Hong Kong as a sanctuary

October 14, 2022 10:56
Photo: Reuters

I do not think, as of yet, we are in a Cold War.

But we are getting there. For all the talk of financial integratedness and integration, the American and Chinese economies are shifting towards a heightened level of security- and paranoia-fused decoupling in the markets. Trade and supply chains are, whilst taking a healthy volume of time, equally shifting towards more fragmentation and balkanisation. Even if changes in these domains remain relatively subtle and perhaps inhibited by market forces and inertia – there are changes in other realms that are by far more conspicuous: the domain of people-to-people exchanges, and the interactions between academics, researchers, scientists, and writers across the Pacific. We are seeing a decoupling in talents and ideas.

Many of my journalist friends working in the mainland have expressed in private that the past few years have been rather difficult on them – in terms of entry into, and, sometimes, exit from (given pandemic controls) the country. It is hard to report accurately and fairly when one can’t be on the ground. It is even harder to hear and see what it is like to be in China, given the copious volumes of barriers to travel within the country over the past year – lockdowns, tests after tests, and beyond. There is also a broader, palpable sense that foreigners are no longer as welcome as they were in the country: a trend that some would dub ‘natural’, given the skepticism towards foreign media and press, as well as this growing sense (which is, in my view, questionable) that China could do without the ‘West’.

On the other hand, Chinese scholars and academics have come under copious volumes of ‘investigation’ – more precisely, harassment, accusations, abuse – under both official and unofficial institutions in America. Reason? That they are alleged spies. The McCarthyist zeitgeist has rendered it that this is an era where the kangaroo court of hysterical public opinion deems you guilty before proven and even if you are not. Ethnic Chinese associated with – in any shape or form – Chinese institutions, organisations, or groups, are placed under heightened pressures and scrutiny for their ostensibly being part of the long arm extended by the Chinese state overseas. The longest arm out of this all, of course, is the arm that divides with labels, that sows mistrust and anger, and that renders interpersonal exchanges all but impossible.

It is in light of this, then, that I suggest Hong Kong could well be a sanctuary – for those who find themselves shut out of economic and political structures in the West, who are ostracised for reasons none other than their race, or who feel that places they have called and made home for decades, are no longer welcoming towards them. For decades, if not a century, we have remained the most international city in Asia – since 1997, indeed, we have taken on the further mantle of being the most global and liberal city in China.

This fact cannot, must not, and shall not change. Hong Kong must remain China’s gateway to the world, and the world’s conduit towards understanding China. It must also retain the distinctive blend of culture – East meets West, China meets the world – that has made it so liveable and desirable over the past century. To those who insist that Hong Kong must be stripped of all ‘Western elements’, must be converted into just another mainland Chinese city, be rendered into a city deprived of its flourishing and dynamism – these are the very individuals who are seeking to dismantle not just Hong Kong’s roots, but also China’s fundamental vision for Hong Kong. As the Cold War looms ever closer, it is vital that we offer a safe, vibrant destination for talents who want an exit path – yet do not find the mainland all that attractive. This, indeed, is our historic mission.

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Assistant Professor, HKU