Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Shifting sands in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is being drained of it’s language, freedom of speech, and now it’s surrounding seas. Is a brain-drain next?

Towing the Chinese and Hong Kong flags to celebrate China's national day in Hong Kong (Photo: Anthony Wallace via Getty)
Towing the Chinese and Hong Kong flags to celebrate China's national day in Hong Kong (Photo: Anthony Wallace via Getty)

October is usually one of Hong Kong’s nicest months. The notoriously hot, humid, and rainy summer is gone, and the incoming autumn brings the city a pleasant, warm temperature alongside a stunning clear blue sky. But the usual cheerful vibe has dissipated this year. Not only have people begun to feel a chill down their spines, their usual cloudless vision is blocked by unexpected rainy and overcast days.

This is mirrored by the swift change of gossip topics from a televised period drama to plans to exit Hong Kong. Just a week ago, the people of Hong Kong were still obsessed with Story of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode chronicle of lead character Wei Yingluo’s rise from a maid in the palace to the emperor’s favourite consort. Staying for a battle worth fighting for was one of the main themes of the show. In one scene, Wei was warned of her futile decision to fight, as if striking a stone with an egg. But instead of waving a white flag, she said: “I’m not the egg. I’m that piece of stinky stone!”

Hong Kongers have always thought of themselves as pieces of stinky stones like Wei, and have not given up on the city’s future despite the collapse of Umbrella Movement in 2014. But news events over the past week appeared to be a wake up call, yanking them out of their obsession with the fictional world and directing their focus back onto the reality.

The government continues to test Hong Kongers bottom line.

Many people are contemplating emigration plans, particularly after Wednesday’s policy address when Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced her decision to throw half of Hong Kong’s financial reserves into the sea by reclaiming an island to house 1.1 million people.

People’s desperation and frustration stem from helplessness. Decisions made on the government level are not endorsed by the public and people do not have a channel to say no or to stop certain actions from being taken. The Chief Executive is “elected” by a committee made up of 1,200 members and only half of the seats of the Legislative Council are open to general election but the proportional representation system ensures that the most popular candidates do not necessarily win the race. One country, two systems has become merely an empty slogan.

The past week saw a new red line drawn as the government expelled the Hong Kong-based Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet by rejecting his work visa renewal. No explanation was given but it was widely known why: A veteran journalist who has been working in Hong Kong for seven years, Mallet’s “crime” was merely moderating a luncheon talk by the now banished Hong Kong National Party founder Andy Chan while serving as the acting president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in August.

The visa rejection was unprecedented. Although expelling a foreign journalist has long been a standard practice of China to silence opposing voices, Hong Kong, on the other hand, has long been known for its freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is supposedly protected by the city’s “mini-constitution”, the Basic Law, making it a hub for international media in Asia.

But Mallet’s case reveals that such freedom of speech no longer comes under “two system” and instead comes secondary to “one country”. They are now separatist ideologies with an untouchable red line. The trouble is, however, people do not know when and what falls under the “one country”, and when “two systems” stands valid. People will never know when the rules of the game will change in favour of “one country”. 

The government also continues to test people’s bottom line by questioning the value of Cantonese, Hong Kongers’ mother tongue. Education minister Kevin Yeung said on the radio that the world studies the Chinese language with Putonghua, and if Hong Kong continues to learn the language with Cantonese, the city will lose its competitive edge. The comment, of course, caused major backlash. But it was apparent that the authorities are doing a favour for Beijing by demonising the Cantonese culture of Hong Kong, just like how things are done in Guangzhou, where many young people now do not speak the native language of the Canton region.

But the worst arrived when the city’s leader Lam announced the controversial “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” that will cost HK$500 billion (US$63.8 billion) of Hong Kong taxpayers’ money. Housing has long been a big headache for Hong Kong, one of the world’s most expensive cities. The demand for affordable housing has never been so urgent, but the government claims that it has trouble finding land in the city. Instead, the Lam administration came up with an idea that drains Hong Kong people’s hard-earned money, also a grand idea that will greatly damage the environment and brings the earth one step closer to Armageddon.

People are extremely frustrated as it seems that nothing can be done.

Hong Kong cannot say no to the 150 daily quota of one-way permits that China granted to its people to move to the city. Since 1997, nearly a million mainlanders have migrated to Hong Kong, and they have no doubt increased the burden of Hong Kong housing. There are lands in the city but it appears that the government does not want to upset the rich — University of Hong Kong professor Paul Yip has said that a golf club that is frequented by the wealthy and 1,000 hectares of idle farmland owned by a few could be utilised for housing at a much lower cost. Rather than solving the problem now, Lam thought that building an expensive artificial island was a better idea, although it will take another 20 years to see the results.

Now the question is, what can Hong Kongers do? Social media platforms are flooded with people’s posts about their desire to emigrate this week. But where can people go? And is it possible to start a new life elsewhere? Last year Hong Kong saw the least number of people leaving town. But this number is set to increase over the next few years, as people have already begun making plans.

The eggs are leaving, as the battle is probably no longer worth fighting for.

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