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'You’re with us or against us' -
Beijing calls HK into line

Beijing’s zero-sum loyalty trap loses sight of the main prize – a successful, profitable, Hong Kong. Can the new chief executive, Carrie Lam, make a difference?

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, July 2017

New Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam - can she bring a divided city together?

New Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam walks a tightrope between Beijing's demands for 'patriotic' loyalty and the city's own freewheeling aspirations

TWENTY years after the handover from Britain to China, the fate of Hong Kong continues to be measured by a yardstick that many would find risible were it not for the raw emotion it arouses and the hardening of polarised politics.

At the heart of this feckless debate, is whether Hongkongers are pro or anti Beijing. This banal and irrelevant discussion has seemingly derailed sensible discourse on pressing issues like the usurious price of housing, education drift, caring for the elderly, healthcare, the dismal state of exports, and flagging private consumption.

The promise of the Year of the Fire Rooster appears elusive with the economy at an all-time low, barely pulling forward from the estimated 1.5% GDP growth for 2016. It is time for Hong Kong to act. But where are its leaders?

A steady stream of bureaucrats schooled in the art of following orders by colonial masters have run the city since 1997, bereft of ideas. In the absence of any guiding socio-politico-economic beacon, or firm instructions from above, they have been marching, boldly, in no particular direction. Bowing to Beijing has come naturally to some, a welcome relief perhaps. For many, it is seen as the only way up the political ladder. That Hong Kong is part of China and the Mainland holds the key to the territory’s growth is not in doubt. But the haste with which the city’s bureaucrat-turned-politicians have aligned themselves with oftentimes inscrutable Mainland thinking, has had an unsettling effect.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


The fact is that much of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘independence’ and pro-democracy activism so feared by Beijing and led by student groups like Demosistō, is neither an independence movement (which would be patently unfeasible and misconceived) nor some articulate political juggernaut

So what does ‘one country two systems’ and the ‘pro vs anti-China’ talk have to do with all this? Simply put, everything. Beijing faces a profound dilemma. It is a conservative parent with two offspring – one grudgingly obedient as long as the pocket money comes in; the other, recalcitrant, headstrong and averse to parental authority after an interlude of exploitative but strangely emancipating British tutelage. It has two stark choices.

Spare the rod and spoil Hong Kong, at the risk of losing the docile larger sibling too – in essence, an abdication of authoritarian Communist-led rule. Or the employment of quiet, even overt, intervention to bring a pint-sized city to heel, while projecting a semblance of autonomy.

There was a time when China saw Hong Kong as a valuable conduit for international funds and as a means to encourage Taiwan back into the motherland. The city’s strong banking sector and independent courts, along with its freewheeling nature, held powerful allure for international investors and multinationals. That allure has dimmed a smidgeon with the rise of Shanghai and other Chinese megalopolis magnets. And, since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong has simply not been innovative enough. It has at times acted like the Oxford educated dullard child.

The much experienced new Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, with many familiar faces in her cabinet, has a grand opportunity to change the course of Hong Kong’s history. To do this, she needs to abandon the distraction of the ‘pro vs anti-Beijing’ prism, and to view matters in a clear non-partisan manner. She needs a vision for Hong Kong. Leaders need to lead – not simply administer – and this faltering financial city, once the envy of the world, has not seen enough of that.

The fact is that much of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘independence’ and pro-democracy activism so feared by Beijing and led by student groups like Demosistō, is neither an independence movement (which would be patently unfeasible and misconceived) nor some articulate political juggernaut. It is a clumsy and disjointed student awakening after years of political slumber under the British, only surfacing with the help of a more recent catalyst – CY Leung’s extraordinarily poor people skills and his inability, or unwillingness, to read the local pulse.

In its youthful and emotive manifesto, Demosistō states, “Through direct action, popular referenda, and non-violent means, we push for the city’s political and economic autonomy from the oppression of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and capitalist hegemony.” In one single opening sentence, the group commits political hara-kiri by taking a futile Quixotic swing at two formidable groups it expressly defines as opponents – the Beijing government, and Hong Kong’s property nabobs. The quaint macron on Demosistō adds neither erudition nor historic insight into its purported struggle.

This is not to say Hong Kong does not need civil awareness to try and involve people somehow in the ‘closed’ political process, as the misguided Occupy movement attempted to do. But pro-democracy advocates and autonomy-seeking fringe groups have fallen straight into the ‘pro vs anti-China’ trap masterfully laid by Beijing. You are either with us or against us. But, despite the insecurity that promotes this kind of thinking, loyalty is not a zero-sum game.

After their surprising Legislative Council election victory in September 2016, Youngspiration’s Baguio Leung and Yau Wai-ching ran foolishly foul of the oath taking ceremony and were disqualified from office after Beijing acted with alacrity to offer a stern interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law even as the city’s courts, moved by the government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, deliberated on the matter.

Thus, inadvertently if predictably, an immature blunder enabled Beijing to get a foot firmly through the door. Since then official pronouncements from Beijing have reflected mounting concern and urgency,  peppered with references to ‘love the motherland’, ‘patriotism’, ‘national tongue’, and ‘national security law’ (under Article 23 to deal with ‘treason, secession, sedition’). The non-speak has reached deafening proportions and muddied the conversation.

For her part, an avowedly Beijing-friendly Carrie Lam – and there is no dishonour in embracing Beijing per se – has wasted no time in moving towards these goals after handily beating local favourite John Tsang Chun-wah and former judge Woo Kwok-hing, picking up 777 votes out of the 1,186 cast by the Election Committee.

She is in favour of injecting an ‘I am Chinese’ approach in the education curriculum with Chinese history courses for youngsters, alarming some who see this as a propaganda tool. Yet, handled intelligently, history can provide a solid platform for education with its broad multi-discipline palette. Will Lam too fall victim to the with-us-or-against-us misdirection when her job is really to serve Hong Kong well, even as a partially or indirectly elected official? Not easy, when her mandate derives not from the people, but from above. Added to this are pressures arising from Hong Kong’s corporate tycoons, eager to access Mainland markets.

Will Carrie Lam too fall victim to the with-us-or-against-us misdirection when her job is really to serve Hong Kong well, even as a partially or indirectly elected official? Not easy, when her mandate derives not from the people, but from above. Added to this are pressures arising from Hong Kong’s corporate tycoons, eager to access Mainland markets

Her task is not just to place the city within a China context (Hong Kong is undeniably a part of China despite the many heads in the sand) but to make Hong Kong internationally relevant again with progressive laws, safeguarded freedoms, a robust free press, and quality education that welcomes debate, attracts better teachers, and fosters both Putonghua and English competence. Most of all she needs a bold economic vision that revitalises trade, tourism, scientific endeavour, research and development, bio-tech, the IT industry, the search for green energy solutions, deep water port development, the service industries, and the arts. Hong Kong needs to move away from overreliance on the property sector.

Putonghua remains a flashpoint and unfortunate knee-jerk reactions to Mainland visitors have earned the city a less-than-welcoming reputation. Europeans, South Americans, many Africans, and Indians, often speak two to three languages fluently. Why should Hong Kong be any different? Adding Putonghua and English – rather than displacing Cantonese, which is essential – is a must if the city is not to fall behind the competition. Hong Kong needs to learn that English and Putonghua are not Trojan horses with some dark imperialist intent. They are a practical imperative for survival and growth. People eagerly study Japanese and Korean without fear. So why not English and Putonghua?

Hong Kong is promoted as a ‘world city’ (whatever that might mean) but, with the city’s inward looking focus and language limitations, there is a disconnect between Hong Kong’s purported image as a global financial leader, and reality.

Cantonese and its vibrant local culture must be preserved assiduously, not just as window dressing for cash-dispenser visitors, but for residents. Hong Kong is a Cantonese enclave. The city would do well to promote local art, creativity and small-scale industry, hard pressed by rising rents and the steady creep of an uninspiring mono-culture designer brand ethos. The PMQ creative zone experiment, successful or not, is a step in the right direction. Old industrial buildings can be revitalised through government subvention to attract and showcase local talent.

For all its energy and bluster, Hong Kong has slowed discernibly and lost its way, in equal part due to residents’ deep fear of Beijing (which puts many people in opposition to all suggestions emanating from China, good or bad), legitimate worries about a loss of identity (that has given rise to the localist movement), and a regressive desire for status quo. It is an odd pass for a city so favoured by pirates and adventurers who once chuckled at Singapore’s schoolroom society.

Hong Kong has energy, vitality, and that famous can-do risk-taking attitude. What it lacks is leadership. Vision. A goal.

The discussion needs to move away from whether pan-democrats, youngsters, academics, or the government are with or against Beijing, to whether they are for a strong, progressive, open minded Hong Kong that welcomes change. The government’s role is to run one of Asia’s most successful cities and it must always be staunchly pro-Hong Kong. Clearly, much of what strengthens Hong Kong, helps strengthen China. The two are indivisible.

If the city is to reinvent itself and compete on the world stage, its wealth measured not just in terms of money but in manners and mores and human capital, Carrie Lam – an able administrator, former chief secretary, would-be social worker, and Cambridge scholar – must take a stab at this. There is too much at stake.


Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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Varkey Mathew (1 July, 2017) – Hong Kong SAR China
It has a clear takeaway..need to become 'pro hong kong' (rather than anti or pro china). It is also consistent with 'One country Two systems'. Would have liked the article to include some coverage on the 'property nabobs'.
Heather McKinley (30 June, 2017) – UK
An excellent piece. I have spent a lot of time in Hong Kong and know its resilience. I do agree it needs strong leadership that expands democracy to the extent possible and stays focused on important issues. It certainly has the money to spend on primary education and some of the items the author mentioned.
Peter Lam (30 June, 2017) – Australia
This is the time for Hong Kong. A special occasion. Many things need to be fixed. Carrie Lam has experience to do this. The author is correct that she should keep the focus on Hong Kong.

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