"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
“I've concluded that people don't incline to take in the tangle of truth.”
History is a story. Sometimes it’s the easier story that wins out or the more comfortable one — the neatest version of events that sits well with personal or national perceptions. That’s the distinct impression that forms as I write this blog sitting in the UK.
As seen from here, there is no doubt that the interpretation of events in Hong Kong is either shaped by the self-serving chroniclers like Lord Patten or agenda-driven pundits. Sometimes it’s so is out of kilter it’s laughable. This week I was asked, “Were you in Hong Kong when the Chinese army invaded to stop the riots in 2019?” Oh Lordy!
I've concluded that people don't incline to take in the tangle of truth. Hence the easy line is that China crushed Hong Kong while everyone else is blameless. And that is as far as the commentary goes. Boom. Done.
Of course, with the 25th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, the likes of Chris Patten are milking the opportunity with books and opinion pieces. Before moving on, it’s worth anchoring a couple of points.
Patten, having had the boot from the people of Bath, and knowing little about Hong Kong or China, parachuted into the role of Governor in 1992. Convinced that he knew more than everyone else, regardless of their previous experience and detailed knowledge, he was late on the scene.
The negotiations for the handover concluded years before, and the "Joint Declaration" was signed in Beijing by Margaret Thatcher in 1984. The Basic Law - the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s administration after 1997 - was published in April 1990, including a provision for the National Security Law.
Hence, Patten had little to do except make a nuisance of himself, and upset the mainland Chinese. He succeeded. Hong Kong was poorly served in those final years of British rule by Patten operating in 'Catholic savour' mode. Did a sudden pang of guilt take hold having cut off Hong Kong people from the UK with the 1981 Immigration Act? Looks like it.
Yet regardless of well-meaning or not, Patten was running against the clock. All Beijing needed to do was wait until 1997. Perhaps a wiser politician could have played the game better.
Also, wiped from the record or downplayed in all the discussions is that Hong Kong was taking steps towards more democracy under Chinese rule until the opposition decided to scupper what was on offer. That derailed the whole process. Proposals on the table in 2014 set out a path to limited democratic reform. It was a start.
With that rejected, the seeds of the 2019 troubles germinated, which China felt compelled to address with an imposed National Security Law. Still it’s odd that commentators aren’t acknowledging that the NSL contains more safeguards than similar legislation in the West.
Reading the UK pundit's account of these events, I realise despite being there; I don't know my own story — not for them, the deep, more tangled view. So, supposedly, the whole of Hong Kong rose in protest, a 'fact' supported by images of streets filled with people. Truly that is incontrovertible evidence.
Hence there is no truck with the idea that the majority didn't protest or march. Moreover, once the violence took hold, attitudes turned on a sixpence, as the numbers showing willing support fell away dramatically.
Meanwhile, without any sense of irony, last week, The Times ran an article suggesting the Commonwealth be a bulwark against the rise of China. With opinion leaders still wedded to the idea that the UK commands the world stage, such views border on the delusional.
The Times also suggested that taking Hong Kong by force was a 'good thing', blithely ignoring the fact this was done to secure the opium trade that led to untold addictions and dislocation in Chinese society.
In essence the author argues that drug trafficking was fine and dandy because this led to modern-day Hong Kong. That misses the point that Hong Kong was held for strategic reasons, with the interests of the people having no bearing on events. Some recognition of that side of the story would be welcome.
Mind you, I shouldn't express surprise at such disingenuous behavior because half-truths and outright lies pepper British politics. You could argue this is par for the course when the ‘head boy’ routinely breaks the law, reneges on international agreements and can't keep his ethics advisors. That he even needs an ‘ethics advisor’ speaks volumes.
At the same time, Boris is moving to distance the UK from the European Court of Human Rights because it has ruled against him.
In the coming days no doubt we can look forward to Boris and others lecturing us about the ‘rules based international order’ and erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, while he acts as a law unto himself.
"Like Freddy Krueger on a night out, Covid slashes through Hong Kong's tourist industry."
Soon two of our iconic cultural landmarks will exist only as memories. The Star Ferry, long touted as the world's best ferry ride and the Jumbo restaurant, are victims of the times.
Like Freddy Krueger on a night out, Covid slashes through Hong Kong's tourist industry. It's sunk the Jumbo floating restaurant, so no more dramatic lighting reflecting off Aberdeen Harbour. Part of the structure at the rear is listing, while the colossal sign has long ceased to greet customers. It read "Jubo" for ages before somebody finally pulled the plug.
Without clientele and no sign of Hong Kong's draconian Covid rules relaxing, the Jumbo wasted away. Unfortunately, the government declined to get involved, so the owners plan to tow it out - and it's unlikely to be back. And while the Jumbo enjoyed a mixed reputation with locals, most visitors had it on their list.
In many ways, the demise of the Jumbo is the Hong Kong story. Flashy, gaudy lights on the front, with the hints of something mysterious and vibrant—a Disney version of the Orient, inauthentic and fun at the same time. Yet, behind lays the harsh economic truths.
Tourism was one of the pillars of our economy in 2018 when it contributed about 4.5% of Hong Kong's GDP while employing around 257, 000 persons. However, by 2020, as Covid hit home, the figure fell to 0.2% of GDP.
Therefore no wonder Star Ferry is also in financial trouble. Once an essential public transport link, the arrival of the MTR in the 1980s saw a drop off in passengers. That process continued as more cross-harbour tunnels arrived. We now have four fast air-conditioned rail lines running under the harbour, including a superb route that slashes travel times to Shatin. So who is going to bother with a hot walk to a relocated distant Central Pier?
Still, the ride across the harbour remains an enchanting experience, especially at night as the city's lights play on the water. In recent years, rebranded as a tourist attraction, the Star Ferry proved viable, except we have no tourists.
In another development, Cathay Pacific began writing to laid-off staff, asking them to rejoin the airline in anticipation of flights resuming and tourists flooding in. However, I heard these solicitations received a less than warm reception. Having gone to build new careers, the former staff didn't sound enthusiastic. Hence whether Cathay can reclaim its status as a brand leader symbolic of Hong Kong remains unclear.
The tourists will be back and still have much to marvel at, including street food in Kowloon and the dystopian back streets of Sham Shui Po, where I saw Harrison Ford chasing down replicants. The view from the Peak still takes my breath away while our new harbour front promenade is developing its unique status.
It is sad to see the Jumbo go, and the Star Ferry may follow it to the scrap heap. And I hear the question, "Is all this symbolic of Hong Kong's death by a thousand cuts long predicted by the pundits?"
No, because Hong Kong has continuously evolved with the forces of commerce shaping the very structure of the place. These days, with bridges linking us to Macau and the Greater Bay Area, we sit well placed to ride the success of the largest conurbation on the planet.
For the uninitiated, the GBA is Silicon Valley on steroids. It also includes the food and construction sectors, the automotive and aircraft industries and manufacturers of high-end medical products. With a population of over 86 million and a GDP of USD 1,668.8 billion in 2020, the GBA is the 12th biggest economy. It sits just behind South Korea and ahead of Australia. And the GBA has only just gotten started.
So that's where Hong Kong's future lies.
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.