Hong Kong: Nothing Has Changed Except For Everything
The air leaks out of Asia’s World City
One of those great Russian novels which many people start and few people finish opens with a disturbing scene. A deceased priest, widely regarded as a saint, has been placed on a bier in the local cathedral, and faithful worshippers from miles around come to pay their respects.
Because it was believed at the time that the body of a dead saint was so purified by the hallowed status of its occupant that it would not putrefy, none of the usual precautions have been taken. Over the ensuing few days onlookers and cathedral staff manage to ignore the growing smell and pretend that it is not happening.
A rather similar exercise in collective self-deception is taking place in Hong Kong. Officially, nothing has changed. The ruling policy is “one country two systems,” so Hong Kong is allowed to be different; order has been restored by the imposition of a national security law after the 2019 disturbances, and the economy will be back on track as soon as the Covid-19 hangover subsides.
True, there have been some minor amendments to the official line. Hong Kong no longer aspires to be “Asia’s World City,” or to take pride in being the place where the world’s wheeling and dealing is done when New York and London are asleep. This no longer fits in with the spirit of the times, which demands that every public pronouncement on the city’s future include a quote from Xi Jinping and an expression of gratitude for the mainland’s help. Hong Kong now hopes to be the enabler of the Greater Bay Area, a specialist in finances and a conduit through which the world’s money can participate in China’s inexorable rise to greatness, or at least that part of it conducted in Guangdong Province.
But alongside this great hope comes the official insistence that nothing has changed, that Hong Kong is still enjoying 50 years without change as promised before 1997; any suggestion to the contrary is “firmly rejected” as “slanders and smears.” If the suggestion comes from overseas, it will also be interfering in matters which are “purely China’s internal affairs.”
The trouble with all this is that Hong Kong people are at the same time fed a steady stream of reminders that times have changed.
Thousands of people who were arrested in 2019 have not yet been charged. Cases are now four years old. They still come up every week or so. Punishments almost invariably involve prison. Recent examples include a man who was jailed for five weeks. He threw a deflated folding umbrella at a policeman and missed.
In another four-year-old case, a man was jailed for five months for having in his possession two laser pointers.
Suggestions that after four years, it might be a good idea to let bygones be bygones are firmly rejected as incompatible with the rule of law. This is the reverse of the truth. In most respectable jurisdictions a lapse of four years between arrest and trial would be regarded as scandalous and in many it would result in the prosecution being dismissed as out of time.
Then there is the city’s political life. This now features elections in which the candidates are pre-screened, and also face considerable difficulty in getting nominated if they do not have the government’s approval.
This approach was pioneered in elections to the legislature, which has 89 avowed government supporters and one independent.
A similar process is now being applied to local councils, already purged of the councilors elected in the pro-democrats’ landslide win in 2019. Candidates for the upcoming council elections must be approved by a government official and nominated by government appointees on local committees. Even candidates from parties so respectable that they have members on the government’s Executive Council found it difficult or impossible to get on the ballot.
Other recent revelations included the discovery that many of the councilors unseated in 2019 had been recruited to “care teams” in which they handed out government largesse to the deserving poor. Would-be candidates have now dropped this exciting activity.
It also transpired that no less than three quarters of the approved candidates were members of those local committees from which hopefuls were expected to solicit nominations.
There have been some signs of anxiety in government circles that the turnout to pick the government supporter of your choice – and theirs – may be a bit low. Civil servants have been told that it is their duty to vote. It is a sign of the way things are now that this sparked speculation that the government would find some way of discovering who had followed orders.
Well, no government can avoid having court cases and elections. But then there are the gratuitous little mysteries.
For example, the Democratic Party put in the winning bid for a stall at the annual Chinese New Year Fair in Victoria Park. Then their bid was canceled. The department in charge said it was not obliged to give a reason and did not do so.
A senior UK barrister, Timothy Owen, was after much legal heaving and straining barred from representing Jimmy Lai, a former newspaper tycoon and top government target who really needs a good lawyer. Owen was invited to give talks on general legal topics at the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Club. The talks were then canceled without explanation.
Then there is the case of Lie Jexin, a 69-year-old man who was jailed for 30 days for busking without a license. Nobody else has been charged with busking in living memory.
Actually, when a pedestrianized street in Mongkok became so popular with buskers that shopkeepers complained bitterly about the noise, nobody suggested that they should be asked if they had licenses. In the end, the shopkeepers got the pedestrianization reversed. Lie’s crime was playing a tune that the government disapproves of. The magistrate said this was an example of “soft resistance,” currently a worry for officials who feel obeyed, but unloved.
The long-range approach to this is to adopt the traditional Jesuit approach and catch people young. Pupils as young as eight will next year be treated to a “humanities” subject which will include “a basic knowledge of the Beijing-enacted security legislation, the Hong Kong People’s Liberation Army garrison and national defense.”
The Education Bureau said the aim was to “systematically cultivate students’ sense of belonging to our country, national sentiments and sense of national identity from an early age…” Or as Orwell might have put it, they will learn to love Big Brother.
Orwell’s language comes up often in discussions of developments in Hong Kong. It would be interesting to know if he is among the hundreds of authors whose works have been removed from local libraries as unsuitable for patriotic readers. But the list of banned works is itself a secret.
Would there be room, one wonders, for Housman? “What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content…”
The trouble with denial, of course, is that what is not happening is not remedied. So besides global warming and mounting trade barriers, which are perhaps above Hong Kong leaders’ pay grade, there is rising emigration, resignations from the civil service and student suicides, with falling school enrolments, fertility, and house prices. Writers about these problems will occasionally allude tactfully to the fact that young people are not too pleased with the way things have gone since 2019. But the government has other fish to fry. In the next legislative session, Hong Kongers are promised a new law to increase the maximum penalty for feeding a feral pigeon from a small fine to a year in prison.