By: Cyril Pereira

There was a palpable buzz at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce theatre in Admiralty on July 20. Young executives from a leadership program were to “reveal the DNA of Hong Kong!” The group comprised three from government, 12 from civil societies and charities and 11 from the private sector, nominated by their organizations.

Philanthropist Po Chung, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the DHL International courier service, funded 10 NGO members through his charity HKI-SLAM (HK Institute of Service Leadership & Management Ltd). Chandran Nair’s GIFT (Global Institute for Tomorrow) trained the select 26. The GIFT website prices that at HK$80,000 per head.

The conclave throbbed like a Christian revivalist camp. Effusive praise fell like confetti on patrons and presenters alike. Cheery applause and bobbing nods of approval pumped the presenters and their cohort. Raised-fist affirmations of Hong Kong’s future charged the mood. The audience was told to swivel 360-degrees to glad-hand neighbors. One almost expected the faithful to collapse next, bawling “I am saved” or to start ululating in tongues. A touching poignancy enveloped the fresh-faced innocence of the chosen.

Rear-view mirror

The team framed a conceptual map of the interplay of geography, culture, history, trade, and waves of immigration that lifted the fishing village to World City status over the ensuing 150 years. The project succeeds as a ready-reference for schools. It frames a Hong Kong of the rear-view mirror. The DNA report seems to have frozen time at 1997 and fuzzed out-of-focus the next eventful 20 years.​

Astonishingly, governance, the whip-hand of the territory’s evolving DNA, was missing from the framework. Trying to define the DNA of Hong Kong minus its political and administrative stewardship left the study painfully deficient – a glaring omission that Anson Chan, the respected former chief secretary, addressed in her closing remarks. How did the bright minds who toiled long and hard on the project, miss that?

The elephant stomps

Reciting the mantras of rule of law, personal freedoms, a free press, non-intrusive government, academic independence and free thought, like chanting cloister monks, won’t necessarily preserve these qualities. Those precious assets have been eroding for the last 20 years with the handover of the former British colony to China.

What changed? That is why governance matters most of all. Being positive or negative is irrelevant. Hope is not a strategy.

The elephant in the room is not going away. It is stomping. What will the city become as ‘two systems’ dissolve into one country? What has already muted Hong Kong’s celebrated ‘Lion Rock’ spirit? What prompted otherwise apolitical students to paralyze traffic outside the Legislative Council for 80 days in 2014, peacefully? They achieved none of their demands for true democracy. Will that anger of a betrayed generation just evaporate?

These are vexing questions to reflect on, 20 years into Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region afterlife. Tibet and Xinjiang are long-running real-life dramas of other autonomous regions. Taiwan remains to be embraced by the motherland. It is being shown the carrot and the stick, daily.

MTR reputation dives

The DNA report showcased the MTR as Hong Kong’s iconic world-class success. The light rail system has earned a global reputation for its efficiency, punctuality, reliability, safety, and prudent rail-operator-cum-property-developer business model. It has expanded operations to China, the UK and Sweden. It is the global gold standard of public transport.

Was.

The MTR is now mired in scandals of shoddy construction, public safety risk and ballooning cost overruns, on the massive HK$97 billion Shatin-Central rail link project, the largest ever in Hong Kong. Leaks of compromised safety bubble up on the television and the press. Leighton Contractors (Asia) and China State Construction are jointly responsible for the mess.

The government established a Commission of Inquiry, headed by a former judge of the Court of Appeal, Michael Hartman. The MTR looks shamefully like another badly mismanaged monopoly. Cost-cutting, risking public safety by contractors under the nose of the project manager, is a wretched fall from grace for the MTR and Hong Kong.

An MTR spokesperson stressed that “contractors must comply with the rules.” Unthinkable in an earlier era of governance and professional integrity, this episode is symptomatic of the existential dilemma Hong Kong faces as it struggles to reconcile fundamentally different perceptions of contractual responsibility, work discipline, and public accountability. The incompatibility of the ‘two systems’ could not be more starkly exhibited.

HK exceptionalism?

The young leaders shared a collective belief in Hong Kong’s exceptionalism: intangible X-factors which make the city unique. Business columnist David Dodwell reminded everyone that other places have suffered political and financial disruptions too and survived. Hong Kong ‘core values’ are common to many other societies. The point is to accept the blunt reality of China’s sovereignty. Dodwell suggested the territory leverage its ‘super-connector’ skills in the GBA (Greater Bay Area) and the BRI (Belt & Road Initiative) to be relevant.

The belief in exceptionalism drives Hong Kong’s identity. In a June 2017 identity poll conducted by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program, only 3.1 percent of local youth between 18-29 years identified as “Chinese.” That is the lowest score since the polls began from August 1997. ‘Hong Kong’s’ identity stood at 65 percent while 28.7 percent claimed mixed Chinese-HK categorization. Hong Kong identity is now affirmed over the national identity.

That bothers the central government. Education policies and united-front activities are being ramped-up to replace this dogged identity with ‘love the nation.’ Hong Kongers embrace their heritage of Chinese culture, literature, and the arts. They are proud of China’s Olympic sporting achievements and space programs. They are not quite ready to accept the less savory, murkier aspects of mainland rule.

Work-in-progress

Many good initiatives surface at one event and die. Chandran Nair committed to engage with schools and civil society over the next 18 months, to share and discuss the DNA framework. A book of 100-plus pages with tables and charts, will be ready by mid-August.

This project should only be the start of a potentially valuable work-in-progress. It can be an objective assessment, warts and all, of the city’s evolving DNA. It should add to the educational resources on Hong Kong’s history, for future generations. Collective amnesia should not be inflicted on Hong Kong by those aspiring to be its future leaders.