Do eroding freedoms mean the death of Hong Kong?

November 22, 2018 08:30
A mixture of politics and weak government leadership has stymied Hong Kong's progress. Photo: AFP

Is Hong Kong really dying? That was the topic of a seminar last week organized by veteran politician Emily Lau Wai-hing at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. A controversial topic at a sensitive venue, especially after the government effectively expelled the FCC’s vice-president from Hong Kong for moderating a speech by an independence activist. For the record, the FCC had nothing to do with Lau’s seminar. It often rents out its function rooms for private events.

Lau had invited me to attend but I had just returned from Europe and needed to catch a very early flight to Shanghai the next morning. Lau’s topic was, of course, a tweak of the notoriously famous headline “The Death of Hong Kong” on the front cover of Fortune Magazine in June 1995.

Far from dying, Hong Kong thrived with its freedoms intact after the 1997 transfer of sovereignty to communist China, proving Fortune Magazine wrong. But now, more than 23 years after that headline, some people are starting to believe Fortune Magazine was right after all, although its 1995 prediction had been premature.

Lau, an astute politician, put a question mark on her topic instead of declaring outright that Hong Kong was dying. So, is Hong Kong really dying now that some of our freedoms have eroded? The question nagged at the back of my mind during my three days in Shanghai where I saw upfront its determined drive to outshine other mainland cities, but primarily Hong Kong.

Shanghai has long been eyeing Hong Kong’s crown as Asia’s financial hub. It still hasn’t snatched the crown away, thanks to the trust the international community puts in Hong Kong’s legal system, independent judiciary, and free media even though controversial government actions in recent months have chipped away at our freedoms.

How much longer can we keep Shanghai at bay? I went there with a group of journalists and some of us asked each other the same question. We went to Shanghai Pudong's new business district of Qiantan where a massive commercial and residential hub is rising from what was once a backwater.

It is now largely still a construction site but in a few years commercial buildings, residential blocks, hotels, international schools, and even a huge park with a river where people can row boats, will open. Global brand names have jockeyed for space in the district.

The Swire Group, which knows when and where to smell an opportunity, is staking out its share of the Qiantan pie. Swire has secured a 50 percent interest from a state-owned company for the land-use right to build a shopping mall called Taikoo Li. It is a stone’s throw from the massive Shanghai Oriental Sports Center.

Shun Tak, the Shangri-La group, Tishman Speyer, and other top names have all staked out their share. So have New York University and Wellington College. Qiantan is connected to other Shanghai business districts by three subway lines.

I asked a Swire executive why the firm was willing to pump billions of dollars into a shopping mall in an area where I saw no foot traffic. He replied Qiantan is where future opportunities lie. The area is an emerging business center in Pudong created by the municipal government.

Swire and other Hong Kong companies have eagerly planted their footprints in Shanghai. Swire and HKR International jointly opened the mixed-use Taikoo Hui in a prime Shanghai shopping district last year, comprising a shopping mall, offices, serviced apartments, and a hotel called Middle House.

Qiantan has been dubbed The New Bund and the third generation of Metropolis Shanghai. The original Bund was the first generation, followed by Lu Jia Zui. I wondered aloud why Hong Kong couldn't carve out new commercial districts that attract international attention like Qiantan. A fellow journalist scornfully told me Hong Kong could work wonders before but those days are now gone, which is why it’s next to impossible for the government to develop ambitious and large-scale new business districts.

I knew that but just wanted to hear somebody else say it. Under British rule, colonial officials pushed ahead with new towns and reclamation without public consultations or opposing political forces. They had leadership qualities. But Hong Kong is now highly-politicized with a politically split society. A mixture of politics and weak government leadership has stymied our progress, allowing places like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Singapore to nip at our heels.

Many say we are killing ourselves. They point to the huge controversy over Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s proposed East Lantau Metropolis reclamation project as an example. The project envisions a new district the size of Kowloon peninsula which would provide housing, offices, hotels, schools, and large green open spaces for over a million people. But it has met stiff opposition from environmentalists, democracy camp politicians, and others.

I have no opinion on whether Lam’s proposal is good or bad. But is Hong Kong killing itself by politicizing everything? In a way, yes. I fully believe in democracy and the people’s right to have a say. But democracy doesn’t mean politicizing everything to the detriment of society as a whole.

Is Hong Kong dying? Yes, but only in the sense that it is no longer a city with a golden touch and the exact same freedoms we used to have. My fear is our freedoms will further erode as we integrate more with the mainland. But that doesn’t mean Hong Kong will die. It will only die as the city we knew. It will live on as just another mainland city. Shanghai is a mainland city without the freedoms we have, yet it is thriving.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.