July 1 marks the anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Over the last 25 years, challenges have abounded. While most troubles have been local, recent shifts in political dynamics are testing the region’s ability to thrive internationally. Economically, the financial crises in 1997 and 2008 sent the world tumbling down, bringing to the region much gloom and doom. Reminiscent of those days, people who were born before the ’90s are allergic to the faintest signal that could trigger any conceivable meltdown of the stock market or apartment prices.
Regionally, severe acute respiratory syndrome wrought many Southeast Asian countries in 2003. Being 10 times more lethal than the earlier strains of COVID-19, SARS posed an existential threat to people. Social distancing, mask-wearing and awareness of personal hygiene curbed the highly transmissible virus. Medical researchers at the University of Hong Kong invented a cocktail of antibody-rich plasma that put a decisive nail in the coffin of the epidemic before it could spread worldwide. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world had only a pinch of an idea, top medical institutes drew inspiration from the publications on SARS produced by the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong researchers. Social distancing rules, vaccinating the population to attain herd immunity, mask-wearing and environmental hygiene among other principles underpinned the main pillars of anti-pandemic measures drafted by public health officials across the globe.
Ideologically, being a melting pot for Asian and Western culture brewed a perfect storm. A bout of horrendous riots that broke out in 2019 ground the usually busy streets of Central to a halt. The financial heart that gave life to Hong Kong no longer beat. Public transport and restaurants were burned down and destroyed. Police who were adamant about establishing order in the city were gravely injured. Innocent bystanders were victimized. The city’s turmoil, which arose from the fraught relationship between the United States and China, was framed by Western media as a “democratic revolution”. Merely repeatedly cross-referencing each other among American and British media lent “credence” to the notion they purported. Malcolm Clarke, a two-time Oscar winner for best documentary, an Emmy winner, and also a former BBC director, was appalled by the unprofessional and inaccurate reporting by Western media. He went on to produce a series of documentaries that portrayed what had happened through an unbiased lens. Pitifully, straying from the mainstream narrative, his documentaries may receive little airtime on Western platforms besides any meaningful traction.
That the naysayers harp on about Hong Kong being “a city in decline” smacks of nihilism. Three decades ago, “one country, two systems”, a policy about which Western powers were skeptical, was designed by Chinese leaders before the region’s handover back to China, who were wise enough to decide that the future HKSAR should leverage its middleman role to burgeon and flourish. The idea proved successful when a fishing village blossomed into one of the “Four Asian Tigers”. Such an economic miracle was chronicled in a World Bank report.
Beijing does not take prosperity for granted. Electoral reforms and the National Security Law for Hong Kong were instrumental in paving the way for smooth economic development in the HKSAR. Amid a barrage of criticisms from the West, look closer at Britain, where Parliament beefed up its own piece of national security legislation, targeting espionage and false information with a raft of vague descriptions. Through such an arbitrary stick, Britain expelled Chinese investment in the construction of a nuclear plant despite an earlier contract agreement. A less cost-effective bidder may yet assume the contract. By defying the gravity of economics, the British government is ridding itself of any remaining stature of Thatcherite pragmatism that is sorely needed. The stark contrast with Britain, and that such a law in Hong Kong is never intended to meddle with economic considerations, has never been highlighted in Western media.
Make no mistake: Hong Kong has been plagued by some social problems. High housing costs and a yawning wealth gap fueled young people’s discontent. An Oscar-winning movie, Parasite, correctly reflected some inconvenient truths about capitalism. Affluence above a certain level brings to bear more asset and income accumulation. Wealth begets wealth — exponentially. Although the HKSAR government has set up multiple committees to tackle such issues, a growing number of young people born of lower-income households now see home ownership as unreachable. Neither should hard-earned money be stripped from industrious families and distributed equally, as that would instill into citizens the seeds of indolence. Therein lies an unsolved dilemma — how to inspire wealth without driving a wider rift among people. This problem befalls even the most successful capitalist economies around the world.
Against the complications of capitalism, Hong Kong looks set to benefit once again from “one country, two systems”. Beijing has made no explicit mention of terminating this policy. President Xi Jinping has lent support to the region by repurposing Hong Kong as a technological hub interconnected with other close-knit cities. His vision sets Hong Kong up to revive some rickety parts by breaking vested interests. The State leader himself set foot in the city, which has more new COVID-19 cases daily than any city in the Chinese mainland. Alas, Beijing’s intentions have always been widely misconstrued by the West. Unbeknownst to some Western leaders, pragmatism courses through the veins of Asians. As with tai chi, the mantra by which ethnic Chinese live is to strengthen oneself to lead a healthy and meaningful eternity. That is antithetical to a boxing ring wherein one must knock the other out to end the match.
The year of the 25th anniversary is a timely inflection point. Let us emerge from fruitless ideological debates. Hong Kong people must remain steadfast against the toxic currents that gaslight us. We should be pragmatic. And we will focus — live better, live longer and prosper.
The author is a licensed medical doctor in Hong Kong and holds a Master of Public Health degree from Johns Hopkins University in the US state of Maryland.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS