Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
As the British Caledonian Tristar swung into land at Kai Tak, I'm sensing something novel. Looking down on the crowded streets, the first hint of Hong Kong’s vitality transferring its energy to me.
Then later, moving through Kowloon, that energy wrapped itself around me, before permeating my body. The city gave off a vibration. Buoyancy hung in the air, with a zeal for getting things done. Get caught up in that can-do conviction - anything is possible.
It’s the early 1980s. Massive infrastructure projects are surging ahead. New towns grow out of the sea or cloven from the hillsides. The slope dwellers are switching precarious wooden structures for high-rise homes. Awaiting them are inside toilets and proper kitchens. Engineers are tunnelling, building to link remotes areas with the ambitious MTR project. Incised with tunnels the harbour is no longer a barrier. Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are one.
Meanwhile, former refugees are toiling away in factories, offices and on constructions sites. Anything is possible as 1997 is looming. People are tense, yet getting on with life as the politicians play their games. Some opt to move on, with Canada and the USA in their sights. The 1989 killings in Beijing drive that.
The government is efficient; it’s corruption-free by Asian standards. The streets are safe. Hong Kong has ridden through a few crises of confidence without a pause. As the negotiations for the handover drag on fortunes are made, others lose chances. The Vietnamese refugee influx stretched patience and resources but never overwhelmed. Hong Kong's glass is half-full.
Even as 1997 approaches, with 1989 shrugged off, a new airport emerges from the sea. Then Kai Tak dims its landing lights for the last time. All the while, the prospects of an emerging China enthrals many. Opportunities abound.
Then something happened. For reasons that remain elusive, Hong Kong’s confidence falters. I suppose no single cause can take the blame. The blows that had before bounced off the armour started to make dents. A few penetrated deep. The glass is looking half empty.
The existential Asian financial crisis of 1998 hit hard. The barometer of Hong Kong’s success is property prices. As these collapsed, it looked like game over. Chief Executive Tung was ill-equipped to deal with the situation. He faltered, rushing a housing initiative.
Then, as today, China stepped in to help shore up the economy. A sullen and ungrateful Hong Kong people did not display much gratitude. That China needed to act affirmed Hong Kong’s dependence on the Mainland. The vast majority of Hong Konger’s willful ignorance of this status runs deep.
The events of 2003 had an enormous impact on Hong Kong. Today the consequences continue to play out. SARS exposed the government to profound criticism. The initial lacklustre response suggested either a cover-up or sheer incompetence. In no time, Hong Kong people felt isolated and forsaken. Tourism collapsed. By April 2003, arrivals at the airport fell 68 per cent. At the same time, Hong Kong people found themselves unwelcome overseas. As an example, the Swiss barred a Hong Kong delegation from attending a Watch and Jewelry Fair in Zurich.
The mood was bleak. Travelling by MTR on a Saturday evening, I’m stunned to find the carriages empty. About town, everyone is wearing masks. In the end, the outbreak killed 299 in Hong Kong. It left behind a deep feeling of sadness, loss and anger. Some of that anger spilt over into the Article 23 debate. 500,000 people took to the streets on 1st July 2003. Organised to protest the national security laws, many joined to vent frustration at the government. This protest ultimately led to the fall of Chief Executive Tung. He stepped aside in 2005 citing poor health.
In the final analysis, SARS also had positive outcomes. Public hygiene standards improved, although it’s a lesson that needs constant reinforcement. Hong Kong people discovered that there is more to life than making money. In search of healthy pursuits, they took to the country parks.
Yet none of that could erase the damaging sense that Hong Kong was not invulnerable. Once that realisation dawned, attitudes changed for the worst.
In the broad sweep of events, I suppose the Occupy movement of 2014 comes next. I’ve written much on Occupy that can be found in this blog. On its consequences in the broader community, these are profound. Also, these impacts resonate to this day.
Occupy exploded in a massive release of pent-up energy in the autumn of 2014. By early December, it was over. A spent force. It collapsed in rancour, with fragmented groups tussling for control. The youth at the centre of the movement came away demoralised.
Given the differing generational-zeitgeist, it’s inevitable that Occupy would split society. Yet, the depth of that split cut through all sectors. You either supported it, or you didn’t. It’s a civil war moment. Father against son, mother against daughter; few people sat on the fence. That polarisation played into politics, the workplace plus education. No sector remained unblemished. On social media, it played out in unfriending on Facebook. People who'd been pals since kindergarten broke off contact. Then everyone sat in their silos, ignoring each other.
Another CE fell victim. Leung Chun-ying didn’t seek re-election in the wake of Occupy. He’s replaced by a humdrum career civil servant, Carrie Lam. Since Occupy, a political stalemate hangs in the air. Most folks sought to put Occupy behind them to get on with life.
In recent years, images of former senior officials dragged into court added damage to public sentiment. That a former Chief Executive and his deputy exploited their positions for personal gain affirms a particular view ... that Hong Kong is on a downward spiral. Coupled with this is the never-ending revelations of shoddy construction on infrastructure projects. Job after job is late, then over-budget.
It’s only natural that the public is questioning the integrity of our institutions. At the same time the wealth gap, high property prices and unchecked pollution remain a blight.
To be sure things have gone astray, but is Hong Kong finished as ‘Asia’s world city’? A reality check is necessary. Cutting through the media hype, the tribalism of attitudes, to consider hard facts. The trajectory of continuous decline is an opinion that is worth challenging.
First, Hong Kong has sustained consistent growth for decades. It maintains a surplus that is the envy of other places. The city’s fiscal reserves exceeded HK$1.7 trillion by December last year. Official statistics show the average annual growth rate of revenue from 2009-10 to 2014-15 was 8.5 per cent. Expenditure rose 6.2 per cent. In short, Hong Kong has massive reserves.
Many are questioning why more of that money is not spent on social welfare and care for the elderly. It remains a disgrace that the poverty-stricken elderly, must scrape a living collecting cardboard. After all, they toiled to build Hong Kong.
No one can argue that Hong Kong lacks jobs. If you want to work the opportunity is there. Likewise, if you're going to set up a business, the government makes it easy. The procedure took me 45 minutes. I filled in one form, produced my documents, and that’s it. Could it be any simpler? Hong Kong positively invites you to be entrepreneurial.
Second, Hong Kong is safe. As a father with daughters, I’m relaxed to allow them to venture out even on busy Saturday nights. I’m confident I’d be less sanguine residing in London, New York or just about any other major metropolitan city (other than Singapore). Also, not a single kid has been shot at school in all my 30 plus years in Hong Kong.
Third, Hong Kong’s public transport system is superb. Despite its recent setbacks, the MTR remains the benchmark for other places. The buses are frequent and cheap. Although the taxi trade is a mixed bag, the fares are reasonable: the quality of the drivers ranges from outstanding to neanderthal. Unwelcome cartel practices are keeping Uber out. A bit of competition would force the taxi trade to up its game.
Ending my not exhaustive list is the ready access to our wonderful countryside. All Hong Kong is in easy reach of the country parks, with walking trails that are accessible and challenging. You don’t need to be a wealthy expat or rich local to enjoy this stunning public space.
There are many reasons to criticise Hong Kong. It has its challenges. All I’m saying is lets put away corrosive fatalism that Hong Kong is in the toilet. It’s not and far from it. Would it not be better to strike a more balanced assessment? Then recognising the challenges, let's address them In that case, we can reignite some of that Hong Kong mojo.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.