Hong Kong – Neither fish nor fowl?

August 16, 2016 10:15
Hong Kong must curb parochialism and uphold the city's international character if it is to remain a global financial hotspot, observers say. Photo: Bloomberg

While Hong Kong is constitutionally a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, the territory's status in practical terms -- and what the city aspires to be -- cannot be defined simply by its legal position vis-à-vis the PRC.

Broadly speaking (just how broad remains to be seen), there are two perceptions: one which views Hong Kong as a unique international center whose enviable judiciary and financial infrastructure are peopled by a polyglot assortment of Chinese and non-Chinese, and the other which is comfortable with the place being just another PRC city.

The architects of the Basic Law, in their wisdom, plainly did not intend to 'localise' the entire spectrum of government, judiciary and the financial establishment.

Beijing's overriding concern was that Hong Kong continue as the uncorrupt financial powerhouse of Asia, providing China an incomparable offshore dynamic.

Colonial Hong Kong, with its largely laissez-faire approach to government and a solid judicial system peopled by qualified multi-racial judges, attracted the world's businesses.

Today, the majority of Hong Kong's non-Chinese permanent residents are wholly committed long-term members of its society. They are not here for the short-haul.

But sadly, the SAR government is becoming increasingly xenophobic, devising ways and means to reduce Hong Kong to a parochial mainland Chinese village, rather than help it remain as a vibrant international city for which it had won wide recognition in the past.

The writing was on the wall immediately after the handover when expatriate government employees were set a Cantonese language test which was designed to make the candidates fail.

The Department of Justice is currently inviting applications for government counsel. But it said non-Chinese speaking applicants will be considered only in exceptional cases and subject to the operational needs of the department.

Despite the fact that the Hong Kong Bar has neither the numbers nor the depth of experience to staff the judiciary, July 1997 marked the end of recruitment of judges and magistrates from overseas. The sole golden exception being the Court of Final Appeal.

A shortfall of judges, especially in the High Court, detracts from the efficiency and, because of the inevitable delays, the quality of justice.

Even the term 'localise' is exclusive to Chinese. After the handover, the chair of the many public service committees has not been held by any of the non-Chinese senior counsel. Despite their manifest commitment to Hong Kong, the dwindling number of the latter are denied the opportunity to serve the community.

This 'us' and 'them' mentality is inimical to Hong Kong's core values and diminishes the overall quality of a once remarkably inclusive community.

The government's tendency to subordinate English language communication only fosters this sense of exclusion. Hong Kong is predominantly Cantonese -- this is the argument deployed to justify the practice, despite the Basic Law provision that gives equal status to both Chinese and English.

This infelicitous primacy of Cantonese is difficult to reconcile with the official adulation afforded to Putonghua. Neither Punti nor Putonghua affords access to the international financial and commercial world in the way that English does. This is one of the reasons for Singapore's attractiveness over Hong Kong; yet the mandarins in Tamar seem blithely uncaring.

In the years preceding the handover, the make-up of all branches of government and the judiciary was testament to a remarkable multi-ethnic society. This reflected the private sector, not least in the critical area of the press and broadcasting.

It is incontrovertible that this ethnically eclectic composition was a very significant reason for Hong Kong’s erstwhile supremacy as the Asian commercial hub.

It is fashionable amongst the narrow-minded to denigrate what are dubbed 'western ideals' as if describing them as 'western' somehow devalues them. But these ideals are objectively valid: freedom of thought and speech, the dignity of the human being, equality before the law, society governed by the rule of law, freedom from indiscriminate oppression. In a global society, these are universal ideals which cannot be diluted by applying the adjective 'western'.

The nub of the problem is the incompatibility of universal ideals with the precepts of the Chinese Communist Party. Put simply, you cannot change a gazelle into an elephant. The 50-year no change assurance that Deng Xiaoping granted to Hong Kong recognized this and the Basic Law was designed to effect a practical modus vivendi.

Which, being the case, why has the SAR government infected our society with the creeping parochialisation?

Since there are a large number of intelligent and well-educated civil servants staffing the administration, they ought not (though they do) pretend that the virus has not been deliberately introduced into the system.

But the root question is why this contagion runs unchecked when it can only lead to the impoverishment of all those values that made Hong Kong the stellar financial hub of Asia?

This really cannot be Beijing’s design. More likely as many of us believe, it is the misperception of chief executives who try to second guess the mainland's intention and lumber Beijing with supporting the insupportable.

Hong Kong does not need to achieve constitutional independence from mainland China. It does need to be allowed to continue its unique status as a genuinely international legal and commercial hub, recruiting both from within and outside the territory for its vital infrastructural institutions.

This will require a chief executive of intellectual and moral courage who will represent Hong Kong’s interests firmly and fairly, not least to Beijing.

If that happens, the leader will earn the respect and support of locals as well as right-thinking people in the central government.

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Queen's Counsel