Thoughts on Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of its return to China

Lamenting Hong Kong's plight might be de rigueur, but there's another way to look at things.

I promised myself I’d avoid politics on this site, mainly because it seems everybody has an opinion these days and I’d just be adding to the noise. But there are some things I’ve been thinking about for many months – in some cases years – that I’d like to finally share in a blog format.

The world’s media focus is again on Hong Kong today, 20 years after the Union Jack was lowered and the March of the Volunteers was played to signify Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. I was just graduating high school in 1997 during the handover ceremony, and remember the around-the-clock news coverage.

There has always been a lot of angst in Hong Kong about the city’s future. In the late 1970s, when the first whispers of negotiations with China to extend leases in the New Territories were heard, to the handover talks in the 1980s, stock market crash, Tiananmen Square bloodshed, and the handover itself, there has been a consensus view that whatever success Hong Kong had attained would be short lived — that eventually, with China as its master, its decline would be inevitable and irreversible.

Here were are in 2017, and it’s the same story. You can read recently-published articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, and others; they are all excellent and detailed examinations of present-day Hong Kong, but they all have the same theme: the city is facing huge challenges, the future is uncertain, and Mainland China’s influence is growing to the detriment of the city’s future success. While these sentiments are all true to varying degrees, I would submit they don’t tell the whole story.

I lived in Mainland China from 2004 to 2008, and had been visiting since 1999. I lived there in a golden era prior to the Olympics in Beijing, when the country was opening, liberalizing, and the mood was optimistic. But even then, the internet was censored, rule of law didn’t exist, food quality was questionable, pollution rampant, and speech unfree. In my first visit to Hong Kong in 2005, I was amazed to find Dalai Lama books, Tibetan flags, criticism of the Communist Party in newspapers, and a freedom that is unthinkable on the Mainland.

Despite creeping influence by the Central Government, Hong Kong still remains incredibly free today: the media can be hypercritical of China, our internet is uncensored (and very fast), we have pro-democracy marches, Liu Xiaobo banners hanging, and even pro-independence candidates elected and sitting in the legislature. (We would have had more of them, had some not butchered their oath of office). In short, for a city worried about its freedoms, there are remarkably few restraints evident today. When my friends living in Mainland China visit Hong Kong today, they have the same sense of wonder that I had in 2005.

For every story about the Mainland’s growing influence, one could write a very provocative and persuasive piece about how hands-off China has been, considering that Hong Kong is a pluralistic society living within a mammoth authoritarian state. While not without serious problems, Hong Kong has managed to retain many of its “ways of life” promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

But with Hong Kong, it has never been about today – it’s about tomorrow. It’s about the feeling of a city that could lose what it has at any moment. Much of this comes from the city’s history; Hong Kong is small, and it’s had to punch above its weight throughout history to be heard. The fact that a city of 7.3 million people, which in essence is a de facto nation state, is the third most important financial centre in the world speaks volumes about the work ethic and sense of mission among Hong Kong people. But because of Hong Kong’s history, size, and reliance on others (Britain, China), there is a continuing sense of anxiety that permeates the city and its people. Everything feels impermanent. We are just waiting for China to crush our freedoms, therefore we constantly look for evidence that it’s doing so.

We’ve been waiting for this for more than three decades, yet Hong Kong lumbers on, in many ways more successful than ever. This isn’t to downplay the city’s problems, because they are legion. Housing, cost of living, a debilitating wealth gap, over-crowdedness, lack of technological innovation, an illegitimate and incompetent local government, and fierce competition from other markets all threaten the city’s prosperity. But considering what some were predicting in 1997, it’s somewhat remarkable that our core freedoms remain 20 years into life as a Chinese territory.

Which takes me to my next point: the growth and influence of China. Some of the anxiety Hong Kong is feeling, vis-a-vis Mainland influence, is actually being felt everywhere. Hong Kong people have a sense that Mainlanders are overrunning the city, that use of Putonghua is becoming more common, their jobs are being taken, and that Mainland values are beginning to replace Hong Kong ones. This, to some extent, is true, but it’s also being felt around the world, from Sydney to London. China is a big place, with lots of people, and Hong Kong isn’t unique in its sensitivity over profound changes to its society as a result of China’s economic expansion.

I am from Victoria, in Canada, and often take the ferry that connects Vancouver and Victoria every other hour. When I was visiting a year ago and boarded the ferry, I found hundreds of Chinese people and Putonghua spoken all around me; just five years ago, this would’ve been unthinkable. My own small piece of Canada, a quaint and quiet corner of the country, is feeling the impact of Chinese expansion just as much as Hong Kong is.

And it’s not just tourism – when teachers in the Province of British Columbia went on strike in the fall of 2014, Chinese parents demanded they get back to work, even going so far as contacting the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver to ask the Chinese Government to pressure the BC Provincial Government to force the teachers back to work. Naturally those who supported teachers were aghast at the nerve of Chinese-Canadians asking a foreign power to intervene in a local labour dispute.

To borrow a phrase from Chinese leaders, I object to countries interfering in another country’s internal affairs. But the point stands: Chinese influence is growing worldwide, and Hong Kong is simply caught up in the same trend.

So what can we do? The first step for Hong Kong is to begin being a bit more confident: this place is great, and it creates value, and it enjoys freedoms that much of the rest of Asia still lacks. The people of Hong Kong have a heart, a strong community, a pluralistic society, and a sense of right and wrong. We have the raw ingredients to sail through some rough seas intact. But we need to be realistic about what are normal attempts by a government to exert some control and influence, and what moves are truly alarming for Hong Kong’s future. Let me provide a few examples.

Governments in virtually all countries want to affect media coverage, therefore they have communications people and back channels to open dialogue with reporters and convince them of the government line. I have heard of Hong Kong reporters being concerned when the Liaison Office does this, but I consider this behavior normal. What’s not normal is having to send stories to be vetted by the government, which I have seen no evidence is happening in Hong Kong.

Second, our legal system is what truly underpins Hong Kong’s uniqueness. The fact our legal system remains in English, we continue to have a diverse range of judges, and it operates autonomously and according to British Common Law is a very positive sign. Yes, the Central Government and Liaison Office have spoken out about judgements and made calls for “patriotic judges”, but have you heard Donald Trump? Judges are in the cross-hairs in many jurisdictions, so this is also not uncommon. We need to begin to worry when China takes actual steps towards changing our legal system, because that would be truly alarming.

Third, Hong Kong is (to many people, unfortunately) part of China. I agree with the words of former governors Chris Patten and David Wilson, who have spoken out strongly against Hong Kong’s independence movement. The fact is, since 1949 when the Communist Party gained control of China, it has held a hard and consistent line on national sovereignty issues. Whether one favors independence or not, it just isn’t happening as long as the Communist Party remains entrenched. Beijing would much rather have an utterly razed and destroyed Hong Kong that is part of China than accept any form of independence.

With that in mind, let’s work as constructively as we can with Beijing. Using oaths of office to grandstand and make political points is childish, and wouldn’t be tolerated by any nation, democratic or authoritarian. Hong Kong should be above that, and I believe it is. Our political marches are legendary (and often successful in implementing change, see National Education and Article 23) and our activism to be admired. Hong Kong’s people have their heart in the right place: protecting Hong Kong, preserving it, and helping to usher in a new generation of success and prosperity for everyone. Let’s channel this energy productively.

No doubt Hong Kong’s future is uncertain, but I believe the people of Hong Kong have more control over their own destiny than they realize. “One Country, Two Systems” isn’t perfect, but rather than lamenting its problems (such as a failure to provide for direct elections for Chief Executive), let’s fully utilize the freedoms and options it does provide. I fully supported calls for an open nominating process for Chief Executive along with direct elections, but it’s now clear that won’t happen in the short to medium term. So for the sake of Hong Kong, let’s do what we can with what we’ve got, and revisit this question when we have more leverage.

Which brings me to my last point: China still benefits tremendously from Hong Kong. I have grown tired of seeing how Hong Kong’s share of China’s GDP has shrunk from 16 percent in 1997 to three percent today. I would like to know: in what world can a city of 7.3 million people maintain a 16 percent share of a $11 trillion economy backed by 1.3 billion people? The media use this statistic to show Hong Kong’s decline, when in fact it is much more useful to show how much China has grown. All countries have a smaller share of world GDP since 1997 because of China’s growth, which in scale and size is unprecedented in human history.

Hong Kong still has leverage. We are the only territory in the People’s Republic of China that is trusted by the international community. It is the headquarters of a number of global companies – and Mainland ones – because of our transparent regulatory oversight, legal system, use of English, food safety, quality schools, and international standards. China is still nowhere close to matching these things, and may never do (my bet is on never). Therefore Chinese leaders, their families, entrepreneurs and others own homes here, send their kids to school here, leave their bank deposits here, invest in Hong Kong’s stock markets, and more. It is not in China’s interest to see Hong Kong become just another Mainland city, and I believe China genuinely wants Hong Kong to succeed.

Despite problems over the past 20 years and questions about its future, Hong Kong remains a gem in Asia. It’s been written-off for almost 40 years, yet still thrives today as a prosperous, free, and pluralistic society. Even our future is largely within our control. I’m most optimistic about Hong Kong’s younger generation, which by-and-large is politically savvy and understands its historic responsibility to ensure Hong Kong’s uniqueness endures.

So on this 20th anniversary, let’s try and let go of the angst and anxiety, at least for a day. As a Hong Kong permanent resident who owns a home and works here, I’m just as invested in this city’s future as anybody else. I share many of the same concerns as other Hong Kong people, and we undoubtedly have many challenges ahead of us. But I still believe we ultimately have the power to shape our own destiny.

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.