Until Covid I had been visiting or transiting Hong Kong for 15 years. During this time I’d grown to really love the place, but after finally returning after 3 years the main thing I am struck by just how much the place has declined. And while the causes for this are myriad, they do not simply boil down to China, or even Covid.
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The Colonial History of Hong Kong
Hong Kong and the new territories were undoubtedly acquired by the British through plunder and colonialism, a source of great resentment in China. The PRC though has drastically overplayed the whole victim card here though, particularly with regards to the elephants in there mom that are Tibet and Xinjiang to name but two.
Colonial Hong Kong itself was though one of success, both for the colonial overlords and the locals, with its port and wild west capitalism in such a small area making everyone rather well off.
So, was Hong Kong a democracy? No it was not, it was essentially ran as a company, Hong Kong PLC, with this status-quo only changing when the British were firmly on the way out of the door.
The return of Hong Kong to China and the myth of democracy
Many have questioned why the UK gave up Hong Kong so easily, with only the new territories technically under the 99 year lease. In actuality China was now an ally against the USSR, was turning capitalist and was no Falkland Islands. If China wanted to take it by force it would.
Thus the one country two systems policy was enacted and Hong Kong went on a countdown to be reincarnated with the motherland. Now this period has been retconned as some kind of golden age, particularly with recent protesters bringing out their British flags, but most people were in fact quite anti-Britain, with the pro-communist riots of 1967 leaving 51 people dead.
The British also dispute popular myth ruled via an unelected governor, only bringing in very limited self-government when it was on the way out. A kind of middle finger to the Chinese if you will. And more importantly a move that would perpetuate a myth that China was going to take away their “freedom”.
The British though did follow the Asian Tiger model and much like Singapore was transformed from a manufacturing hub into a leading financial centre. Remember how everything says made in China? Well it used to say made in Taiwan, or Hong Kong.
This transition was made all the easier by the size of the colony and the relatively small population, meaning generous social services and a thriving “country”.
One country systems
While doom and gloom were predicted by all and some people going as far as to kill themselves the handover went smoothly and Hong Kong changed to what China calls one country two systems. This means that Hong Kong would keep its autonomy for 50 years, but more importantly its capitalist system, rather than “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.
What transpired over most of the next 25 years was actually the most autonomy that Hong Kong has every had, although under, technically at least the oversight of China. In reality though it was less one country two systems, but more two very different and separate countries, with it being harder for a Chinese person than a British one to enter Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was even one of the first “countries” to shut its border with China, not exactly he act of an oppressed colony.
The Hong Kong Protests
Hong Kongers will blame various laws, such as the one on extradition, the limited le cations, or arrests of activists for their protesting, which while true for some also had another element to it, racism.
Hong Kong, much like Taiwan is made up of Han Chinese, but their years apart have created a divide, with the residents of Hong Kong not only not wanting to share their money, but considering themselves more civilized than China.
The main thing trumpeted though was democracy, with most young people not realizing that Hong Kong under the Chinese was not only the most democratic place in China, but also much more democratic than it had been under the British.
Hong Kong has never been a bastion of democracy, it has been ran like a PLC, in a very similar vein to Singapore, although with the later embracing the economic benefits that stability has brought the nation.
There pinnacle of these protests was 2018/19 when the region almost resembled a war zone, Chinese companies were vandalized and both Chinese and western tourists were sacred away from the area.
Yet despite all the protests, Hong Kong was still running Hong Kong, which is why as previously mentioned after yet more protests then SAR decided to close its border to China to protect from Covid, I know this full well having crossed 30 minutes before midnight, with said border at Lua Hu being closed very since.
What I witnessed was a Hong Kong not wearing masks, still partying like crazy and viewing Covid very much as a Chinese disease. It was at this point also like a ghost town and visibly affected by the economic pressure it had put upon itself.
The Hong Kong slump
The Hong Kong slump though has not just been economic, it has also been culturally and technologically. When I first started coming here it looked like you were living in the future, with silly things like being able to pay at a store using your Subway card revolutionary at the time.
Hong Kong was the future, but it stopped where it was and did not move, instead allowing mainland China to surpass it in so many areas, from taxi apps, to cashless payments and a whole lot in-between. And while the locals like to blame every ill on China this has come under its self-governance. China might not be perfect, but in many areas it is now light years ahead of Hong Kong, another fact undoubtedly causing resentment.
The Grand Return
This was though a place I had loved greatly, so obviously I was happy to return, but much like when you visit an elderly relative after many years, seeing Hong Kong only reiterated its slow decline.
The observances started at the airport, which was near empty and resembled a building site. On exit I went to the metro station to buy an Octopus card, only to be told they would only take cash and that my Hong Kong issued credit card was not welcome. Hong Kong in contrast to China is still heavily cash reliant, but almost to a point of obnoxiousness.
And the attitude seems to be another thing dropping with the rest of then SAR, with one person employed outside of the airport merely to tell, or rather yell at people that you cannot even smoke outside now.
Hong Kong has always had an arrogance, but arrogance is one of those funny things, it only works if you can back it up. Covid has reset many things in the world, but that also means that not everything will go back to how it was.
Hong Kong is now a bitter place, with mask and cigarette Nazis employed to chase you down, while not only not accepting ceaselessness, but also still being one of the most expensive places in Asia.
Sadly for Hong Kong in 2023 the world has changed and it does not people simply will not come back here.