A tale of two cities
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - September 4, 2019 - 12:00am

I got out of Hong Kong last Friday just in the nick of time. By Saturday, Hong Kongers were out in the streets again and into the airport to continue their long running protest.

Everyone must be physically tired by now… including the police. But to a multitude of Hong Kongers, it is a fight they simply must continue until their voices are heard or decisively suppressed.

“Hong Kongers go to the streets to vote. Residents have no right to choose their chief executive, and so blocking a road and amassing a crowd is the clearest way to register displeasure,” an article in The Atlantic observed.

The American magazine also quoted a veteran activist and former student leader who was arrested during a protest last month saying: “Hong Kong people are putting up a fight to save their unique status.”

Indeed, the magazine cited a University of Hong Kong poll in June, when the protests began, showing that 75 percent of people ages 18 to 29 identified as “Hong Konger,” as opposed to “Chinese,” “Chinese in Hong Kong,” or “Hong Konger in China,” the highest proportion since the poll began tracking identity sentiment, in 1997. Overall, 52.9 percent of respondents across all age groups identified this way, according to the survey, up from 35.9 percent in 1997.

It would seem that China’s experiment with One Country, Two Systems cannot work. The people in Hong Kong are just too different from the Chinese people being ruled by the Communist Party from Beijing.

The people of Hong Kong may not have enjoyed Western style democracy under British colonial rule, but they enjoyed a clean and accountable government, an independent judicial system, academic and press freedom, and protection of individual liberties and human rights. They lose all that if Beijing has its way.

Hong Kongers have started to feel the creeping control of Beijing as symbolized by the very thing that sparked the protest: the danger of facing Chinese courts on tramped up charges. Even foreign expat executives are not confident with the Chinese system of justice.

Beijing may now be feeling the need to reel in the Hong Kongers from their accustomed Western ways. I imagine Beijing being disappointed, too, over their failure to make the Hong Kongers feel the patriotism the rest of the Chinese people feel.

Yet, Beijing has been showing extreme patience in its reaction to Hong Kong’s turbulence. Beyond showing PLA forces massing at the border city of Shenzhen, there is as of now, no sign Beijing is about to use force as in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

For one thing, China has a lot to lose in a Hong Kong version of Tiananmen today. China is now a world economic power, with a large need to sell to the world market.

Brute suppression of Hong Kong protesters by Beijing will have very costly economic consequences. An Iran-type economic boycott will produce serious effects on the domestic economy, enough to threaten the political hold of China’s Communist party. Hong Kong may not be worth the trouble.

Economically, the contribution of Hong Kong to China’s general economy has substantially decreased.

In the late 1970s, Hong Kong’s economy was about half of the mainland’s, despite it having just 0.5 percent of the mainland’s population. In 1997, the year of the handover, Hong Kong’s economic size was still 20 percent of China’s total; it is currently only about three percent.

Then, there is the other city across the border. Folks in Shenzhen never miss the opportunity to point out that they have overtaken Hong Kong’s economy last year.

Could it be that China’s restrained behavior towards the Hong Kong protests is because Hong Kong’s appeal to the mainland has diminished? They now have Shenzhen fast moving up to take Hong Kong’s place.

The South China Morning Post reported that “Last year, Hong Kong’s economy grew three percent to HK$2.85 trillion (US$363.09 billion), while Shenzhen registered 7.6 percent growth to 2.42 trillion yuan (US$361.24 billion), or HK$2.87 trillion based on the 2018 official exchange rate from Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department.

Shenzhen’s rise is widely attributed to China’s opening up policy, initiated by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Shenzhen has been transformed from a sleepy fishing village, to the sweatshop utilizing cheap Chinese migrant labor to China’s Silicon Valley.

Still, Hong Kong enjoys an international reputation that continues to benefit China.

Hong Kong is seen as the world’s freest economy, its second-most competitive economy, the third-most influential global financial center (behind London and New York) and the fourth biggest outward investor and recipient of FDI. It would be foolish for China to trash all that, thinking that Shenzhen can pick up from Hong Kong.

Indeed, as I mentioned last Monday, it was ridiculous that I was unable to even check my e-mail and connect with social media while I was in the premises of the world’s leading 5G telecom company in Shenzhen. The Great Firewall of China is one big reason why Shenzhen won’t be like Hong Kong any time soon or at all.

Long standing grievances beyond the proposed extradition bill appear to be behind Hong Kong’s protests.

It is obvious to any Hong Kong visitor how the natives live a tense and cramped existence. The elite may be enjoying luxury in some of the world’s most expensive properties, but 99 percent of Hong Kongers suffer basic housing needs and high living expenses.

But perish the thought of a Hong Kong independent from China. Beijing will probably continue to show extreme patience with the protests unless pressed by an independence movement powered by swelling grassroots support.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen are two very different cities. Shenzhen will not replicate Hong Kong’s usefulness to China, not with that Great Firewall. Hong Kong will remain an unavoidable pain in the neck for Beijing for years to come. Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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