Hong Kong needs to protect its image as financial center

August 07, 2023 11:10
Photo: RTHK


On July 1, Chief Executive John Lee, marking the 26th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region after the return of Hong Kong to China by Britain, asserted that the city had left behind “the darkness of the epidemic” and that its economy had grown 2.7 percent in the first quarter of 2023, “reversing the declining trend in the past four consecutive quarters.”

While sounding upbeat, Lee also issued a warning. “Destructive forces using ‘soft resistance’ means are still lurking in our city,” he said. “We must stay vigilant and be proactive in safeguarding national security.”

That is to say, in Lee’s view, while reviving Hong Kong’s role as a global financial center, it was vital to continue the crackdown on perceived threats.

The crackdown, now in its fourth year, led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, resulting in grave manpower shortages and the city’s isolation by the West. Now, Lee wants to attract foreign investment and the return of expatriates.

On July 3, two days after Lee talked about economic recovery at full speed, Hong Kong’s national security police issued arrest warrants for eight activists now living overseas, along with a reward of one million Hong Kong dollars apiece [US$128,000] for information leading to their arrest.

Their crime? According to the police, they had violated various provisions of the National Security Law, imposed on Hong Kong on June 30, 2020. Several face more than one charge, but seven of the eight are accused of collusion with foreign forces.

The three countries hosting the eight – the United States, Britain and Australia – all issued statements critical of the Hong Kong authorities.

In Hong Kong, the chief executive was asked by a reporter what impact the police announcement would have on the city’s image. Mr. Lee responded that the action sent “a strong message that any act that endangers national security will not be tolerated” and the eight “criminals” would be pursued “for life until they surrender.”

He did not comment on the incident’s impact on the city’s economic revival strategy.
While not addressing the reporter’s question, Lee hopefully understands the need to protect Hong Kong’s public image as a global financial center. This includes acceptance of certain norms, including the rule of law, judicial independence and the free flow of capital and information.

It goes without saying that the government itself would refrain from actions that would raise questions about Hong Kong’s adherence to such norms.

In June, the government applied for an unusually broad injunction that would apply to everyone in Hong Kong in an attempt to ban the promotion of "Glory to Hong Kong," a popular protest song that had been confused with China’s national anthem at international sporting events.

A national security judge dismissed the government request on July 28. High Court Judge Anthony Chan said that, after careful consideration, he was not satisfied that the injunction was of any real utility in light of the existing criminal law regime, but he was satisfied that there was a real risk of conflict between the two in terms of enforcement.

The judge cited article 4 of the National Security Law, which provides: “Human rights shall be respected and protected in safeguarding national security.” He noted the “chilling effects” that might be generated if the injunction was granted.

This rare defeat by the government was widely hailed. The American Chamber of Commerce, for instance, said it showed that judicial independence was in place to underpin the city’s competitiveness.

Separately, the government had been withdrawing certain books from public libraries after the security law was in place. In May 2023, such efforts were ramped up. This did little to enhance Hong Kong’s image as a free and open society. Lee defended the move by saying that only books recommended by the government are on library shelves. If understood literally, this policy must keep many officials busy, reading each book to see if it is one the government should recommend.

Only days ago, on August 1, the police’s counter terrorism unit launched a drive urging all 46,000 taxi drivers in the city to call the police if they see “suspicious persons, objects or activities.”

It is doubtful if such a surveillance policy will encourage foreigners to invest or work in or even visit Hong Kong.

Instead, it is more likely to reinforce stereotypes that Hong Kong is no longer free. That may make it difficult for people to tell the “good Hong Kong stories” that Lee is constantly urging them to tell.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.