Hongkong: A rudderless ship headed
SCMP June 30
People from most walks of life in Hong Kong have some reason to join
the demonstrations tomorrow against the Article 23 legislation. The
sixth anniversary of the handover is an appropriate time to take whatever
legal action is available to record resentment at the failure of the
system to deliver on either of the two slogans which made the handover
such an opportunity for Hong Kong.
They were "one country two systems" and "Hong Kong people
ruling Hong Kong". Both have been sold out by members of an incestuous
clique who have wrapped their personal and business interests - and
in some cases their foreign passports - in a cloak of patriotic verbiage.
But any assessment of Hong Kong since 1997 must be judged not just
against the expectations and promises of the handover but against what
has been happening in the rest of the world. How is "Asia's world
city" faring, and how has the world changed in ways to which Hong
Kong must adjust?
In no particular order, Hong Kong must adjust itself to the following
external developments. One is the continued rise of China's economic
power and position in the world. Whatever the future may hold, the mainland
has barely deviated from a steady path of economic reform and gross
domestic product growth, and some very tentative political liberalisation.
But instead of using this to capitalise on Hong Kong's special relationship
with the outside world, the dominant policy and attitudes have simply
been to regard the mainland as a crutch. As long as the mainland prospers,
Hong Kong does not need to worry, goes the assumption. If tourism is
weak, appeal to Beijing to open the taps. If the stock market is weak,
ask for special access for mainland capital. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's
international and regional roles are underplayed by political and business
interests who proclaim it to be Asia's world city but act as though
it were simply the main city of the Pearl River Delta.
The closer economic partnership arrangement (Cepa) sums up the futility
of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's version of government. The man who
in the mid-1980s was saved by Beijing from bankrupting his inherited
family business is now looking to Beijing to be the saviour of the Hong
Kong economy. In fact, the Cepa at best is an irrelevance, a political
gesture to show that the mainland is helping Hong Kong and that the
Hong Kong government has a policy to revive the economy.
At worst, it is the thin end of a large wedge. It will undermine Hong
Kong's reputation as an independent actor and promoter of multilateral
free trade at the World Trade Organisation. And its fuzzy definitions
and probably arbitrary application by the central government will create
all kinds of new opportunities for cronyism and corruption.
The second thing that has changed is much of the rest of East Asia.
The 1997-1998 economic crisis was difficult for Hong Kong - but probably
not difficult enough. South Korea, Thailand, even Malaysia went through
wrenching changes from which they have emerged generally stronger.
There will be no repetition of the 1985-1997 euphoria. But this region
has regained its place as the most dynamic in the world. Because Hong
Kong's crisis was relatively mild, it was not forced to adjust as fundamentally
as some of its neighbours, so it is not sharing much of the renewed
optimism that comes from having faced and responded to a crisis. For
Hong Kong, alternating fixations with the mainland and the US - including
the obsession with the dollar peg - limit its ability to share in the
rapid gains in world trade being made in East Asia.
On the international political front, the biggest change by far has
been in US policy towards the rest of the world and its own citizens.
September 11 has given free rein to Bush administration instincts that
can only be described - and I do not use this word lightly - as fascist.
These include the large-scale, often race- or religion-based detentions
without trial, the Guantanamo concentration camp, the use of the Patriot
Act to justify all manner of illiberal acts such as reporting on neighbours
- a favourite of the former East Germans. The cabinet prayer meetings
and strong identification with Christianity fudge the church-state divide
central to the US constitution.
The right-wing, but libertarian, Cato Institute now regards the neo-conservative
right of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney-General John
Ashcroft and company as more dangerous to US liberties than discredited
How should Hong Kong respond to all this? Unfortunately, the liberal
and democratic voices in Hong Kong spend too much time promoting their
cause in President George W. Bush's illiberal Washington and too little
in newly democratic Asia. The US was the standard-bearer of liberal
democracy, but is it now? Hong Kong's secretary for security is a model
of tolerance compared with Mr Ashcroft. America was the great growth
market, but its debts will now hobble it for a generation. Hong Kong
needs to take that on board.
Six years on from the handover, Hong Kong seems unable, thanks to an
unrepresentative government, to define its own identity. It divides
its loyalties among false gods in China and the west, and has an apparently
diminishing interest in either non-Chinese Asia or the non-Asian world
other than North America. Hong Kong should think of how to prosper economically
and socially from a wider world. Think of South Korea, Brazil, South
Africa, even Russia as sources of growth and inspiration for political
and social change.
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