“No more freedom of speech? No way! Hong Kong has never been so free before,” says Mark Peaker.
“The past two years since Occupy Central have proven that the kind of tolerance we have in Hong Kong is almost unmatched. Just imagine blocking central London for 79 days and getting away with it, with just some trivial community service orders and fines!”
The 53-year-old Briton, who has been a vigorous critic of the civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong, has strong reservations about a court ruling that spared student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow immediate jail terms despite the Occupy disruptions.
The youth activists were let off lightly, feels Peaker, who has been known to oppose any activity that causes inconvenience to the general public and affects normal life.
He was referring to a decision by the Eastern Magistrates’ Court in August this year to merely sentence Wong and Law to 80 and 120 hours of community service respectively, and give Chow just a three-week jail term with one-year reprieve.
“These bunch of twenty-somethings haven’t even started their jobs and they already feel the society owes something to them,” says Peaker.
A banker-turned-curator and art dealer, Peaker is a trenchant social commentator who likes to lash out at issues such as illegal parking, LGBT inequality and government’s shortcomings on art policies.
The reason for the ardor is because the Briton calls Hong Kong his home.
“I’m always a concerned citizen of the city. I raised a cheer in the immigration office when I obtained my permanent residency here 12 years ago,” he says. “I’m a Hongkonger ever since.”
Peaker came to Hong Kong under a contract from ABN AMRO Bank and spent his first ten years in the city as a banking professional.
In 2010, he made a splash in a new sphere as he co-founded a contemporary art gallery — the 3812 Gallery in Sai Ying Pun — which mainly showcases and deals in contemporary Chinese art photographs and prints.
Given that his new art business is all about China, what is his take on the fears of “mainlandization” of Hong Kong, we ask.
“Is it a bad thing?” argues Peaker in a slightly agitated tone.
“I saw Anson Chan say in the South China Morning Post that she doesn’t want Hong Kong ‘to become just another Chinese city’. She is just so wrong… I wrote a letter to the newspaper, I absolutely want Hong Kong to become a Chinese city, and to be more precise, the best city in China,” said the British-born Hong Kong resident.
“Hong Kong has much to gain with integration with China, and so will the local youngsters if they go up north to pursue a career.”
Peaker may have inherited the pragmatism from his father, who had been a British diplomat.
“As for Hong Kong independence, it’s a non-starter. Period. Hong Kong can’t even survive for a month; it will go bankrupt in case of a split. Tell me who will pay for the city’s defense? Do you think foreign countries would rile China and continue to do business with us if we go independent?
“Don’t be fooled by some romantic fallacy. Just look at the Brexit vote, I bet these voters now feel regretful, as no one knows how the consequences will eventually play out.”
‘Extraordinary Hong Kong’
Peaker, who once had a narrow escape from death in a terror incident in the UK, has a word of advice for Hong Kong separatists who argue that “the ultimate result will justify the means”.
“This means violence and bloodshed. Whatever your political stance is, you cannot base it on violence and hatred.”
On a December day in 1980, a powerful bomb, believed to have been planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, exploded some 20 meters away from Peaker as he was walking along Basil Street in downtown London.
That bombing left a haunting memory on him even as he got a new lease of life.
“I feel nervous if someone leaves behind a bag in a restaurant or on the subway,” says Peaker.
“I was in Nice, France not too long after a cargo truck was driven into crowds on the Bastille Day in July this year. People panicked and started to run in one direction when they heard an exploration, which turned out to be just a firework display in a piazza. Look how people’s lives have been changed in Europe… I don’t want Hong Kong to be a place like that.”
Peaker says he would advise people, in particular youngsters, to focus on the Hong Kong government, rather than blaming Beijing for everything that goes wrong in the city.
Hong Kong people will be better off by keeping a close watch on and scrutinizing the words and deeds of local officials, he says.
“Young people can push and press the government on many real issues, like illegal parking, air pollution, public transport, etc. rather than waste their time attempting the impossible.”
A keen observer of local politics, Peaker pins high hopes on Financial Secretary John Tsang, saying the official’s “people skills” and approachable demeanor can help foster reconciliation in a politically-charged society.
“Tsang can really engage people and I think he can do a better job than the incumbent chief executive”, Peaker says, in reference to Hong Kong’s unpopular current top leader, Leung Chun-ying.
The comments come as there is widespread speculation that Tsang will make a bid for the city’s top job in an election next year.
Although Hong Kong is mired in political uncertainty and confronts various social problems, Peaker remains optimistic about the city’s future.
“I will still spend the rest of my life here,” he declares, pointing to the many positive things about life in the city.
“You will rediscover how extraordinary Hong Kong is if you travel to other parts of the world,” he says.
Almost every major city in the world faces some challenges, but Hong Kong “is doing well on many fronts”, the former banker says. “We should always bear this in mind.”
Joyce Lee and Yan Lee of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly contributed to this story
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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