I listened last week to two important people extol the many virtues of Hong Kong, and insist how the future success of this semi-autonomous enclave of China was guaranteed because of the tenacity and entrepreneurship of the people that live here, plus of course the robustness of the legal and financial system.
One of these people was John Tsang, Hong Kong’s financial secretary. The other was Stuart Gulliver, chief executive officer of HSBC.
They used phases such as “the highly-developed legal system and a heavy concentration of skilled professionals means that Hong Kong will be too far advanced… to be displaced [by China]” (Gulliver) and “Hong Kong’s success is built upon the rule of law [and] the persistence in upholding economic freedom, an extensive business network, sound financial infrastructure, a robust regulatory regime, [and] a well educated and resourceful workforce” (Tsang).
The problem was that such comments – which was what you would expect both of the parties to say – were overshadowed by the most eloquent speaker that went before them: Tsim Tak Luk, chairman of the Project Citizens Foundation, writer and intellectual.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that, to be honest, neither Tsang nor Gulliver proved to be particularly good speakers. Okay, I’ll accept that for Tsang English isn’t his first language. And, with the Sunday Times preparing to publish a story on Sunday about how Gulliver was for the chop in two years time, the HSBC CEO may have had other things on his mind.
But still they could have given a more robust defence against Luk’s invective.
Luk used such confrontational rhetoric as “Hong Kong is a city of broken promises, and the Hong Kong people is a people misruled” and “We have seen instead plenty of examples of mediocre people making dumb decisions for I don’t know whose benefit”.
Not perhaps the best choice of words when you are trying to introduce a member of the government that, in none too subtle a way, you are hell bent on criticising.
Luk pulled no punches when he spoke about Beijing: “Before 1997, the then sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen of England & the United Kingdom, was affectionately referred to as The Proprietress. After 1997, the new sovereign in Beijing is referred to, also affectionately, as The Grandfather. And the difference is this – the Proprietress left you alone to go about your business provided you made money for her, whereas the Grandfather loves to give orders and broaches no arguments.”
Grandfather does not always know best, said Luk, especially not high finance (the thought of making a reference about what happened to markets in China cannot have been far away from his mind).
The fear in Hong Kong is palpable – and Luk’s comments embodied perfectly the sentiments that I am hearing an increasing number of local Hong Kongers express: China needs to move carefully for the future success of Hong Kong to be guaranteed.
This fear didn’t go away as Hong Kong protestors closed their umbrellas at the end of 2014. It is still very much there, and with this being an election year, expect it to resurface in some form or another. Joshua Wong, the poster boy from the 2014 protests, has just launched his own political party.
I tend to see Beijing as largely pragmatic. I think many in the West do. If they’re making money they are happy, and they don’t want to derail Hong Kong’s success just for the sake of doing so.
But there is a danger here that many are increasingly sensing.
Luk concluded: “As we survey the current political landscape in Hong Kong, it is obvious that the politicization, polarization and radicalization of Hong Kong politics – and their relentless escalation – is the number one cause for concern… As Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of NPC said, the intelligent Hong Kong people will be able to find their own solution. If this is true, Hong Kong’s political risk goes down several notches, and our Financial Secretary Mr John Tsang’s bullish scenario may come to pass. But if the reverse is true, and Beijing chooses outright confrontation – the sledgehammer approach – then we are only one riot away from Hong Kong’s own June 4th moment.”
This last was a reference to the terrible Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Which sounds bad to me. To be avoided at all costs.
Beijing has more sense these days.