The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There are two Hong Kongs. China is betting one can survive without the other.

A person takes a photograph of the city's skyline at Victoria Peak in Hong Kong on May 26. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)
Placeholder while article actions load

Keith B. Richburg is the director of the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre and a former Washington Post correspondent.

Hong Kong now is increasingly a story of two cities occupying the same compact space, but existing in parallel realities.

One Hong Kong is populated by bankers and financial services professionals, real estate developers and property owners, and businesspersons whose primary pursuit is trade with mainland China. In this universe, times are good and getting better.

The stock exchange this year reported its best quarter on record, fueled by nearly $30 billion worth of new IPO listings. Profits are up 26 percent in the first half of the year. Property sales are up, interest rates are low and new developments are being launched. Big banks are all on a hiring spree and offering new products to take advantage of China’s rapid post-pandemic economic recovery.

And the national security law, which came into effect in July 2020? It has restored calm and stability after a year of often-violent anti-government protests.

The other Hong Kong is populated by people in the public space — politicians, journalists, teachers, labor leaders, artists, filmmakers, those active in civil society groups as well as many students and young people. To them, Hong Kong has become unrecognizable, a place where dissent is crushed and debate stifled. They see no future here and no hope.

More than 100 people have been arrested under the national security law, and thousands more still languish in jail or are on bail for various offenses related to the 2019 protest movement. The city’s most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, has had its assets frozen and its owner and top editors sent to jail. Political parties, student and teachers unions, human rights groups and civic organizations have all been targeted and some forced to disband. Even a popular Cantopop singer had a venue cancel her bookings for an upcoming concert series.

Many from this universe are voting with their feet. Nearly 90,000 people have left Hong Kong in the past year, the biggest net outflow in more than half a century since records were kept, leading to a steep 1.2 percent drop in the population. The exodus has led to warnings about a pending shortage of teachers and medical professionals. Soon, there might not be enough children to fill the vacancies in schools.

Communist Party authorities in Beijing, and their appointed leaders in Hong Kong, are taking a gamble that the first universe, the one of bankers and financial professionals, can help the city thrive and prosper without the other. They believe Hong Kong can become like Singapore or Shanghai — prosperous cities largely devoid of distracting political debates.

From this view, Hong Kong’s future lies in integrating more closely into the southern China region known as the Greater Bay Area linking Hong Kong and Macao with nine cities in Guangdong province and encompassing more than 70 million people. The global travel market might be hammered by the pandemic, but Hong Kong plans to launch Greater Bay Airlines, with its inaugural flight to Beijing scheduled for Oct. 1, the 72nd anniversary of the Communist Party’s takeover of China.

At a recent high-level meeting in Hong Kong, mainland officials from Beijing chided the local government for not moving more quickly to integrate Hong Kong’s economy and population with the mainland.

And Hong Kong officials seem eager to comply. Asked about Hong Kong’s shrinking population plus the added burden of an aging demographic, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was sanguine. Hong Kong could attract mainland talent to fill the void, she said. And the elderly? They could simply retire in mainland China to ease this city’s burden.

With China’s own looming challenges of finding jobs for university graduates, Hong Kong could indeed be its safety valve. Many of those new banking and finance jobs are being taken by mainland professionals. As one longtime expatriate businessman here wryly told me, “China wants to keep Hong Kong. They just want to get rid of the Hongkongers.”

Hong Kong’s role as a premier global financial center has always been underpinned by its respected legal system. The new security law has created a parallel judiciary, where handpicked judges have largely deferred to prosecutors and police. But in normal cases not involving national security, judges continue to rule impartially. Even in such cases relating to the 2019 protests, judges have often acquitted suspects and criticized police for offering flimsy evidence or making contradictory statements.

Finance and business professionals see a judicial system still functioning independently and cite the continued presence of foreign judges from common law countries. Those in the opposite universe warn of a gradual erosion of judicial autonomy.

Can China get away with remaking Hong Kong into a financial center devoid of politics? In truth, it already has. “Hong Kong is in the final stages of becoming another Shanghai or perhaps Singapore,” an American business executive here said, speaking, like most, anonymously.

The old Hong Kong of raucous debate and protest, of independent-minded activists and politicians and filmmakers, is gone. The new Hong Kong is being built. Whether it can continue to thrive without the old one is the only question that remains.