Hong Kong

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Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, pictured on June 22: much of what makes the city great remains fundamentally ever-present. © Sipa/AP

This is why I will never abandon Hong Kong

Our city is wounded, but it is not dead

Brian Wong

June 27, 2021 05:00 JST

Brian Wong is a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong and founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.

Should I stay, or should I go?

This is the question on the minds of Hong Kongers who despair at what they perceive to be tightening room for political and civil liberties in the city, best epitomized, perhaps, by last week’s shutdown of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper. 

Beijing, on the other hand, views it as the restoration of normalcy to a society penetrated by Western interference. 

Many others are fed up with the sluggish economy, frustrated at the local government’s failure to keep pace with regional rivals such as Shanghai, Singapore and Shenzhen.

Those who leave in pursuit of a better life or career have every right to do so. But beware that the grass is always greener on the other side. Those who decide to leave face a precarious future, including a lack of employment opportunities and language barriers.

This is not to say that the situation is all that great in Hong Kong either.

Deprived of dignity, with upward mobility stifled by an increasingly opaque and narrow economy, it is no wonder that a vast majority of the city’s low-income earners, as well as the struggling so-called sandwich classes, harbor such resentment toward Hong Kong’s wealthy elite.

A city of over 1 million millionaires, Hong Kong is riven by inequality, with 1.4 million of its 7.5 million people living in poverty in 2019, and an astonishing 90% of residents living in homes smaller than 70 sq. meters, for which they must pay some of the world’s highest rents.

From the government’s questionable handling of the COVID pandemic — as evidenced by the slow uptake of vaccines — to the dearth of political acumen over how to respond to escalating misunderstanding and divergences between Beijing and Hong Kong, urgent reforms are needed to improve transparency, accountability and responsiveness.

There remains a reformist path forward, one that necessarily adheres to Beijing’s stipulations on critical issues yet also seeks to maximize the interests of the 7-million-odd people who continue to call this city home.

Real reform will require Hong Kongers of all political orientations, from all walks of life, to set aside their partisan, class and ideological differences — even if just for the moment — to rekindle the push for gradual and eventually substantive changes to the city’s governance, socioeconomic structure and industrial landscape. None of this needs to contravene Beijing’s core sensitivities and baseline demands.

Those pushing for change must find ways to work with progressive members of the city’s establishment to identify and advance reforms in areas where Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s interests converge. They must also make the case to the central government that it would be in the interest of both Beijing and Hong Kong to retain what has long been the city’s distinctive advantages: its cultural pluralism, laissez-faire capitalism, low taxes and the resounding rule of law.

The focus must necessarily be on what Beijing has to gain from such a reform agenda — not self-serving rhetoric that services Hong Kong exclusively.

Protesters gesture in Hong Kong on Mar. 1: the focus must necessarily be on what Beijing has to gain from a reform agenda.    © Reuters

This brings us to the question of democracy. The past 20 years have shown that the democratic movement’s striving for elections wholly free of Beijing intervention is politically impossible. Yet this does not mean that we should thereby give up on rights enshrined within Hong Kong’s Basic Law, our quasi-constitution. Free, competitive elections compatible with both Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s baselines are in the best interests of all. Still, we have a long way to go if we are to get there.

The coalition of people and groups that can bring change on such a scale lies beyond the conventionally defined elites.

It must include grassroots associations and workers unions, as well as the pro-establishment supporters who, while recognizing Beijing’s rightful stake and interests in the city, are prepared to remain steadfast in their support of the city’s sociocultural idiosyncrasies. The coalition for change must also include mainland Chinese citizens who emigrated to Hong Kong to enjoy its distinctive differences, as well as moderate democrats who have always sought — and should continue to do so — to advance civil and political liberties within the confines of the Basic Law.

We must also readily acknowledge the fact that international lobbying efforts and one-sided criticisms of China actually yield zero benefits for Hong Kong. The more the international community tries to force Beijing’s hand, the less likely it is that China will soften its stance.

Compromise will be best sought not through open flame wars, but through closed-room dialogues and discussions where Hong Kong’s interests are championed by all parties.

As for myself, I want to stay and try to make things better for those who cannot afford to leave. Ultimately, though, I intend to stay because Hong Kong is my home.

Much of what makes this city great has been dented by the upheaval but remains fundamentally ever-present: its unique blend of Western and Chinese values and ideals, its openness to commerce, investment and business, its unusually dense yet gorgeous urban space, and its lush mountains and countryside.

The short-term prognosis may be ugly, but it is not all doom and gloom. Rumors of this city’s death are greatly exaggerated. For those who still live here, we will not give up on fixing this city and repairing its relations with its own country, China. The message to Beijing, and the rest of the world, is: Do not write us off just yet.