Hong Kong’s Greatness Is Slipping Away

A once-shining city has been hollowed out by Beijing’s misrule.

Lunar New Year fair in Hong Kong
Residents wearing face masks buy flowers at a Lunar New Year fair in Hong Kong on Jan. 23. Anthony Khan/Getty Images

The Lunar New Year is the most significant holiday in Hong Kong, but the mood this year is anything but festive. With just a week to go before the holiday, police violently shut down a rally for democracy attended by tens of thousands of Hong Kongers last Sunday using tear gas after fights broke out between undercover agents and protesters. Even the traditional New Year markets reflect the ongoing protests. The 15 government-run markets are banning dry goods for the first time ever to prevent the sale of items with political slogans, while grassroots markets have sprung up to sell just that. Three cases of the Wuhan virus have been detected in the city, and residents are fearful of a real outbreak.

Just a few weeks ago, Hong Kong saw Christmas mall protests and a million-person Jan. 1 march, which was prematurely stopped by the police by force after just less than three hours. There will be no traditional parade for the Lunar New Year, nor will there be fireworks, which have also been canceled for New Year’s Eve.

Not surprisingly, all this has had a drastic effect on the economy.

Just this week, Moody’s downgraded Hong Kong’s credit rating, citing doubts over the ability of Hong Kong’s “institutions and governance” to deal with the concerns of the protest movement. Last year, Hong Kong experienced a technical recession for the first time in 10 years after its GDP fell in two successive quarters, and it is expected the figures for 2019 will show a decline for the whole year.

Despite all this, daily life in Hong Kong is still largely intact, and there is a long, long way to go before it turns into 1980s Beirut or Belfast during the Troubles—one of the most frequent periods referenced by Hong Kongers thanks to the cultural heritage of British colonialism. And comparatively speaking, the toll of protests has been far worse in places such as Baghdad and Santiago, Chile. But as a supposedly wealthy, global, commercial metropolis, Hong Kong is steadily withering. At the core of this is the hard-line stance taken by the authorities against protesters and the general public. The police have shut down approved marches forcefully with tear gas and charges, used brute force in arrests, and targeted journalists and even paramedics. The police have arrested around 7,000 people for protesting or related charges, with a significant proportion being teenagers. This past November, several universities literally became battlegrounds as police besieged over a thousand students and protesters before forcing them to surrender.

The government often claims it is only targeting violent elements, but the authorities have also been cracking down on civic groups, activists, and pro-democracy politicians. In December 2019, they arrested four people from a nonprofit protester aid group for alleged money laundering and seized 70 million Hong Kong dollars (about $9 million) in the group’s bank account that had been raised from public donations. Meanwhile, Hong Kong teachers can potentially be punished for social media remarks that are deemed inappropriate by the authorities, according to Education Minister Kevin Yeung.

Not content with taking down local protesters and their supporters, the authorities have also turned on international visitors, too.

Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, was banned on Jan. 12 from entering Hong Kong. Also banned this month was the photography professor Matthew Connors, who had covered local protests on previous visits last year.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Roth was banned for inciting separatists, which is a wild claim, while Connors was only told by Hong Kong immigration officials he did not “meet the immigration requirements.” This is reminiscent of the banning of the Financial Times editor Victor Mallet in November 2018 from Hong Kong after he was refused a renewal of his work visa. Clearly these men were all banned from Hong Kong for noncriminal political reasons, making a mockery of Hong Kong’s long-standing claim to be “Asia’s world city.”

Beyond individual cases, tourist numbers have fallen significantly, by 56 percent in November 2019 year-on-year, while October saw a 43.7 percent year-on-year fall. The number of visitors for July through November declined by 36 percent from the same period in 2018. Hong Kong’s airport saw a 4.2 percent year-on-year drop in visitors for 2019, the biggest fall since 2009, during the global financial crisis. And obviously, locals are not shopping or eating out as much as before, putting heavy pressure on businesses.

For a city that prides itself as being all about business and has hosted many major conferences and exhibitions, the protests have been a huge blow. Since last year, regional tech conferences, industry exhibitions, and even music festivals and sporting events have all been canceled.

And yet, things are not likely to get any better between the government and the public.

At the start of the year, Beijing surprised many when it replaced the head of its Liaison Office in Hong Kong with Luo Huining, the former Communist Party head of Shanxi province. Luo, who had no prior international or Hong Kong experience, as head of Shanxi province had clamped down on local corruption and misbehaving officials. The appointment of Luo signifies that Beijing will not be treading softly in Hong Kong, where the protest movement has gone on for over seven months.

True to form, Luo is already making ominous statements about the long-standing “one country, two systems” policy being a “national security loophole,” raising fears of future plans to implement a national security bill that would prohibit “treason” and “secession.” Back in 2003, an attempt to impose this bill saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers march against it, which ultimately prevented it from being made into law.

The truth is that before the anti-extradition bill protests began last June, Hong Kong had already been in decline. While still outwardly a thriving financial hub, Hong Kong was already languishing politically, with high poverty rates and shrinking civic and political liberties. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s brazen attempt last year to push forward a law that would allow extraditions of Hong Kongers to China may have sparked the protest movement, but public anger at Lam and Beijing had been building up for years.

A rare bright spot is that the protest movement has led to an outpouring of creativity and cooperation. A major example is what’s known as the yellow economy, in which people shop and eat at businesses that support the protests, such as the independent New Year markets, while shunning those run by pro-China tycoons or Chinese corporations. Sometimes the protest movement’s aims might seem quixotic, but, fueled by Hong Kongers’ love of their city, it has proven remarkably resilient.

Beijing wants to have it both ways with Hong Kong—to keep it as a financial hub while stifling its political and civic freedoms. It is finding that this is easier said than done. The central government knows this, which is why it is trying to find alternatives such as promoting reforms in nearby Shenzhen and, more amusingly, looking to convert the gambling hub of Macao, China’s other special administrative region, into a financial center. But Hong Kong’s long-standing international advantages are not easily replicated elsewhere—and some of them, like its rule of law, are fundamentally incompatible with Beijing’s ambitions.

With an ineffectual leader and government, a resilient protest movement, and a police force at war with its own public, Hong Kong has little chance of reaching a solution anytime soon.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.

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