Dead again? Oh no! This is extremely inconvenient. We had just made concrete plans to reopen our karaoke venues and lead a global economic recovery, not necessarily in that order.
But there it is in print: “The Lonesome Death of Hong Kong”, an essay by Chris Patten. And many other Western editorial writers have composed similar obituaries for the city.
Fortunately, Hongkongers prefer to do their due diligence — and the evidence tells a different story. The community of Hong Kong has been declared dead many times. For example, our expiry was announced in 1977, when business people wanting to renew 20-year land leases complained to governor Murray MacLehose that Hong Kong wouldn’t be around after 1997. He contacted the leaders of China to make a deal which became known as “one country, two systems”.
The city would die, Western editorial writers said repeatedly. In 1995, Fortune magazine’s cover story was titled: “The Death of Hong Kong”. In it, Louis Kraar wrote: “The naked truth about Hong Kong’s future can be summed up in two words: It’s over.”
Today, Hong Kong is again being declared deceased because China’s top legislature is passing a national security law for the city. It only takes a minute’s thought to see the obvious logical problem with that prediction. National laws are national. Almost everyone has them. Their presence is not the exception, but the norm
Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman said the Hong Kong dollar would be gone by 1999, and environmentalist Christine Loh Kung-wai expressed fears that Beijing would turn on those “considered to have conspired with the British, maybe me among them”.
The opposite happened. Hong Kong thrived. The Hong Kong dollar grew old and fat (sorry, Milton). The government handed environmental responsibility to Loh and she did an excellent job — major air pollutants in Hong Kong fell between 34 percent and 80 percent between 1999 and 2019.
Hong Kong had blossomed into an extraordinary miracle: a city in China with a world-class legal system, a lively free press, and an entirely capitalistic, free-wheeling economic model. “One country, two systems” had been spectacularly successful. We’d become one of the richest cities in the world and we lived and worked in literally the world’s most expensive buildings.
We were also the world’s healthiest people. Despite the pollution we often complained about, our longevity was the world’s best, overtaking Japan’s legendarily high levels.
So: Not dead.
Today, Hong Kong is again being declared deceased because China’s top legislature is passing a national security law for the city. It only takes a minute’s thought to see the obvious logical problem with that prediction. National laws are national. Almost everyone has them. Their presence is not the exception, but the norm. The United States has more than a dozen. The truth is an anti-sedition law is an essential part of any modern community’s constitutional infrastructure, just like a spoon is a default element of an ordinary set of cutlery.
Hong Kong “democracy” campaigner Martin Lee Chu-ming and his colleagues who drafted the Basic Law recognized this. During their labors in the late 1980s, they included an anti-subversion law under the heading Article 23.
The US recognized the essential nature of such laws, producing numerous overlapping ones, such as the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act.
The United Kingdom recognizes this too. Although it abolished a sedition law for its own people, it retained it for “aliens”, and kept accompanying elements for everyone, such as laws against “High Treason” (despite them being oddly archaic: You can be imprisoned for life if you “violate the unmarried eldest daughter of the sovereign”, for example).
Still, it’s important to be open-minded and listen to concerns, since we Hongkongers can be jittery types. When the Hong Kong government tried to legislate according to Article 23 in 2003, a huge demonstration took place. My family and I are inveterate marchers, and we were there, me with a placard in one hand and baby stroller in the other.
Hong Kong’s establishment, although portrayed as heavy-handed, is actually quite responsive. The bill was shelved.
By 2009, everyone was calmer, and in neighboring Macao, which has few anti-China activists and no hostile foreign correspondents, the equivalent of Hong Kong’s Article 23 legislation was passed with minimum complaint.
Was it “the death of Macao”? Again, no. The place thrived.
But the gap in Hong Kong’s legal cutlery set has become an obvious problem in the light of recent escalating arson-filled violent protests, including 10 incidents in which serious explosives and/or chemical weapons were prepared or used. Activists openly planned to bring down the government and declare independence, directly against the wishes of the Hong Kong people. Even dedicated protest marchers like me could see that a much firmer hand was needed.
Instead of pushing Article 23 into law, the problem was surmounted by good lawyering. Researchers noticed that Article 18 of the Basic Law says that national laws can be promulgated in Hong Kong by being added to Annex III of the Basic Law.
The result will be that the missing spoon will finally appear in our cutlery set. The present hysterical media reports by Patten and others are basically saying the same thing: “They want a full cutlery set! This is outrageous! Everyone else is allowed a spoon except them! Their cutlery set must lack a spoon forever.”
That attitude is clearly ridiculous. Patten may like to reflect on an ancient English saying: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
In recent days, I have been told repeatedly that unrestrained, loudmouth commentators like me will be the first to be silenced. This week, I had an article full of inconvenient truths censored — not by China, but by Americans. On the same afternoon, China Daily offered me this space. There’s a lesson in open-mindedness right there.
Of course, journalists should be healthily skeptical. We all know China can be unpredictable. But honest journalists acknowledge that its record in Hong Kong has been immeasurably better than predicted.
At the same time, the success rate of the people writing obituaries about the death of Hong Kong over the past 40 years has been very consistent: 100 percent wrong. Every. Single. Time. Sorry, Mr Patten.
The author has been one of Hong Kong’s most prolific media commentators and book authors.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS