Hongkong: A rudderless ship headed nowhere
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 socialist doctrines.

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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