A Depressing Visit to ‘Asia’s World City’
Hong Kong continues to slide in all human rights indices
Landing at Hong Kong’s gleaming but virtually empty Chek Lap Kok international airport, as I did recently after a three-year Covid-inspired absence, is to be greeted by the same lustrous city I lived in for 23 years, with its fantastic transport system, its romantic Star Ferry, forests of high-rises, its brilliant restaurants, supermarkets filled with air-flown produce, and its raffish Wan Chai bars with the requisite number of fading westerners although they have thinned dramatically.
But behind the façade is a city in jeopardy of losing its coveted status to Singapore as Asia’s international capital, at least partly because its judicial system and the rule of law, which lured thousands of multinationals to make it their base, is now being eroded. It is easy to see in the trials of dissidents. It is harder to see it in commercial legal decisions and stock market actions in which some companies are favored over others, reported by gadfly David Webb, and increasingly less so by intimidated newspapers.
At least partly because of the now-relaxed Covid-19 lockdown, it is a sad and sullen populace. This after all is a city populated to a great extent by people who fled China to get away from the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and other waves of repression. It is astonishing how completely Beijing has managed to rein in a population that in the middle of the last decade was putting tens of thousands of protesting people into the streets, whose independent newspapers were reporting every detail, whose sports stadiums rang with derision over the playing of the Chinese national anthem.
They folded in the face of overwhelming force delivered by their own once-independent officials, police and jurists who enthusiastically embraced Beijing’s orders, a sad volte-face. Amazingly, 12 dissidents were caught in 2021 while attempting to flee to Taiwan by speedboat and sentenced to up to three years in prison. This is the sort of thing that happened in the 1950s at the Iron Curtain.
I landed the same week that 16 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists went on trial, accused of conspiring to commit subversion. They are among 47 who were arrested in February 2021 raids and have been held in prison – including the publisher of one of the city’s most popular newspapers and the legislator wife of Asia Sentinel’s co-founder, for the crime of seeking free and fair elections for the former British Crown Colony’s leaders. The remainder have pleaded guilty on the theory they will never get a fair trial but hope for leniency.
Ruled by the National Security law forced onto the city by Beijing, which has resulted in the stifling of press freedom and any modicum of protest that used to fill Queensway across from the government complex, below the surface it is a grim place, now headed by a tough former cop named John Lee. The judiciary and the legal profession, which once set Hong Kong apart not only from China but much of the rest of Asia, has been emasculated. According to research by Law.com International, 24 law firm partners left Hong Kong in 2021, adding to 22 departures first reported in April of that year, partly because of Covid-19 restrictions. All human rights lawyers have left. Most people are certain the trial of the 16 will go pretty much the same way all trials go on the mainland.
The taxi driver who took me to the downtown airport connection said timidly that he dislikes the government intensely, but he doesn’t tell anybody, including his own family, for fear of trouble from police, who have largely shed their big-city savoir-faire and begun to look like authoritarian police everywhere. He is too old to leave, he said. He’s scared to say too much because authorities have set up hotlines for people to report the unenthusiastic. A British friend described being suddenly stopped by a patrolling cop for no apparent reason, to demand what he was carrying in his gym bag. It is a city, in the words of one expatriate friend, that has lost its bounce.
But Lee, the former top cop, is nonetheless patrolling the Middle East and Southeast Asia with subordinates on 15 official “hello Hong Kong” visits looking to lure tourists to what had until too recently had been called been called Asia’s World City. The government in early February announced plans to give away half a million free air tickets as part of its effort to rebuild the tourism industry, although officials acknowledge it will take years to get it going again after the China-induced Covid lockdown, which still has the population wearing masks. Sitting on Lee Tung Street, the once-famed Wedding Card Street which has been replaced by an ersatz Chinese village lane, the pennant-bearing leaders of Chinese tour groups were few and far between. The belated opening of the border to the mainland hasn’t helped.
The city has its own indefatigable apologist, a Sri Lankan named Nury Vittachi, who seems to spend his waking hours extolling the virtues of the government, like Doctor Pangloss proclaiming this is the best of all possible worlds and posting Facebook pictures of happy Uyghurs gamboling in native costume in Urumqi to show how well they’re treated. He portrays the western mainstream media as stenographers supported and spoon-fed by the CIA and other Washington organs. Most of the 230-odd people who have been arrested, including newspaper editors following police raids on media outlets, had it coming, Vittachi has written, for supporting violent confrontations in which police were injured.
For any other city, the streets would be regarded as overwhelmingly crowded. To those familiar with pre-Covid days, they look sparse. Vittachi leads an unceasing effort, supported by a seeming army of trolls, to portray the populace as joyous over the end of months of demonstrations against Beijing’s refusal to allow for universal suffrage, insisting on picking their own chief executives, which hasn’t worked out well, an understatement. (All four have been either incompetent, crooked, or massively unpopular. Lee, on the other hand, spooks people.)
The International Financial Center on the waterfront, with its Bulgari and Chanel shops, still throngs with British bankers in pipestem trousers. But in fact there seems no energy in the streets in a city that fairly vibrated with it prior to the arrival of Beijing’s national security mandate. Beijing, as one friend said, has killed the soul of Hong Kong. There are no controversial books in the bookstores about China, especially because even before the arrival of the National Security Act, six book publishers who specialized in garish tales of Chinese leaders were kidnapped, taken over the border, and run over the washboard to shut them up.
There are ominous institutional changes. Both teachers – more than 3,000 – and students have abandoned the public schools for education overseas because of the implementation of patriotic education requirements. Atn the university level, contracts are increasingly not being renewed for professors and lecturers from Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States. Expatriate work visas have been cut sharply, with an average 73 percent rejection rate for western sources, from 40,000 annually to about 14,000. Mainland professors and lecturers are being imported into tertiary education, University administrations have been brought to heel with vice-chancellors handpicked for their loyalty.
But 13 journalists are still in jail, including Apple Daily founder and 2020 RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate Jimmy Lai. The editors of the now-closed Chinese-language online portal Stand News are now on trial. A growing number of Hong Kong journalists now reporting from overseas due to the shrinking space for independent reporting back home, with new outlets set up and managed from places like the United Kingdom and Australia, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The arrests of journalists and closure of prominent news outlets triggered ‘widespread panic’ and an all-time low for press freedom, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which has assessed conditions for journalists in an annual index since 2013,” CPJ said. It’s safer to report from overseas. That is increasingly true not only of journalists but the legal and educational professions as well. We will see who’s next.