Hong Kong: 20 Years On

Author Gary Moreau

July 1, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong and the surrounding islands known as the New Territories to Chinese control. President Xi Jinping himself, in the company of his wildly popular wife, Peng Liyuan, spoke at the commemoration ceremony during his first state visit to the autonomous region.

There was little to no rancor in the streets, as some Western media predicted, and perhaps hoped, there would be. It would appear that the Umbrella Movement of 2014 has lost much of its momentum, although there was a modest march for diverse causes—some having nothing to do with democracy—after Xi’s departure.

Many Western commentators, of course, continue to believe that the passion for American-style democracy runs deep in Hong Kong and that any reduction in crowd size was more a function of government oppression than a loss of enthusiasm. As one CNN contributor put it, Xi’s speech “shows just how deeply Beijing misunderstands Hong Kong.”

As I have maintained in prior posts, I continue to believe that any dissatisfaction with Chinese rule in Hong Kong is more likely to be economic and social than political. Just as many Americans have taken to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with Washington, I have no doubt that there are some, if not a material many, whatever that means, who would like Hong Kong to enjoy more political autonomy.

Understanding China is available at Amazon in paper and electronic formats.

Political desire, however, more often than not, fails to recognize the dichotomy of our existence. Politics is but one thread in a multi-dimensional tapestry. Citizens around the globe inevitably want to eat their cake and have it too when it comes to politics, which is one of the reasons that politicians the world over are so universally unpopular with the citizens they dole the cake out to.

As is often the case where news is concerned today, moreover, any assessment of the pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong is conjecture in the end. Opinions may be supported by personal observations, but observations are greatly influenced by perspective and are conclusive only in a very relative sense. As always, I think it more informative to dig into the context in which current events are unfolding.

Hong Kong was incorporated into China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), where it remained until the Treaty of Nanking (August 29, 1842) ceded control to Britain, marking the end of the First Opium War (FOW).

The FOW was fought over Britain’s right to sell opium to Chinese citizens, a trade that provided the British with precious silver that they needed to fund trade with India. Recognizing the negative social impact of opium addiction, the Qin rulers attempted to outlaw the use of opium in China, a move the British monarchy had already taken in the UK. Fearing the loss of its primary supply of silver, the British invaded, and ultimately won. And with the military victory came the spoils of war, allowing the UK to add Hong Kong to the colonial holdings of the British Empire.

Tensions with China never really went away, however, and the British were constantly worried that China would re-take that which had been taken from them. In 1898, therefore, at the Second Convention of Peking (the former name of Beijing), the British secured a 99-year lease on the New Territories that made up the border between Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the mainland.

That, of course, was the lease that expired in 1997, at which time Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to return the entire colony, including Hong Kong and Kowloon, the two islands at the heart of what most Westerners know as Hong Kong.

The economic integration of Hong Kong and the mainland, however, was already well underway. The Bank of China Tower, the Hong Kong headquarters of the Beijing-based and state-owned financial powerhouse that has symbolically and literally dominated the Hong Kong skyline ever since, was finished in 1989, nearly a decade before the handover. It was built, in large part, to facilitate the economic integration of Hong Kong and the mainland that was already well underway.

I traveled to Hong Kong during the Bank of China Tower construction as my employer at the time sourced a lot of products there. And at that time Hong Kong was very much a manufacturing center of Asia, although the transition to becoming a global financial and trade powerhouse had begun. Hong Kong companies were already moving their production to the New Territories and to the mainland province of Guangdong, Hong Kong’s immediate neighbor and the most prosperous of China’s twenty-two provinces.

At the dawn of China’s political and economic opening in the late 1980s I was actually granted permission to travel into Mainland China. The trip was arranged by the owner of a Hong Kong supplier and my host was a Communist Party official in GuangZhou, then called Canton. The two men were brothers, a relatively common business scenario at the time, from what I could tell.

Today Hong Kong is a glittering world-class city. It’s one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t made it yet. You can expect London and New York prices, but it’s delightfully easy to get around, the accommodations and restaurants are both plentiful and outstanding, and nearly everyone speaks some English, many fluently. (With a British accent, in most cases.)

Almost nothing is manufactured in Hong Kong anymore. It does, however, export 55 billion USD to the Chinese mainland, almost all of it imported from outside of China. And it imports 273 billion USD from China , most of which gets exported to destinations around the world.

Guangdong Province, Hong Kong’s neighbor whose residents typically speak Cantonese, the Chinese dialect of Hong Kong, has an annual GDP of 1.1 trillion USD, more than 10% of China’s total. Hong Kong, while wildly prosperous, has an annual GDP of less than 1/3 of that, and most of that is a result of the aforementioned trade with the mainland.

And what about the social costs to the residents of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents? One of the critiques I recently read noted, in a rather critical tone, that an influx of non-HK-Chinese is making it harder for Hong Kongers to gain access to health care and education.

There is little doubt that mainland Chinese are seeking access to the world-class services offered in Hong Kong. But accessing the services of a neighboring metropolis is universal. New York City, Chicago, London, and Sydney all experience the same enhanced demand for what services they offer from surrounding areas. The only difference is that these urban centers have had more time to accommodate the demand.

The same opportunity, moreover, is benefiting the Hong Kongese. For the 9 years I lived in Beijing my daughters attended one of the best international schools in the world. And over that nine-year period the student population became increasingly Asian in its roots. And guess what, many of those students were from Hong Kong.

The city of Shenzhen, a metropolis of 11 million people that many consider to be the Silicon Valley of China, sits less than 25 miles away from Hong Kong in Guangdong Province. That’s closer than New Rochelle, in Westchester County, is to New York City. It’s hard not to think of both as part of the greater metropolis, boundaries aside.

Governing is tricky business, as Americans know well. There will always be political dissent in places like Hong Kong, just as there is in virtually any country in the world. And the Western media, no doubt, will continue to give it a voice. Whether that’s news or the cloaked pursuit of its own political agenda is for each of us to decide.

As a practical matter, however, it is no more likely that Hong Kong will be granted complete political independence from China than Houston or San Francisco will be allowed complete autonomy from Washington. Or that a sufficient number of Hong Kongese will even want it to.

Setting all of our opinions aside, that is the context of the matter at the moment.

Contact: You may write the author at gary@glassmakerinchina.com

Understanding Business: The Logic of Balance, the author’s latest book, was released on June 27, 2017 and is now available at Amazon.

A sample:

It is, in fact, the Western distinction between philosophy and science, a gulf that has been expanding rapidly in the last three to four decades, that is at the heart of what ails much of corporate America today. The slide began the minute someone suggested that there could be such a thing as management science. When business schools and management consultants began to market the idea that successful business management could be modeled and graphed, corporate America lost more than its old habits. It lost its equilibrium. And with that, the long stumble began

Copyright © 2017 Gary Moreau