This blog’s Christmas message reflected on what has happened to Hong Kong over the last couple of years. That subject dovetails well with my most recent blog post, The China Thrill Is Gone. In that post, I described how Xi Jinping’s rise to power coincided with growing pessimism on my part regarding China’s future, eventually leading me to leave the Mainland for Hong Kong. And then, as I said in the post, they came for Hong Kong.
For most of my time living in Hong Kong (over three different time periods), I led what can be properly described as a crossborder life. Visits to Shenzhen and Guangzhou were about as normal as treks out to the Hong Kong Customs warehouse in Chai Wan or to a client’s office in Quarry Bay. After all, from my Kowloon apartment, it took about the same amount of time to reach the border as it did to reach those places. RMB and HKD notes coexisted in my wallet and dual SIM cards were an important feature on cell phones. But as disillusionment with China grew, that crossborder life gave way to a more Hong Kong-centered one, with Mainland China being just one of the parts of my beat (which dramatically shifted toward Southeast Asia starting in 2016).
With every calamity that has befallen the city, there have been those who have assured me I was lucky. And, yes, I am glad that I was not a first-hand witness to the strife of 2019 and the imposition of the National Security Law (NSL). But the reality is that my concerns over such developments occurring at some point in the future played an important role in my Hong Kong departure at the end of 2018. Admittedly, things happened more quickly than I imagined they would, and I could not have guessed the specifics, such as the extradition bill and the NSL. But the writing was on the wall that things would, somehow, sometime, change, and not for the better.
The 2014 Umbrella protests were a heady time in Hong Kong. Though generally sympathetic to demonstrators, I thought their disruptions of traffic in places like Mong Kok (a few blocks away from my apartment) were unjustified impositions on Hongkongers, many of whom did not agree with their agenda. In fact, in most areas of the city, the protests seemed a world away, and there was not much visible support. One of my then-colleagues, an expat, started frequenting protests and amassing a collection of memorabilia. I scoffed at his romanticized view of Hong Kong, which seemed to ignore majoritarian sentiments regarding democratic reform and the city’s relationship with China.
More importantly, I thought the protests would ultimately be counterproductive. During the innumerable conversations I had with Hongkongers and foreigners alike, I encountered a lot of naïveté about the CCP. One expat who hailed from the former Eastern Bloc used his country’s experience as a rallying cry for Hongkongers, failing to see the crucial differences between the USSR in 1989 and China in 2014 (and between nations such as Poland and Romania, and a city of 7 million).
In my view, Hongkongers’ focus should have been on preserving and strengthening the “one country, two systems” arrangement. Rather than lamenting that Hong Kong’s political system did not look more like Canada’s or Australia’s, they should have appreciated the fact that it was not like Wuhan’s or Xinjiang’s.
In the aftermath of the 2014 protests, it was clear to me that Beijing had learned its lessons. The signs of a tougher line were there to see. For instance, the Hong Kong authorities quickly sought the disqualification of Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching after they turned their Legco oath-taking into political theater. Overall, the Hong Kong government began to increasingly resemble its Mainland counterparts. It rammed through a proposal to build a branch of Beijing’s National Palace Museum, despite vocal opposition (and no vocal support whatsoever) from citizens. Again in the face of local opposition, the government footed a significant part of the bill for a white elephant bridge to the other side of the Pearl River Delta, hailed as a great achievement by the central government but of little practical value to Hongkongers. The government also endorsed the stationing of Mainland law enforcement officers at the new high-speed rail station.
The government’s proposal in 2019 of a law that would permit extradition to Mainland China, sparking a season of unrest that in turn prompted the imposition by the Beijing authorities of the repressive NSL, was a logical progression of the pattern of genuflecting to Beijing’s wishes. And this pattern was on evidence for all to see in the preceding years. Looking ahead, only two scenarios seemed plausible. The first was for Hong Kong to be the proverbial boiled frog, changed into the CCP’s likeness bit by bit. Alternatively, there would be a final straw that got people into the streets again, in turn setting the stage for a repressive response.
In the end it was the latter scenario, randomly sparked by a Hong Kong dirtbag who allegedly murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. The Hong Kong government sought to change its extradition law to be able to legally send the alleged murderer to Taiwan to stand trial. Maybe Beijing thought this would be a good way to slip in legalized extradition to the Mainland (and hence avoid the inconvenience of having to kidnap suspects on Hong Kong soil). Or perhaps someone in Beijing or Hong Kong said, “whoa, you cannot allow extradition to Taiwan but not to the Mainland.” It does not matter. Hong Kongers were fed up and took to the streets.
Had it not been the extradition bill, it could have been any number of things. Perhaps an arrest by Mainland immigration officers at the high-speed rail station gone wrong, or an initiative to prioritize the use of Mandarin, or an increase in one-way permits granted to Mainland immigrants. But by 2018, it was evident that Xi Jinping’s vision for Hong Kong was one of increasing convergence with the Mainland. Hongkongers had to acquiesce or else.
I wanted no part of that, and it seems a million Hongkongers do not either.