Making brand Hong Kong as toxic as Huawei

May 17, 2019 17:00
Through ill-conceived actions, Hong Kong officials have added to the sense of disquiet in society about erosion of the territory’s core values, observers say. Photo: Bloomberg

Want to know where brand Hong Kong is heading and how bad it can get? Here’s your one word answer: Huawei.

Huawei is, or should be, one of the stellar international successes of Chinese commerce. It has developed a telephone handset brand that strongly competes with international leaders in the US and Korea, it is also a major player in the international telecommunications infrastructure market.

Yet the brand name Huawei is rapidly becoming toxic. In the United States the government has even drawn up legislation to squeeze it out of the American market. In Britain a proposal to allow Huawei to play a role in the roll out of the nation's 5G network has become the subject of a major political row. In other European countries it’s a similar story. The message is: don't touch Huawei, it's a company that can't be trusted.

In response Huawei has launched a frantic international public relations offensive to try and persuade detractors that it is not an arm of the Chinese state and that it will not misuse data it acquires in the course of its activities by feeding it into the PRC’s formidable intelligence gathering system.

Huawei’s boss Liang Hua has gone so far as to say that the company is willing to sign ‘no spy’ agreements if that’s what it takes to persuade prospective customers that it can be trusted. The company’s founder Ren Zhengfei has gone further and said that he is prepared to shut down the whole entity if it were to become an arm of the Chinese state.

Convincing stuff, eh? Yet the fact is that the more Huawei protests and seeks to convince, the more skeptics become convinced that there is something distinctly fishy about this Chinese company.

Why so? It’s simple – even the dumbest of people understand that an entity operating within a dictatorship cannot possibly be fully autonomous. And just to make sure that this suspicion has legs China’s rubber stamp parliament passed a law two years ago requiring all Chinese companies to actively support state intelligence and security activities.

Huawei’s response to this boondoggle is to lamely insist that no one from Beijing has ever asked them to actually do anything in furtherance of the law’s objectives. They sound just like a scared schoolboy who insists he is not intimidated by the class bully because the bully has yet to hit him.

Huawei is losing credibility by the day and the big mighty Chinese state with the world's biggest population, second biggest economy and all the other blah blah blah, inadvertently adds fuel to the fire. Leaders in Beijing sternly proclaim that they will not be intimidated by foreign critics who anyway should be minding their own business. Zealous propaganda outfits on the Mainland pump out flag waving messages to PRC citizens informing them that it is their patriotic duty to buy Huawei products.

And, in case anyone forgets what China’s massive security apparatus does with all the data it collects there’s always plenty of evidence to hand, ask anyone who has managed to visit Xinjiang.

The big difference between brand Huawei and brand Hong Kong is that the people responsible for protecting the SAR’s brand seem to be doing nothing to assuage fears; on the contrary they are doing what they can to convince detractors that they have good cause for concern.

The reason Hong Kong has prospered is simple. It's embarrassing to even have to spell it out yet again, but we realize that there are some aggressively dumb people running the SAR government. So, for their benefit, let’s make it clear: Hong Kong thrives precisely because it is different from the Mainland; it has rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the absence of an all-powerful state that dictates both what citizens do and what they should think.

Like every edifice based on intangibles of this kind it takes some time to build but little time to destroy. But fear not, the current Lam administration is on the job, armed with sledgehammers that should be able to complete the work in record time. Let’s go through the list:

Rule of law – they plan to attach Hong Kong’s legal system to that of the Mainland so that people can be bundled across the border to face a judiciary that takes no hostages.

Freedom of expression – the government has stepped up the pace of incarceration of political opponents, started expelling pesky foreign journalists, imposed the first ban on a political party, screened out opponents from standing for election.

Thought control – stepped up patriotic propaganda in schools, initiated legislation to outlaw disrespect of national symbols.

And so it goes on.

When questioned about any of the above the government dashes off to Beijing for a script and solemnly reads out long screeds saying that foreigners have no business interfering in Hong Kong affairs and that domestic critics are little more than crazed opponents of China who come dangerously close to advocating independence.

What follows need not be the subject of speculation because it is already happening. American legislators have stepped up moves to end Hong Kong’s special status that allows the territory to enjoy differential treatment over China. Other governments are contemplating changing their extradition agreements with Hong Kong, international business organizations are making it clear that they are alarmed by the change of the ground rules for operating in Hong Kong and there is talk of relocation in the air.

In other words the carefully constructed edifice of Hong Kong as a safe place to do business is being eroded. Brand Hong Kong has yet to become as toxic as brand Huawei but the brave people in Tamar are doing their best to make this happen. 

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.