While plenty of people may tell you that Hong Kong is going to hell in a handcart, my view from afar is that the city is now experiencing the best – as well as, if you like, the worst – of times.
When I first started writing about Hong Kong, it was a pretty apolitical place. Instead of bothersome elections with competing parties shouting at each other, power was calmly transferred to the next administration by the Queen choosing a new governor. Not very democratic, but there weren’t many complaints. The governor of the day was David Wilson. The Information Services Department organised meetings for me with any department head, tycoon or political leader I wished to see. I saw lots, but decided not to interview the governor. Not that I had anything against Wilson. He was a genial sinologist who perfectly personified Hong Kong’s non-political nature.
Then came Chris Patten. Him I did see. He was definitely political, the strategist who got his party into power while losing his own parliamentary seat, which was probably why he was sent to Hong Kong. He huffed and puffed about how his book on Asia would outsell anything I wrote, because, as he so modestly put it, “I am Chris Patten!”. Although he never learned any Chinese, he did read books, which more politicians should try.
After governors came special administrative region chief executives. The nicest was Tung Chee-hwa, who always used to speak with fondness about his former landlady in Golders Green on the rare occasions when we met. Unfortunately, he was not the most effective.
The expectation before the 1997 handover to China was that because Hong Kong was to continue its way of life, it would have to keep a low profile, so it would be even less political. How wrong we all were. The pre-1997 nascent political groupings have evolved into a bewildering array of parties hell-bent on doing each other down.
And now there are shrill calls for independence. That is one of the most surprising things of all. During the Sino-British negotiations, several options were discussed. Margaret Thatcher started with the risible suggestion that China could have Hong Kong back in 1997 as long as Britain would continue to govern it. Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) responded with a contemptuous spit into his cuspidor and the proposal collapsed like a lead balloon, to be eventually replaced by the “one country, two systems” formula. Neither side, though, envisaged Hong Kong becoming an independent state. And opinion polls in the first few years after the handover showed almost nobody in the SAR supported independence.
Perhaps the greatest success of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying so far is that his mishandling of universal suffrage reform has produced a proliferation of yellow umbrellas and independence calls, although I suspect this was unintentional.
So why is this the best, as well as the worst, of times. Because it looks like Leung has seen the light. During the occupation of October 2014, his image (often adorned with Dracula fangs or shown inside a toilet bowl) was labelled “689”, the number of votes he got from the electoral committee in 2012. Leung has now reached the striking conclusion that his position would be more legitimate if elected by “one man, one vote”. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor concurs. Astonishingly, Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing says,”Better late than never”; coming from her, that is indeed high praise. This can only mean that a cross-party, cross-border deal to ensure that electoral reform takes place in the near future is now at least conceivable, though of course the devil remains in the detail.
If this happens, Hong Kong will be a much calmer place and the calls for independence (which, let’s face it, make no sense given the size of the People’s Liberation Army) will die down. Perhaps then everyone can work together to make Hong Kong an even better place to live in than it already is.
Ken Davies is president of Growing Capacity and former chief economist, Asia and Hong Kong bureau chief, with the Economist Intelligence Unit in Hong Kong
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
Tale of two systems: the best of times, the worst of times