It is easy to sympathize with anxieties over the extradition bill and worsening living standards that prompted the current eruption of protests in Hong Kong. But many people are talking and behaving as if the territory will not be fully integrated with mainland China by 2047. This is fanciful. The question of who controls Hong Kong today was answered long before any of us were born. In these circumstances, sympathy for Hongkongers is no substitute for a good dose of reality, and sentimentality is likely to be dangerous.
The Last British Governor of Hong Kong
The present troubles are rooted in the snake oil peddled before 1997 by what is now, very largely, an English Conservative Party that was then in office. Like all British governments, they scattered appointments about like golden corn to clucking hens.
Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before the end of the British administration, was a parochial politician for one of the most parochial constituencies in England: Bath. He was no statesman. But he was good at presenting arguments clearly — and himself as thoughtful, intelligent, intellectual, self-deprecating and wise — irrespective of the truth. Patten ran in a successful general election for the Conservatives in 1992, though he lost his own seat in the UK Parliament. For this, he was rewarded and compensated with Hong Kong.
Once there, his thinking didn’t change. He took the view that the Beijing leadership — responsible for the well-being of 1.16 billion people at the time and for lifting hundreds of millions from poverty — ought to make exceptions for an Englishman who still had his mind on home and what it would think of him after the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese authorities. Patten created the impression that he and the British cared about Hong Kong, and that Hongkongers (just like the good people of Bath) would control their own destiny through local democratic mechanisms that he would introduce. He advertised himself and his reforms shamelessly. It was an exhibition in self-delusion and sentimentality only now matched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s desire for Brexit, no ifs, no buts.
True, Patten was dealt a poor hand. Although the colonial administration could be effective when its military-style simplicity and self-imposed limitations were at their best, Hong Kong never had good government, let alone democracy. The majority of people had always lived in cramped accommodation as they do today, struggling to make ends meet through work, work, work and still more work. There was corruption in the administration, in the universities, in the judiciary and in business. The police worked hand in glove with gangsters. Everyone from the poorest immigrant to the highest colonial officer had to pay their way somehow.
Those insulated by money or a passport to another world might have found life in Hong Kong to be an “experience,” exciting and even romantic. For the rest, it was a grubby, dog-eat-dog existence. But Patten made a bad situation worse by foisting on it the democratic pretentions of an English market town.
Consequently, Hong Kong was left with no tradition of good government and no pool of committed and effective public servants. There was just a collection of tycoons and merchants, intellectuals and professionals, only some of whom might conceivably oversee Hong Kong’s gradual integration with China. The field was narrowed further after many of them — hooing and cooing at the world in what D.H. Lawrence called an “Oxford voice” or, worse still, a “would-be Oxford voice” — wrapped themselves in Patten’s democratic cloak. They were the ones upholding democracy and defending the people’s “unique” way of life.
So, don’t blame them if they were incompetent; if they were unable to agree on anything or do anything; if they failed the people through maladministration and petty bickering; if they had no imagination or foresight or just did not care; or if they spent their time grandstanding while others scratched out a living in tiny rooms amongst the skyscrapers.
Blame the outsiders instead. Blame the day-trippers who pack the shops, stuff their wheelies full of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, pour through the streets, clog up the trains and buses, fill the parking lots, push up prices and are generally “there” in too great a number. Blame the outsiders who are picking up jobs, buying up apartments, fouling up the bureaucracy and public services and who, in just about every other sense, are behaving rather badly. Just blame the outsiders.
For the last two decades, these writhing factions have preferred to engage in whatever shabby tactic is needed to get one up on their opponents. Having grown up in this morass, it is unsurprising that today’s politicians and “influencers,” professional dissenters and career activists (many of whom are still only in their 20s and 30s) are just as uncompromisingly bitter, ambitious and moralistic as their mentors. If things should go badly wrong in Hong Kong, well that will only give these careerists the profile they need and another entry for their résumé. They might even be able to scoop up a stipend as a “scholar” at a prestigious university overseas and write books about the crisis they saw coming.
The most critical problem confronting Hong Kong, and the source of the despondency eating away at its soul, is second-rate political leadership by Hongkongers, for Hongkongers. The solution lies just across the border. If absorbed by Shenzhen, Hongkongers would quickly see an improvement in their living standards. The high-quality government that the city so desperately needs would be forthcoming immediately, the political and physical constraints on the territory would be relieved, living spaces opened up, corruption expunged, businesses controlled and inequalities finally tackled as subventions are pushed toward those who need it most.
Beijing is certain to act positively because its long-term survival, just like that of any other leadership the world over, depends upon how well it looks after those it governs. Moreover, Beijing will want China to look good. And there is the simple fact that the Shenzhen government really does know what it’s doing.
The solution might seem radical, even unthinkable in the present circumstances. Yet full integration by 2047 will take place come what may. I suspect it will be necessary sooner rather than later. At the moment, Hong Kong’s government probably has neither the will to make such a proposal, nor the ability to win enough support for it after 22 years of misrule.
The most likely scenario is that Beijing will increase pressure on Hong Kong’s tycoons to govern properly and look after its own people rather than just administer them. Equally likely, however, is that Hong Kong’s youth, seduced by that Oxford voice breathing gently and languishingly on the back of their necks, will cling to the hope that they can unmix Hong Kong from mainland China. Beijing will then have no choice but to conclude that the slow path to integration is taking Hong Kong over a cliff. Unity will come sooner rather than later but in a different and extremely unhelpful atmosphere — one, it will be said, that all along could have been avoided.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.