Review: Simon Cartledge A System Apart- Hong Kong’s Political Economy from 1997 Until Now (Penguin, 2017)
Simon Cartledge traces the economic, social, and political changes - or rather, the lack of changes - that have made a seemingly apolitical free trade port into the city that last year saw the most protests in the world.
Cartledge argues that Hong Kong’s once vibrant economy has not adjusted to the post-1997 world, with serious repercussions for the city’s residents. From the 1950s, Hong Kong rose to international prominence as a global manufacturing site. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong took on the role of a global entry point to the newly opening China market. In both cases, the city’s government and people actively responded to needs in the global market.
After decades of rapid growth and enhanced living standards, the city was dealt a series of economic blows post-1997 by the Asian financial crisis, the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and the havoc wreaked by the SARS virus on the city. Despite this 'economic battering', Cartledge notes that little substantive change has been made to adjust to new global economic realities: rather, he argues the domination of business interests in the post-1997 political system has prevented necessary change and policy innovations. As a result, Hong Kong is at once considerably better educated than it has ever been, yet at the same time plagued by a drastic lack of social mobility and job opportunities that match citizens’ educational levels.
Some measures intended to encourage economic recovery have furthermore only generated new problems: the most prominent example being the increased opening to tourism from the People’s Republic of China through the individual visitor scheme. Cartledge notes that this city of seven million received a total of 6.8 million visitors from the PRC in 2002. By 2014, however, the number of annual visitors from China had jumped to a staggering 47.2 million. As a series of storms in a teacup over mainland misbehaviour in Hong Kong brewed in the first part of this decade, polls found that two-thirds of the city’s residents favoured restrictions on the number of individual visitors.
The growing Hong Kong-Beijing clash, however, is about far more than some visiting children defecating on the street. Cartledge presents the most succinct and convincing analysis that I have read of Hong Kong and Beijing’s conflicting expectations for the city’s post-1997 political future under the rubric of one country, two systems. Both sides, he argues, believed that time was on their side.
From Hong Kong’s perspective, as China’s economy continued to grow, social and political liberalisation was expected to follow. Free markets would create demands for freedom of choice, freedom of expression and an accountable legal system. Clearly this widely held expectation was misplaced, as China’s governance has in recent years only grown ever more authoritarian, while Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong have only grown ever more unyielding.
From Beijing’s perspective, by contrast, as China continued to grow into a 'strong nation', the people of Hong Kong were expected to submit willingly to the awesome power of the resurgent motherland, seeking self-fulfilment in the 'China Dream'. Clearly this expectation was also misplaced, as the Beijing government’s repeated attempts to exercise control and induce submission have backfired one after another, thanks to a lively opposition that has always fought back. This, even with the electoral cards stacked completely against them, through open media, open assembly, and opinion polls.
These conflicting systems and expectations, Cartledge notes, came to a head in the pivotal year of 2012. With the selection of CY Leung as Chief Executive, Beijing demonstrated a newfound determination to crush Hong Kong’s separateness and bring the city under its control. With the indefinite shelving of political reform in 2014, and the arbitrary crackdown on the political opposition ongoing since 2016, Hong Kong’s 'separateness' is increasingly under threat, even as these hard-line measures broaden support for an increasingly outspoken opposition. This story of ever more restrictive policies feeding ever greater popular opposition will be immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the histories of China’s other putatively 'autonomous regions'.
Cartledge concludes by noting that Hong Kong is still a major world economy, and still considerably more separate from the PRC than any other 'autonomous region'. Politically, however, its future is increasingly uncertain. Just in recent weeks, the legally tenuous discussion of the implementation of the PRC’s National Anthem Law in Hong Kong, which could see anyone who 'disrespects' the national anthem sentenced to up to three years in prison, is a particularly foreboding example of this type of uncertainty. Can Hong Kong’s uniqueness survive the growing totalitarian turn in Beijing? Will the legal system that has protected Hong Kong’s separateness now be used to force its arbitrary integration? How much longer will Hong Kong be able to maintain its 'system apart'?
Cartledge’s book provides a thought-provoking introduction to economic, political, and social developments in Hong Kong since 1997, tracing how the Beijing-Hong Kong conflict has emerged. For further reading, Ben Bland’s Generation HK provides profiles of the young people on the front lines of these conflicts. Reading these two books together will give readers an understanding of developments in Hong Kong since 1997, and will raise important questions about where current tensions are leading the city.