Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
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.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.