What Happened to Hong Kong?
The wheels come off a freewheeling city
By: Anthony Spaeth
There’s the old joke about the British couple flying to Hong Kong to visit their son. The son can’t meet them at the airport — “Work!” — but there’s no easier place to arrive than Hong Kong. All they have to do is take the Airport Express to Central, go to the Macau Ferry Pier, look across the road for a McDonalds, go up that street, second to the left, flat 9B.
From Chek Lap Kok Airport, the couple try to follow the directions but they’re a bit jet-lagged. They take the train to Central and go to the Macau Ferry Pier, but mistakenly go inside, go through immigration, board the ferry, take the 55-minute Jetfoil trip, go through immigration again, leave the terminal and look for a McDonalds that isn’t there.
The father shows the directions to a passerby, who waves a crabby hand. “That’s Hong Kong!”
“Where are we?”
They turn around, go through immigration, 55-minute trip, immigration again, out to the street, spot the McDonalds, up the hill, second to the left, ring-ring.
The son whips open the door, impatiently tying a tie.
“We expected you ages ago!”
“It’s a long story,” mutters the father.
“We have to hurry,” the son says. “We’re going to dinner in Macau.”
I thought of that joke earlier this month as I wheeled my bag into Chek Lap Kok’s cavernous Arrivals Hall. All open space was segmented by crowd control barriers. Workers in disposable fibrous smocks of blue or green, open in the back like hospital gowns, impatiently waved us into the right channels. My fellow passengers and I had been identity-verified, QR-coded, had one swab taken from the inside of our cheeks and two from up our noses. Most were Hong Kong permanent residents, yet none were going home. There were only two types of people in that busy hall: the shepherds and the shepherded. All of the people arriving at Chek Lap Kok were being loaded onto buses and sent to the same place: quarantine hotels.
No one was going to dinner in Macau.
I have arrived at this airport countless times in the past, but this was unrecognizable. What happened to Hong Kong?
What happened was a sealing off from the outside world unlike anything since the Japanese occupation during World War II. This time the enemy was a virus.
On September 26, its government ended two and a half years of brutal quarantines that aligned the former free port with the zero-Covid policies of the rest of China.
To bounce back, Hong Kong has to prove that its essence, a place separate from the rest of China, hasn’t been canceled, and that the animating idea that made it in the first place — the free port — hasn’t been irretrievably lost.
That will take some doing.
When I moved to Hong Kong in 1980, I was told that to understand it, you had to appreciate the concept of a free port. It sounded antiquated, a sepia snapshot of ship chandlers and Sadie Thompsons. In fact, Hong Kong was a neon signpost to our globalized future. In that very year, Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” crowned the British colony the world’s capital of capitalism, and the idea got set in stone. The free port mentality was part of Hong Kong’s DNA, something its people perfected and couldn’t prosper without.
A free port meant openness to the world, specifically in traded goods, but by extension to people, ideas, and change. Tiny Hong Kong couldn’t stand athwart history yelling Stop. It had to go with history’s flow, and it behooved the rest of the world to follow its example, be more laissez-faire. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher joined the choir.
I quaffed the Kool-Aid and started to fear that my earlier unfree port homes were doomed to failure. Poor New York, London, Tokyo!
More than 40 years later, it’s hard to explain all this talk of freedom in Hong Kong when basic human rights were not only not a part of the discussion — they were deliberately suppressed.
Hong Kong was an unabashed British colony to the end, and the colonial system’s disregard for rights extended from the ruled to the rulers, as seen in the case of Scottish police inspector John MacLennan. The 29-year-old was targeted in an anti-gay drive and ended up dead in his Midlevels apartment with five bullets to the chest.
It was 1980, the year I arrived, and it’s a tribute to British institutions that a commission held public hearings, producing weeks of front-page headlines about MacLennan’s pickups at the Waltzing Matilda Inn in Tsim Sha Tsui. One nimble local television reporter climbed through the window of an identical apartment to show how MacLennan may have been murdered by his fellow cops. His death was ruled a suicide.
Homosexuality had been decriminalized in Britain in 1967, but not in Hong Kong. It wasn’t ready for it, you see, although the daily arrests of guys in public restrooms for Indecent Assault (oral sex) or the even more impressive Gross Indecency (anal) suggested otherwise. Decriminalization finally happened in 1991.
The other thing Hong Kongers weren’t ready for was ruling themselves. Until the very last years of colonial rule, political parties — the very first step in that process — were simply not allowed. Plans to introduce self-rule were drawn up in London after World War II but scuppered in 1952 — because London knew how infuriating that would be to Beijing.
Some things never change.
The Chek Lap Kok shepherds in their gauzy blue gowns were polite but relentless. No one could dawdle, befuddlement was frowned upon, and throughout the Arrivals Hall one could see constant chopping hand gestures: “Move!” Everyone was destined for a bus, each bus went to a circuit of quarantine hotels. In my hotel, chairs were positioned outside the rooms like sentinels or barriers to escape. Once inside, you couldn’t leave the room until quarantine ended in 57 hours. Anyone tempted to try a Tinder or Grindr hookup would regret it: the key card was good for a single entry and the penalty for breaking quarantine was up to six months in jail.
Every day I had to take a rapid antigen test, photograph the result and upload it online. On the second day, I was supposed to be given a PCR test but the mechanics were unclear. I messaged the hotel and was told it would happen between 10 am and 6 pm and “please note that no advance notification is given.” A surprise test! There was a knock on the door, a scary medical contingent outside, in-my-nose-and-in-my-mouth, and it was all over a little too soon.
The telephone between the beds became an instrument of intrusion. It rang twice. I expected a voice to say, “I want to play a game.” In the first call, I was warned against trying to check out on my own. Someone would fetch me. In the second, the rule had changed. I was allowed to leave my room precisely at 9 am and proceed as far as the elevator. Three other guests were there. We avoided each other’s gazes and ended up together outside a side entrance to the hotel blinking like flushed-out moles.
Before the handover in 1997 and for years after, Hong Hong had British laws and courts and the freest press in Asia outside Japan. It became the Asian home of choice for foreign bankers, lawyers, business types and journalists, especially those with region-wide responsibilities. For travel, it was centrally located; until 1997, jumbo jets and even the Concorde landed in the very center of the city. Being a free port brought material comforts unavailable in more protected economies, like Akai TVs, Triumph bras, Australian steaks, English-language books. Rents were high but the infrastructure, so weak in other parts of Asia, always worked.
And not much of note happened in Hong Kong, so one was free intellectually to roam. Politics were outlawed, culture was kung-fu movies. An expat in Tokyo or New Delhi or Manila can’t help but become immersed and agonize over how the world could be interested in anything else. In Hong Kong, the news in the South China Morning Post was compelling in a “Mapp and Lucia” way, especially those vice busts in the Hilton coffee shop’s men’s room, but easily shaken off after a second cup of coffee.
So many journalists would end up in Hong Kong that correspondents would complain about Hong Kong-centric editors, which was a deeper charge than it sounds. The editors lived in a place they didn’t pay much attention to, didn’t learn the history or language of, fit in simply by virtue of being foreigners in a city run by them. In other words, they were the antitheses of foreign correspondents but perhaps the ultimate expats: escaped from home but with no need for assimilation.
After 1997, the sting in that criticism was dulled somewhat because the editors could claim to be living in China, the “best part” of China no less, in which the freedoms allowed by Britain along with its system of laws and courts would continue through 2046 under One Country, Two Systems and the Basic Law, the mini-Constitution based on a Joint Declaration negotiated by Britain and China in the early 1980s.
Cynics wrote it off from the start, predicting an early Tibetization of Hong Kong. In the first years, they were wrong. The border between Hong Kong and the rest of China was sealed even more tightly than under the British. Mass protests over a national security bill in 2003 led to the replacement of Beijing’s hand-chosen chief executive. Imagine that happening in Tibet! When SARS broke out the previous year, no place was affected more, and no response was as transparent and unhysterical — certainly not Beijing’s.
Some things do change, and a lot.
I hadn’t been in Hong Kong in nearly three years and the changes are concrete, like a new tunnel bypassing the congested Central area, and abstract. In the first copy of the South China Morning Post I pick up, a front-page story tells me, “Hong Kong should strengthen its role in attracting top talent to the Greater Bay Area, a former Beijing official overseeing the city’s affairs has said.”
I’m confused about the connection between Hong Kong and San Francisco. As I keep reading, I realize the bay area in question refers to Hong Kong itself.
A quick online search informs me that the term Greater Bay Area was coined by Beijing’s State Council, first printed on April 13, 2017, and is now “widely used” to describe collectively the province of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau. The South China Morning Post got the message: “bay area” is used seven times in the article.
The semantics are anything but subtle. By devising a construct called the Greater Bay Area, China downplays Hong Kong’s uniqueness and puts it in its place within the People’s Republic — which is way behind the much larger Guangdong Province, with a population of 126 million.
Hong Kong’s uniqueness is One Country, Two Systems. But the Basic Law has a lacuna. The method of choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive, its leader, will evolve, it says, and the “ultimate aim” is to choose him or her through “universal suffrage.” Unfortunately, universal suffrage isn’t defined. Britain couldn’t get Beijing to be any firmer on a commitment to democracy, and the issue has simmered ever since.
In 2014, protesters in the so-called Umbrella Movement shut down Central demanding democratic reforms, specifically a direct vote for the chief executive. An echo of that movement led to more violent protests in 2019, and a new national security law in 2020.
Such legislation was required by the Basic Law, and for years people feared a Sword of Damocles. Instead, they got a buzzsaw. Violators can even have their assets seized, the ultimate fitting of punishment to the jurisdiction, real-estate crazy Hong Kong.
Politicians are in jail for actions that were perfectly legal under the Basic Law, such as trying to win enough seats in the Legislative Council to block government legislation. That is no longer basic political maneuvering: it is “paralysis.” The territory’s most independent newspaper publisher, Jimmy Lai, who called the national security law a “death knell” for Hong Kong, has been convicted of unlawful assembly, had assets seized, and faces more charges.
When I was there, five leaders of a speech therapists union were convicted of sedition for allegorical picture books about a village of sheep trying to resist control by a pack of wolves. The court said the significance of the wolves was obvious and the publishers of the books “clearly refuse to recognize that the People’s Republic of China has resumed exercising sovereignty over Hong Kong.” To make a point, the five were not charged under the new national security law, but under a 1938 British colonial statute.
The point: some things haven’t fundamentally changed in Hong Kong.
I’m an infrastructure junkie. Living in Hong Kong and then less-developed parts of Asia can do that to you. I want to experience the new tunnel, the Central-Wanchai Bypass. As my taxi emerges from the harbor, the driver points out another newish landmark, the Norman Foster-designed cruise ship terminal on the site of the old Kai Tak airport.
“Empty,” he scoffs. “Totally empty!”
His tone is mocking but also incredulous. Hong Kong is the original build-it-and-they-will-come place. How can this expensive monument to tourism and freedom of movement, if cruise ships are your definition of movement or freedom, be empty?
Because of Covid-19, of course.
The National Security Law may be the greatest challenge to One Country, Two System, but it doesn’t come up in general conversation. What does is the Policy, the foolish Policy, this damned Policy. When I was getting ready to leave quarantine, I received a message from a friend: “Cool, enjoy your first day of freedom. Unleash yourself from the dumb Policy.”
They’re talking about zero-Covid, Beijing’s insistence on keeping transmissions to a minimum in all parts of its realm. That policy made sense in 2020, and China had success with it along with countries like Korea, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand. It couldn’t be sustained. Other countries inoculated their populations, lifted social distancing and let the latest variant, the relatively gentle Omicron, rip.
China kept the barriers up.
Historians will undoubtedly wonder why Beijing didn’t use One Country, Two Systems to give it some flexibility with the pandemic, especially considering Hong Kong’s sterling handling of SARS. When you think about it, One Country, Two Systems might have been created for just such a national emergency.
Yet Kong Kong was forced to stick to zero-Covid. The lengthy apartment block lockdowns ordered in Shanghai didn’t happen but the basic concept of transmission mitigation had to be followed.
That meant sealing the borders. For awhile, flights from destinations like the US and Britain were banned. On any given day, an individual route might be suspended if Covid-positive passengers slipped into Hong Kong on it. Getting a seat on an incoming plane became a game of chance with not very good odds.
Not that many people wanted one. Mandatory quarantine for arrivals was 21 days, and who wanted to go through that? In 2018, 65 million people visited Hong Kong. Last year, that fell to 91,400 — a 99.9 percent decrease.
Hong Kongers didn’t want to leave and be quarantined on their returns. This wasn’t a loss of mere pleasure trips. Business trips were out. College kids returning from abroad spent half their summers in a form of solitary confinement. Loved ones dying overseas? So sorry. Even travel to other parts of China was affected. One friend’s sister had a business dinner she simply had to attend in Shanghai. She spent three weeks in quarantine before the dinner — and three weeks after.
The national security law was feared to be a wormhole to 2043, but Hong Kong may have actually stepped into it when zero-Covid began. Let’s face it: large parts of any population can avoid being charged with sedition, however broadly it is defined. The Policy touched everyone in Hong Kong, and its rigidity and refusal to consider a course correction — donning blinkers to the rest of the world — were the opposite of the Hong Kong Way.
Expats are leaving, even those that settled for life, posting messages on social media saying they can’t put their kids through it anymore. Some are moving to that other Asian free port, Singapore, the nanny state with little patience for personal and political freedoms. It’s suddenly the reasonable and tolerant place to live.
Some Chinese are sending young ones abroad, as a previous generation did in the run up to 1997. But now as then, most of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people have nowhere to go. They have to see what happens.
Two weeks after I returned, Hong Kong announced the end of quarantines for people coming in. It regained a sliver of its autonomy. Hong Kongers weren’t allowed to rule themselves under colonialism, the original One Country, Two Systems, but somehow their innate practicality and aversion can’t percolate up. For a golden period after 1997, they thought they had five decades to prove their way of life and possibly drag the rest of China into a less authoritarian future.
To prove they were a lot more than another city on a bay.
But 2046 is coming sooner than expected.
In colonial days, an old Chinese saying became a kind of unofficial motto. ”The mountains are high,” it went, “and the emperor is far away.”
The emperor is closer now.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” a friend consoles himself. “We’ll just go back to the 1970s.”
Come to think of it, that joke at the start of this story about going to dinner in Macau wasn’t a joke. It was told to me as a genuine story, in the genre of anecdotes known as “Only in Hong Kong.” It really happened.
One can understand the British couple’s confusion. The Macau Ferry Pier hardly resembles an international port. It’s at the top of a shopping mall on the podium of an office building on the harbor. There’s a series of escalators guaranteed to bring you past as many shops as possible and irritate anyone in a hurry.
Which was everyone because the ferries’ passengers were gamblers desperate to get to the gaming tables in Macau. The casinos were open round-the-clock. Ferries ran that way too. Nobody ever booked in advance, even the non-gamblers. You rushed up the escalators, cursing, bought a ticket, and got on a jetfoil at a trot or an out-and-out sprint.
Immigration procedures were light. When you got to Macau, you didn’t need to change money. You could lose your life savings, or win a fortune, in Hong Kong dollars.
It was the easiest border crossing imaginable, a taste of a borderless world only possible in Hong Kong, the freest port.
I made a trip to see how the Macau Ferry Pier is doing. There was no McDonald’s across the street, although there may have been before.
The escalators were running and, as always, there were more levels than I cared to remember. When I reached the top, the counters for ferry tickets were shut down. I was the only person walking around. For some reason, the long passageway to the ferries was still open and a pair of security guards sat at a post in its middle doing absolutely nothing.
I descended. No one rushed by in the opposite direction. Returned gamblers weren’t drowning their sorrows in the cheap eateries.
The Macau Ferry Pier was a distilled essence of Hong Kong: impatience, risk-taking, dusting oneself off after losses, a yin-and-yang of ambition and despair. All those vibes are gone. The only thing left was people eating lunch.
Hong Kongers overcame impossible odds through the years. From tiny barren rock on the rump of China to shining megalopolis — who wouldn’t consider life one big game of chance?
History teaches the folly of betting against it. If Hong Kong merely has to learn new rules to the game, no place does that better. But if its entire genius as a free port is ignored, disdained, obliterated, Hong Kong’s luck may have really run out.
Anthony Spaeth was one of the founders of Asia Sentinel