a new life. Often, this was another move in a sequence that saw their ancestors flee unrest on the mainland.
I recall the night of the handover switching over my uniform insignia and cap badge. Being busy I did it before midnight and then got on with my work. There was no emotion attached to it. I’d already gone through that process contemplating whether I’d stay or go. Having opted to remain in the service, I’d made the mental transition. Later at about 1 am, I ribbed a senior Chinese officer that he was still wearing the colonial badges. That earned me a sharp, “I’ll change when I’m ready”
My tactless remark exposed a truth. Others were not as sanguine as me. Many of my colleagues found the handover a wrenching experience. Again, the unknowns probably played a significant role in their uneasiness.
Yet, no matter how you look at it, people’s worst fears have proved unfounded. The PLA is not on the streets. The policing of Hong Kong remains in the hands of the locals. Cases are heard in Courts that have demonstrated their autonomy from political interference.
Despite phoney claims that free speech is being suppressed, this is not the case. Any rational assessment supports that view. The print media, online and radio people continue to speak freely to express a broad range of opinions. I don’t accept the position of Journalist Association on this matter. They are hardly impartial observers. They forfeited impartiality by allying themselves to political causes. Their bias is evident in their reporting and actions. I favour a free press that is fair, non-partisan and even-handed. A fair part of the Hong Kong print media is none of these things.
Ardent detractors of China claim the rule of law is under threat. They cite the bookseller abductions, plus the disappearance of Xiao Jianhua from a Hong Kong Hotel. These are disturbing instances for which an explanation is owed. These are rare cases. Moreover, the furore that resulted demonstrated civil society is alive and well.
Hong Kong University has tracked public sentiment in a rolling survey since 1992. Conducted every two months, the survey represents the most thorough assessment of the public mood over time. In broad terms, sentiment fell from 1992 to 1995, then climbed to a high level in 1997 as the handover took place. The new dawn of rule under China was initially playing well with the public.
Then the Asia Financial crisis and SARS saw public unease grow. Sentiment plunged to new lows as Hong Kong shook under the impact of SARS. The rebound was dramatic, as by 2006 new heights of confidence were reached. Unfortunately, since then it's been a steady decline. The lowest ratings were recorded during the 2014 Occupy Movement. With the 20th Anniversary next week, the sentiment data remains in the doldrums.
Hong Kong’s relationship with the Mainland is complicated by a lot of baggage. Many residents came to Hong Kong fleeing the upheavals of China in the 1950s and 1960s. The blood links to the mainland are deep. Some worked to help China stand up as it adopted an open-door policy, They made a good living in the process. Then, as China opened to the world, it was Hong Kong entrepreneurs who give it substance with investment.
Proud of the progress that China made, Hong Kong people took pride in their contribution. Soon that pride was overtaken by fears that mainlanders were burning up Hong Kong’s world class services. Local mothers struggled to access hospitals to give birth as wards overflowed with mainland mothers. Then tourists and traders overwhelmed the streets. The locals felt under siege. Whilst the tourists brought jobs, the economic benefits were not seen by all. Crowded public transport systems grew intolerable as throngs of tourists added to the daily struggle of life.
Instances of open conflict between local and mainlander were rare. Social media fed public opinion. Pictures of people defecating in public or behaving in an unruly manner did the rounds. A drunk mainland couple caught in flagrante delicto on a Kowloon Tong Street became instant internet stars. These instances drove a narrative of uncouth mainlanders. Of course, Hong Kongers are not beyond reproach. It would be easy to produce video clips of locals misbehaving. That’s not the point. The issue here is a rift being fed by echo chamber noise. Until that is disrupted or it abates nothing much will change.
Cases of corruption involving the highest levels of government surfaced in recent years. Given Hong Kong’s history, these are a stark reminder that without vigilance things could soon slip. Feeding the narrative that the governance is eroding are delays in dealing with key issues. Poverty, the wealth gap, a universal pension scheme and the lamentable MPF rip off all irk the public. Many in the community believe they are getting a poor deal. Meanwhile, the government is seen to favour vested interests over the wider community. The veracity of these assertions is debatable. But, people perceive it to be true, thus that shapes their sentiment.
The government could sway sentiment with a few simple initiatives. The question is does it have the courage to tackle these issues. It cannot make the excuse it has limited financial resources. The Hong Kong’s Treasury is awash with cash. Foreign exchange reserves in Hong Kong increased to an all-time high of $402.7 billion in May of 2017. It represents over seven times the currency in circulation. Then there are the vast sums hidden in other accounts. The bottom line is the government has the funds to pay a decent old age pension scheme and revamp the MPF.
On the flip side, the Hong Kong public need to count their blessings. Our city remains a safe place. Children can take public transport or move about without fear of crime. Taxes are low. Our public transport systems are the envy of the world. It’s easy to set up a business here. A 20-minute drive from just about anywhere in the city will take you to idyllic beaches and hiking trails through lush green mountains. With one restaurant for every 600 people, Hong Kong boasts one of the highest concentrations of cafes and restaurants in the world. And the setting. That view from the Peak or the Kowloon waterfront takes your breath away.
So, lighten up Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s crime trend mirrors what’s going on elsewhere in the world. In broad terms crime is moving online. Frauds, deceptions and outright theft of material are all features of the new crime era. Street crime such as robberies, snatching and assorted hooliganism are down. The gun crime that was a feature of the 1990s is now rare. These crimes disappeared as the mainland imposed tighter controls on their side of the fence.
I’ve written in some detail about crime in this blog. This piece aims to review the changes in the past twenty years since the handover. For visitors, tourists and residents alike, Hong Kong is one of the safest places in the world. In short, there is little to worry about. A polite, efficient and well-resourced police force is omnipresent in the city. This visibility and the need to carry identity cards means crime can be ‘nipped in the bud’.
Official police crime statistics tell a story. Total recorded crime in 2001 was 73,008 cases. In 2016, the figure was 60,646. That’s against the background of adding two million people to the population. Robberies in 2001, stood at 3,167 cases. By 2016 robberies dropped to 260 cases. Deceptions are the growth industry. In 2001, the public reported 4,051 deception cases to police. By 2015, the number was 9,355, although it dropped 7,260 in 2016. Of course, official crime statistics should be treated with caution. Past crime victimisation surveys have found that some crimes are under-reported. Thefts and other minor cases often don’t make it to the statistics. Similar things are seen in all jurisdictions. The public doesn’t want to waste time on a report and statement taking.
Online deceptions and con tricks have exploded with the adoption of the internet. The internet has given the criminal access to every home. Criminal gangs are leveraging social-engineering techniques to ensnail people. The methods have evolved over time. The street deception emerged in the late 1990s. Old folks were the target. The hoaxers claimed bad luck was about to befall them. Actors pretending to be monks and shamans assisted the sting. Pensioners handed over money in worship ceremony purported to protect them. Education and vigilant bank staff helped curtail that trend.
Next emerged the fake calls from public security officials. These deception came in several varieties. Either you or a relative had committed a crime on the mainland. Paying Money could resolve matters. The calls came in from overseas, which hampered enforcement efforts. Again, education was the key.
Over time, the con artists became more sophisticated. Ladies, some well-educated and very wealthy, were groomed online. Made to believe the other party loved them and that marriage is on the cards. The scammers took in millions of dollars. Meanwhile, men engaging in sex acts with online lady friends found themselves threatened. Pay up or get exposed.
In 2015, scammers garnered an estimated $78-HK million. Masterminded in Taiwan, the syndicates operated from Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. In 2016 there were 1,423 reports of such scams. Police said 561 of those cases were successful, with a total haul of HK$300 million.
Police enforcement had some success working with overseas agencies. Syndicates were hit and shut down. Yet, the scams are so lucrative that new syndicates sprang up to replace the old. All the evidence points towards education being the best defence. Citizens need vigilance.
Drug trafficking has benefitted from social media and instant messaging. Addicts don’t need to wander down to the trafficking spots to buy their drugs. Just make a call. A courier will bring them around. Interdiction by the police is harder because the trafficker is no longer static.
Emerging social concerns are also bringing pressure to the police. Animal cruelty cases provoke an emotive reaction. A few politicians have exploited these to drum up anti-police sentiment. Claims of a lack of sympathy or inaction are easy to make. Likewise, allegations of insensitivity towards sex workers and rape victims are trotted out. Most of these assertions do not stand up to critical examination, but the damage is done. Meanwhile, domestic violence cases continue to draw on police resources. Strict protocols mandate police action and the inter-agency follow-up. These procedures seek to keep families safe.
Public order duties have in recent years undermined police efforts against crime. Manpower taken away from routine front-line duties erodes many initiatives. The tempo of anti-crime operations needed to slow as officers focused on other duties. Criminals benefited from this distraction.
At a local level, the police are coming under more scrutiny to resolve illegal parking. The government's failure to control vehicle numbers or provide off-street parking puts the police on the spot. Communities are rightly demanding that roads are clear for traffic flow and emergency vehicle access. Even relentless enforcement action does little to dent the problem. Parking fines are so low, the drivers accept the costs as a business expense. Thus, ineffective policies are aggravating tensions between the public and police.
Since 1997, the Hong Kong Police has benefited from societal changes. Diminishing on-street crime can be attributed to many factors. Gentrification and the appearance of a middle class are contributing. Moreover, people are indoors playing video games rather than on the streets at night. Effective police action that targets known individuals and black-spots is proving effective.
The prevalence of online crime will no doubt continue to be a significant challenge. Street management issues are also coming to the fore. Illegal parking and obstructions irk the public. Poor planning coupled with weak policies will feed that testing situation.
Finally, its worth commenting on public satisfaction with the police. The Hong Kong University tracking survey had satisfaction at 63% in 2012. By 2016, a modest increase to 64% occurred. As regards perception of safety during daytime, a 2015 survey returned a high satisfaction rate of 90 per cent. At night, the figure was 75%. Both figures support the view that the public feels safe.
And what of the future? Immediate policing challenges will focus on public order duties and the management of protest. That thankless task will remain as tricky as ever.
Hong Kong’s political scene is a fraught affair. The political parties that get elected don’t govern. The Chief Executive with his ministers drive and make policy. The members of the Legislative Council are supposed to hold the government to account. In reality, that means they either act to support or oppose the government. And, that’s exactly what we’ve got. The so-called pro-democrats - ‘Pan-Dems’ - on one side and the pro-government on the other. The resulting system is dysfunctional.
The pro-government parties support the government. There’s a surprise. The main opposition, the Pan-Dems are a fragmented group. About the only thing, they agree on is their loathing of the Chief Executive, CY Leung. Their inability to muster a common agenda beyond that blunts their efforts. Add to that mix the usual grandstanding of certain prima donnas. Plus a couple of unrefined demagogues like Long Hair (LEUNG Kwok-hung). The result, a complete mess.
In most instances, the government gets its way. Pushing through policies despite delaying tactics by the Pan-Dems. In a few cases, they succeed in blocking things. None of this is classy or refined. The debates alternate between boring speeches then stunts aimed at getting media attention. The stunts make the news. Most are over in seconds. Yet they earn the perpetrators a reputation beyond their actual efforts. Sustained in office as a protest vote, many of Pan-Dems are one agenda individuals. Ask them to construct a coherent argument on economics or trade agreements, then watch them flounder.
Underpinning this the democratic forces detesting the Chief Executive with a visceral hatred. At times it seemed as if they could do nothing except shout, hectoring the public with embellished tales of CY's alleged crimes. They have a vendetta going. This passion, that approaches an obsession, frequently interrupts parliamentary business. Hopeless debates to censure and impeach CY, burn up time and energy. It's all an unwelcome distraction. The Pan-Dems wanted CY destroyed. There is poison in the air and vitriol in every argument. Yet, despite this all-consuming desire, simple numbers count against them. Outnumbered by the opposition, they tilt at windmills. In the process displaying a basic misunderstanding of maths plus stunning political immaturity.
Good public policy doesn’t come from banana throwing or yelling. It comes from reasoned debate, thoughtful arguments and civilised behaviour. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s parliament lacks all these features.
Switching over. The other side is a collection of Beijing-backed entities, self-serving business groups and others seeking to curry favour. They back the government, most of the time. With a few exceptions, they are an unimaginative lot. Despite this, their organisations reach deep into the grass roots community. They enjoy strong support in traditional pro-China areas. Beholden to Beijing, the pro-government side is an easy target for the Pan-Dems. At times it seems they are giving the Pan-Dems all the help they needed. Clumsy speeches, avoidable gaffes and outright collusion with the government tarnish's them. Even Beijing must despair at their bumbling.
On a positive note, our parliament is largely irrelevant to the functioning of Hong Kong. And that's the bizarre thing. Hong Kong's god-awful messy political setup has not affected the economy. By any standard, we are doing well. If you want to work, and most do, the jobs are there. Yes, property prices are high and poverty is an issue. Yet, that does not distract from the fact that things work despite the political shenanigans.
Looking to the future. Democratic reform is stalled. A foolish decision by the Pan-Dems in 2015 saw modest proposals voted down. Whilst far from ideal, these proposals were movement in the right direction. Pan-Dems chanting their ‘all or nothing’ mantra went against them. Pro-government groups helped by walking out in an attempt to delay the vote. A member was missing . Poor coordination resulted in a landslide defeat. That gave the rest of the world the impression there was no support for the proposals.
Having seen off Occupy and achieved no progress with its proposals, Beijing withdrew. It’s in no hurry to make new moves. Meanwhile, its focus is on economic progress and attacking calls for independence. China’s position is strengthened by a weakened U.S. under the maverick Trump. Elsewhere, the UK and Europe are distracted with Brexit. Hong Kong is not top on anyone’s agenda.
Politics will continue to be difficult, with no significant progress on democracy. The massive street protests of 2014 are unlikely to reappear. The lame author of Occupy continues to make noises from his Ivory Tower at Hong Kong University. He fails to recognise his support base has dropped off. At the same time, those politicians who denigrate China can expect little sympathy. Their constituency of the disaffected may be impressed, no one else is.
So, it's no change.
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.
Theresa May's cold calculation that she could vanquish Labour, whilst attaining a mandate for Brexit has failed. In a massive turnout ... 70% of the voters … the public has decided to send a mixed message. There is no outright winner, nobody got the majority of 326 seats needed to rule outright.
Diminished and weakened. That's the position of the United Kingdom. From my point of view in Hong Kong, the UK had a certain intellectual gravitas. That gave it considerable weight on the international stage. The Brexit vote caused many around the world to question that status. This election has prompted more questions. Are the Brits being rational? What are the motives here? Who deliberately damages their own economy?
German TV is reporting that May is a 'lame duck. Her strong and stable stance has evaporated overnight. If she survives as PM, she will limp into Brexit negotiations with Europe. A wobbly, wrong-footed emissary of doubtful stature. She has lost her acclaimed ‘hard Brexit’.
That’s assuming she survives the next week. As her future looks in serious doubt. She placed herself front and centre during the campaign. Other party members were kept in the wings as Theresa strutted about in her fancy shoes. Yet, without a question, she ran a dreadful campaign. Her refusal to appear in debates, her high-handed manner and the rote messages failed to connect. She reversed direction on key policies. Her robotic style was lousy at connecting with the voters. Many realised her seesawing did not bode well for Brexit negotiations.
The atrocious terrorist attacks in Manchester and London handed her an open goal. These events should have given her a boost. The strong leader. Making strong statements. Unfortunately, her recent history caught up and the advantage disappeared. As Home Secretary, she’d slashed police budgets. When the cops warned her of the dangers, she attacked them as ‘scaremongers’. Retired cop after retired cop lined up to remind the public of May’s actions.
By all reckoning, May assumed she had an open road to a big majority. How she formed that view can be attributed to her insular style of management. She is cut off from alternative voices. As a result, she is now in the fight of her life to keep the PM position, with the sharks circling. And her timing couldn't be worse. In 10 days, she is supposed to start negotiation on Brexit. The Europeans must be laughing at her.
May’s survival now depends on the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP is a group of ultra-conservative nationalist politicians from Northern Ireland. Whilst the DUP is pragmatic about its agenda, it will no doubt extract a heavy price from May for any support. That does not bode well for the complexities of Northern Ireland’s situation. Watch this space.
Looking to the Labour Party, we all owe Jeremy Corbyn an apology. He has won Labour more seats than any leader since Clement Attlee in 1945. That is a remarkable achievement. He did this against the background of a hostile press. Plus, a history that should have counted against him with a good part of the British public. His open attitude towards terrorist groups; a willingness to compromise with them could have lost him votes. The young voters buoyed his numbers, having stayed away during the Brexit vote last year. Plus, maybe, we are witnessing a generational change as young voters assert themselves. Either way, he can claim a win.
Other smaller parties have lost ground. United Kingdom Independence Party is destroyed. Unless it can rally itself it’s no longer a force in British politics. Meanwhile, over the border in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party are licking their wounds. They dropped 19 seats. That takes the independence vote off the agenda for Nichola Sturgeon.
In a defiant speech after visiting the Queen, Theresa May declared she will form a government. Its a coalition with the DUP. Her arrogance was still evident. She failed to acknowledge her mistake, nor take any blame for this shambles. Meanwhile, senior Tory figures have remained silent. It’s well to remember that the Tories have a track record of ruthlessness when it comes to removing leaders. Even the mighty Mrs Thatcher was outflanked by the grey men. All things considered, Theresa May’s days are numbered.
After Manchester and now London, I'm struggling to summons up the words that capture my feelings. Anger is there. Anger at the senseless violence against folks enjoying themselves. Pity and sadness also for the relatives of those killed and injured. Shame enters the mix. I feel helpless watching events unfold on TV. Shame that my response is noise in the echo chamber. Hovering in the background is a sense of disconnection from all the tributes, eulogies, candle burning and general hand-wringing.
What’s the point? Will it stop another attack? That disconnection arises from the UK's lack of honesty about the threats it faces from radical Islam. For too long, political correctness has held sway. Virtue signalling types shutting down difficult public discussions with their lazy claims of racism and Islamic phobia.
The rote reaction seen after the London attack demonstrates nothing has been learnt. The politicians posturing, whilst pointing the finger at each other. Teresa May slashed police numbers. When they raised a cry, she trashed them with accusations of scaremongering. On the other hand, can we trust Jeremy Corbyn? He has a track record of voting down measures to curtail terrorist groups. His expressed support for certain terrorists is on record. Not good is it.
For me, none of the politicians carries the necessary conviction to deal with the issue at hand. None is honest or brave enough to affirm that tough, across the board, measures are needed.
Let us be clear, no one is suggesting all Muslims are involved. Such a suggestion is plain daft. Yet, it is undisputed that some mosques in the UK are being used as centres for radicalisation. The moderate Muslims have been saying this for years, demanding action that has not been taken. There is emerging evidence that the security services failed to act on warnings regarding at least one of the attackers, Khuram Shazad Butt. He appeared in a 2016 Channel 4 documentary ‘The Jihadis Next Door’. He made no secret of his radical views. Moreover, he was repeatedly ejected from mosques for his activities.
I don’t wish to rush to judgement. It's unclear exactly what evidence the authorities had. Plus, whether resource constraints allowed a proper and full assessment of that evidence. That second point loops back to the strident cuts Theresa May imposed on the police. In particular, her slashing of budgets hit community-level policing and intelligence gathering. The very sort of activity that would have given a clear picture of the threat posed by Butt.
What is reassuring is that in the documentary, moderate Muslims repeatedly confronted Butt and his radical friends. These brave interventions give weight to the view that some in the Muslim community are seeking to tackle the radicals. More power to those people.
So, what can be done? Well, funding for the police needs to be adequate for the challenge faced. Reinstating neighbourhood policing teams to full manning levels would be a good start. That way intelligence and information can be fed into the system.
The police themselves need to change. They have to shake off the remnants of their ‘Dickson of Dock Green image. Every officer should be carrying a firearm. Yes, I know a good percentage of officers cannot accept that. Then, I would ask whether they are in a position to protect the public and themselves? That’s their sworn duty. One brave officer with a baton had a go in London. He was overcome. Imagine the outcome had that brave officer had a gun. People would be at home with their loved ones, not on a morgue table.
Soft policies weighed down by political correctness, need to go. People who express extremists views who are not UK citizens must be deported. No second chance or wobbling about their rights. UK citizens who express violent extremists views should be placed under strict control orders and curfews. Infringements of the conditions will mean detention.
Finally, the key to success lies with the Muslim community. A robust partnership with the security services to expose those who preach and encourage radical Islam is crucial. Their support base must be removed, the roots that nourish the violence ripped up and facilitators of hate exposed. Only then we truly can address the issue.
At first glance, it appears that Hong Kong does not have much of a cultural scene. Yet, if you scratch the surface you will find vibrant activities. Certainly, Hong Kong suffers from a lack of suitable venues. Besides, the business focused ethos means people don’t have time for the arts. Getting space and time in this hectic city is a constant challenge.
The government has woken to the issue with efforts to improve venue availability. The West Kowloon Cultural District aims to address some of the difficulties. The district will feature a museum of visual culture, theatres, concert halls and other venues. Unfortunately, with the project mired in controversy, it's delayed. There are many who feel art hubs grow organically, not from the desks of civil servants. A lack of familiarity with the art world shapes their approach. Some fear the whole project is in danger of becoming another property development.
So, to the crux of the matter and the question to ask is ... has China influenced the arts scene? The answer is yes. Hong Kong movies are being made with the mainland market in mind. In other instances, endings or scenes are re-written to appease mainland censors. The best example is the movie ‘Internal Affairs’. A cop corruption drama about double-dealing. The original Hong Kong version had the corrupt cop succeeding with the elimination of his clean rival. For China, the ending was re-scripted with the corrupt cop arrested. This small change impacted the flow of the movie by removing ambiguity. The mainland version had the authorities winning. Hong Kong is not alone in crafting movies to pass the mainland censors. Hollywood has done the same in many instances.
The once mighty Hong Kong film industry gave us Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Sing-chi. Today, many of the city's film directors, such as Wong Kar-wai, Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Johnnie To Kei-fung, have turned towards the mainland. This allows them to reach a larger audience. In the process, the profit margins increase. In its heydey, during the 1990s, Hong Kong produced 300 films a year. Last year, the figure was 59. This is despite government policies that favour the industry. The Film Development Fund, launched in 2007, has provided HK91 million in support. To date 17 films from first-time directors have appeared.
Under the 2003 Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, Hong Kong films are exempt from the mainland’s quota system. Thus, allowing distribution all across the country. Of course, mainland censorship rules apply. Still, despite the government's worthy efforts, the future of the Hong Kong film industry remains in doubt. Competition from new technology, coupled with commercial pressures will narrow the market. Certainly, any provocative works that step on ideological toes won’t get a showing on the mainland.
The music scene is a mixed bag. The occasional big name acts transits through to perform in our inadequate venues. Currently, the AsiaWorld Expo at the Airport is favoured. This sterile location is remote and dull. It doesn't work well. The Hong Kong Stadium is better. But, its use draws complaints from residents when the crowds get noisy. In a bizarre incident patrons at one event were issued gloves to dull the noise of clapping. A couple of sites on open ground work well; one next to Tamar and the other at the West Kowloon Cultural District. If the weather cooperates these venues provide a splendid city backdrop for a concert.
Local independent music is being generated to showcase at places such as Hidden Agenda. Sited in a old factory building this venue has attracted a lot of attention. Operating in breach of the land lease, Hidden Agenda attained some notoriety. A raid by Immigration Officers resulted in assaults on public servants. With police reinforcement called in to maintain order, some arrests resulted. The site has since shut down citing concerns over fire safety. Some bands have taken to the streets performing in underpasses and other open venues. Using social media to call in the audience, lookouts warn of approaching officials. With soaring property prices, locating a permanent venue for performances will continue to be difficult.
In the more mainstream arena, remnants of Cantopop nostalgically rumble along. Supported by the Chinese diaspora overseas and in southern China, it harks back to the past. Stars such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, George Lam, Alan Tam and Sally Yeh are recognised as household names. Official attempts to marginalise Cantonese as a language met with strong resistance, reinforcing the standing of Cantopop. Yet, its days appear numbered as young people switch their attention to Korean pop stars.
Occupy generated a burst of artistic activity. Creative banners, cartoons and artworks appeared. Each side got in on the act. Short films supporting the police appeared, whilst the other side countered with their own narrative. Shared through WhatsApp and other social media, these pieces circulated quickly. Most became more noise reverberating through respective echo chambers. None of this changed minds. In the end, all it did was reinforce already held opinions, giving legitimacy to views and feelings.
Despite Hong Kong’s saturation with new media, books remain a staple for many. Anything that touches on China's leadership and their private lives proves popular. There also exists a trade of exporting banned material into the mainland. This came to the fore in the so-called ‘Bookseller’ saga. If you want details then see this. Cutting to the chase. It's alleged that five individuals involved in smuggling sensitive books into China were detained. In one instance the bookseller was allegedly picked up in Hong Kong. He was then spirited across the boundary to the mainland. This caused an uproar. Whilst not proven, many believe that Chinese security agents took the bookseller. If this is true, it undermines the Basic Law.
Exactly what happened remains unclear. Although, it's certain the saga dampened the trade in illicit books crossing the border. It’s also probable that writers are careful not to offend powerful interests. Much of the content of the books is salacious gossip, without any sign of its authenticity. It is disappointing that damage resulted to Hong Kong’s confidence over such poor quality material.
To sum up, Hong Kong’s government is sensitive to the hijacking of the arts scene for political purposes. A light show was pulled in May 2016 after local pro-democracy artists hijacked the event to display protest messages down the side of the ICC building. There is a long history of political art that interprets and comments on events. In modern Hong Kong, with Beijing watching, it’s evident artists may feel constrained.
Any opinion on the state of Hong Kong’s economy depends on your position in society. Some folks are doing well. Others are struggling. In some sectors, wages that have not grown in real terms for decades. Meanwhile, salaries for graduates are stagnant. Yet, property prices boom, placing them beyond even professionals earning a decent wage. Shaping any narrative on the economy is personal prospective. The banker working in Central see things as fine and dandy. The cleaner at the Airport on hourly rates has a different take. It’s almost a tale of town cities.
Writing about the Hong Kong economy is a challenge because its a complex beast. The best I can do here is skim the surface talking through the major trends and challenges. Dictating the ebb and flow of the Hong Kong economy since the British landed has been politics. In particular, events to the north. As China has settled on a steady course, Hong Kong's position has stabilised.
The Gini coefficient, that cold calculation of the wealth gap, tells a story. Higher figures show a greater wealth gap. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient is around 0.537. The figure was 0.45 in 1981. As a comparison, Germany has a figure of 0.28 and Singapore is 0.47. Thus, Hong Kong has one of the highest wealth gaps. Although, you don't need the Gini data to tell you that. Look around. An underclass is developing that exists on the 'minimum wage'.
Starting in 1978, the Hong Kong economy underwent a significant restructuring. Driven by the opening of China, industries moved there to enjoy cheap labour. The Pearl River Delta region became Hong Kong's workshop. Hong Kong then transitioned towards a high value-added, knowledge-based economy. In the process, well-paid jobs in manufacturing disappeared. Replacing them was low-paid service jobs. The service industries absorbed most of the workers displaced from manufacturing.
Other factors are also at play. Part of the increase in Gini is due to low-income households made up of recent arrivals from China. Arriving at a rate of 150 a day, this influx has a disproportionate impact on low-paid workers. Only 6% of the new arrivals have high school education.
Today, Hong Kong is a leading international financial centre with a service-based economy. Anchoring the economy are policies of low taxation, a free port and positive non-interventionism. Yet, it could be argued that Hong Kong's main advantage is its geographical position. Sitting on China's southern coast is a distinct blessing. With links to adjacent regions in Asia, Hong Kong remains the gateway to China.
Employing the majority of the workforce are the service industries. Retail, hotels, restaurants jobs make up 43%. Manufacturing is only 6.5%, whilst finance, insurance, and real estate jobs are 20.7%. As regards export partners, China takes 54.8% of all trade. The UK is 7.2% and the US 9.3%.
Hong Kong's scores well on competitiveness. In 2016, it came second in a survey by the International Institute for Management Development, Switzerland. The World Economic Forum has Hong Kong in seventh place. As regards ease of doing business, the World Bank has us in the top five. All satisfactory results. Yet, the data hides some issues that are a grave concern. The wealth gap is the most pressing.
Those with skills have managed to migrate up the professional ladder. It's the better educated that tend to seize the opportunities. No surprise there. Other factors at play are an ageing population and smaller households.
The economy has had a roller-coaster ride. This started almost immediately after 1st July 1997. The Asian financial crisis prompted an attack on the Hong Kong dollar in October 1997. Seen off by deploying our massive reserves, it nonetheless demonstrated a vulnerability. The stock market lost 23% in three days. Then property prices fell as confidence slipped. In 2003, SARS hit hard. Again, the stock market and property prices took a beating. What is striking is that in the face of these shocks, Hong Kong’s economy rapidly rebalanced. The doomsday commentaries proved wrong.
At these times of crisis, China has sought to prop up things. After SARS, tourists from the Mainland arrived in controlled phases. This restarted a floundering economy, creating jobs in retail and hotels. It also led to ugly scenes. Resentment amongst Hong Kongers came to the surface. They disliked their Mainland cousins 'flashing the cash'. In sudden, it dawned on them that the Mainlanders had spare cash plus a willingness to spend. This notion undermined the Hong Kong people’s sense of superiority. The country-bumpkin image of 'A Chan’ the unsophisticated Mainlander no longer applied. Ouch!
China has gone out of its way to invigorate and sustain Hong Kong's economy. Moreover, the fact remains, that Hong Kong cannot survive without the patronage of China. This simple assumption is often lost on some of our politicians.
Looking to the future, the Pearl River Delta conurbation will continue to grow. This economic powerhouse needs Hong Kong and we need it. Both physical and financial connections are crucial to leveraging our position. Thus, integration with the Mainland will gather pace. Those who speak of independence for Hong Kong are swimming against the tide. A tide that may bash them onto the rocks
In my opinion, Hong Kong will integrate with the Chinese economy, whilst retaining some unique features. I expect the common law legal system will continue, given the advantages it offers. Likewise, border controls won't relax. This will prove that Hong Kong is a distinct customs entity.
However, a few issues will need tackling if everyone is to benefit. I’ve spoken about the wealth gap. Also troubling is the cartel practices evident in some activities. The petrol companies appear to be operating in unison to move fuel costs. Likewise, new supermarket ventures have faced problems getting access to sites. Dominated by two players, the existing supermarket businesses have property developer parent companies. Some argue that competition is kept at bay by denying floor space.
Moving forward, Hong Kong will remain a knowledge-based economy. And for that to succeed, education will play a key role. Our young people need new skill sets. Skills that must come from education. That, unfortunately, is proving a potential vulnerability. More on that subject later.
It is gratifying that Hong Kong’s economy has proved robust. After a crisis it bounces back and adapts with haste. Today it is one the world’s most externally focused economies. It controls more manufacturing than at any time in its history. Although little takes place within its boundaries. Also, it’s remarkable that the political impasse has had no significant impact,
In summary, the economic changes seen over the past two decades were underway before 1997. A service economy has replaced manufacturing lost to the Mainland. It's anticipated that high-tech industries and IT related businesses will drive growth. Although competition is tough from Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Hong Kong will need to invest in training its people. What is more, the emerging industries need innovative thinkers, not rote learners. So how we train the young is crucial if we are to avoid a permanent underclass of unemployed. That's the challenge.
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.