Hong Kong's future is in the hands of its people

2020-07-24 chinadaily.com.cn Editor:Li Yan

I recently read in a newspaper that the passing of the National Security Law for Hong Kong means that “the West has lost Hong Kong”. Many media throughout the West have been tirelessly repeating for weeks that this law means “the death of Hong Kong”, in the same way that the handover was then being peddled as “a death sentence for Hong Kong” in 1997, and yet here we are, with Hong Kong being as prosperous and vibrant as ever.

Part of this problem stems from the misconception I cited in “Don’t mistake Hong Kong for a foreign concession” (June 15, China Daily Hong Kong Edition) that Hong Kong is some sort of foreign concession. To them, it does not belong to China, even though China has undisputed sovereignty over it.

July 1 marked the 23rd anniversary of the handover, that is, of the return of Hong Kong to China. Note that I used the word “return”, because, before the arrival of the British in 1841, Hong Kong was already part of China. We cannot forget the fact that Hong Kong, as well as other foreign concessions and colonies in China, was acquired through a series of unequal treaties, which would be completely unacceptable under current international laws and modern democratic norms.

In other words, why does the West forget now that Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking to put an end to the First Opium War?

In 1839 the Qing emperor instructed Lin Zexu, an incorruptible senior mandarin, to end the opium trade with Britain. Lin ordered a large amount of opium seized and publicly destroyed, and sent a letter to Queen Victoria about the problems caused by opium: “We have heard that in your own country opium is prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity — this is a strong proof that you know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not permit it to injure your own country, you ought not to have the injurious drug transferred to another country, and above all others, how much less to the Inner Land!”

Isn’t this the same kind of hypocrisy that we are seeing now, in July 2020, when we see Britain offering millions of Hong Kong people residency rights and a path to citizenship, despite Britain not doing any democratic reform in almost 156 years of its colonial rule over Hong Kong?

In 2017, to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover, I did some research comparing, from a socioeconomic perspective, the Hong Kong of 1997 with the Hong Kong of 2017.

The data showed that Hong Kong was in better shape in 2017 than in 1997. While people’s life expectancy increased by five years for men and women to 82 and 88 years respectively over the 20-year period, the public rental housing stock increased from 704,300 apartments in 1997 to more than 760,000 in 2017.

So, if Hong Kong people had no real democracy under British rule, and if Hong Kong is in better shape in 2020 than it was in 1997, what’s all this street violence and political agitation all about? I understand that uncertainty may be scary. Not knowing what this new National Security Law will mean in practice may be worrying to some people, and I respect that, but the fact remains that 99.9 percent of Hong Kong people will not be affected by this new law, since it targets only separatist activities, subversion of State power, terrorism and foreign/external interference.

Given the fact that an immense part of Hong Kong’s society is pacifistic and reasonable, this law should not worry them. What should worry Hong Kong people right now is how to make their city flourish again after a year of protests and riots, and after the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastation. We can take assurance from the fact that Hong Kong went through the Asian financial crisis, the SARS outbreak, the global financial crisis and the current pandemic without any significant outflow of capital. Hong Kong is resilient and self-confident.

Despite Hong Kong being part of China (and therefore neither an independent territory nor a foreign concession), I think that Hong Kong’s future depends entirely on Hong Kong people. Had some of them not perpetrated so much gratuitous violence against fellow citizens and wanton destruction of public infrastructure and private property last year, China’s National People’s Congress would not have passed the National Security Law, or at least not in such a rush. 2047 is coming, but what happens before then, and, especially, afterward, depends entirely on the residents of Hong Kong: It is in China’s interest to extend the “one country, two systems” formula as long as it works. Therefore, the residents of Hong Kong have two alternatives: to keep applying pressure on Beijing (which is not a smart move), or to abide by the “one country, two systems” formula and show Beijing that Hong Kong can be part of China while maintaining its special characteristics.

Macao has chosen this path. In contrast to Hong Kong, Macao’s 700,000 inhabitants showed little interest in emulating some of their Hong Kong counterparts in agitating over the latter half of the “one country, two systems” governance formula. Macao seems eager to grasp every opportunity offered by Beijing: For example, Macao will try to diversify its economy by creating a stock exchange and embracing both the Belt and Road Initiative and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area project.

To sum up, Hong Kong people must grasp their city’s future now by embracing the many opportunities which will further integrate its economy with the Chinese mainland’s — now the world’s second-biggest economy, but en route to becoming its dominant player one day.

The author, Oriol Caudevilla, holds a doctorate in urbanism, real estate law and economics. He has worked as a business analyst for a Hong Kong publicly listed company.

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