I had the good luck to visit Hong Kong last week to give a whole bunch of talks. I had the better luck of leaving last Saturday night, just before Super Typhoon Mangkhut, the strongest weather storm this year, hit the city full force. Days after Mangkhut departed, it appears that the city’s electrical grid is almost fully repaired, but the damage was nonetheless pretty severe. Unfortunately, this might not be the most severe storm that Hong Kong faces this year. The most serious storm is political in nature.
When the United Kingdom handed the port city back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, Beijing repeated Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of “one country, two systems” to explain how the city would be governed. There was a recognition that Hong Kong’s nascent democracy and vigorous free press would be respected, even as Beijing gained a greater voice in the selection of the autonomous region’s leader. Having been in both mainland China and Hong Kong multiple times since the handover, the latter remains much more liberal, and it’s not close.
On this trip, however, I was struck by the sense of resignation among both expats and locals about Hong Kong’s future. The umbrella movement from a few years ago has petered out, leaving local authorities wary about any flare-up in civic protest. There is a famous statue now located at Hong Kong University, erected in 1997, called the Pillar of Shame. It commemorates the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Locals doubt whether it could be built today.
According to recent polling, public confidence in the “one country, two systems” rubric fell from 77 percent in 2008 to just 40 percent today. Furthermore, 40 percent of respondents identified themselves as “Hong Kongers” as opposed to “Chinese” or “Hong Konger and Chinese.” Indeed, I talked to affluent families who have lived there for generations. They are starting to talk about when and where they will decamp to foreign shores, once Hong Kong starts to resemble the mainland too much.
This sense of foreboding was palpable at the 20th anniversary of the handover last summer, It got worse this summer, when Hong Kong’s government decided to crack down on the Hong Kong National Party, a very small movement led by 27-year-old interior designer Andy Chan. According to the Economist, “The clock is ticking for Mr. Chan. He has been given until September 14th to explain to the Security Bureau why his party should not be banned. He has already been granted three extensions of the deadline. Another is unlikely.”
The Hong Kong National Party remains very small; Chan claims only a few dozen members. Nonetheless, the government is not only cracking down on Chan but also on any entity that gives him a platform to speak. This has put the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club in the government’s crosshairs. They hosted a speech by Chan, and matters escalated from there, according to the Financial Times' Ben Bland:
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong on Tuesday hosted a talk by Andy Chan, the founder of the Hong Kong National party, defying pressure from Chinese officials to cancel the event, which one likened to hosting a Nazi, terrorist or criminal.
Dozens of protesters lined up outside the club’s premises in central Hong Kong, chanting slogans such as “Kick the FCC out of the building”, “Get them out of the city” and “Catch the demons and eradicate them”.....
The opposition to Mr Chan and the FCC was led by CY Leung, the former Hong Kong leader and a senior member of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, who said that allowing him to speak was no different to giving a platform to a Nazi, terrorist or criminal.
Mr Leung called on the government to reconsider its lease of a historic building to the FCC, which has often hosted talks by Chinese and Hong Kong officials, as well as dissidents, and has among its members many journalists from international media organisations, including the Financial Times.
The club and its leadership are concerned that the club might be forced to move from its current location. As someone fortunate enough to speak there last week, it would be a tragedy if it had to leave its charming locale. It would also be a harbinger for the end of “one country, two systems.”
Hong Kong is a wonderful city with some of the best food on the planet. It will recover from Super Typhoon Mangkhut. I am far less certain that the city will weather the political typhoon bearing down on it. Those winds are growing stronger and more malevolent.