I had not been to Hong Kong for over four years. Last time I left in 2019 it was, literally, with the smell of CS gas in the air. I extricated myself, with difficulty, from my hotel in Wan Chai next to the occupied Legislative Council (LegCo) and felt lucky to make it to the airport. It too was occupied soon after. I covered this and the student uprising for the European Conservative in my review of Revolution of Our Times, the banned documentary of the uprising. My absence from Hong Kong was enforced by the COVID-19 travel restrictions, which were applied more forcefully and for longer in Hong Kong than almost any other country, with the exception of mainland China. The restrictions hit the Hong Kong airline badly with three years’ losses of HK$33.7 billion (approximately HK$10 to the pound) and redundancies of 6,000 employees. It is beginning to make a modest profit and reported HK$4.26 billion for the first half of the year, is employing a few thousand new staff and expanding its routes again.
Superficially, Hong Kong looks exactly the same and, to an outsider, any changes taking place are intangible. But conversations with colleagues and friends reveal that things are, indeed, changing. As a part-time academic here I was most interested in what was happening in the universities, and that can be most usefully summarised by saying that the four major universities now have mainland Chinese Presidents. Previously the Presidents have been either local or expat. But the last expat university President here was Sir Peter Mathieson, now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. Having started in 2013, his reign was cut short in 2017 after supporting the students’ right to protest about democracy in the special administrative region (SAR). It is unthinkable that another expat President will be employed in a Hong Kong university.
Local elections to district councils are taking place which means that at rush hours the colourful and noisy candidates and their supporters are out distributing leaflets. As these are written in Chinese they do not give them to gweilos like me so I have no idea what the burning issues are. Asking local colleagues about the elections, they mainly scoffed. The candidates are all Beijing approved, exactly like candidates are now for the LegCo. Previously only the Chief Executive of the LegCo had to be approved. The result is that there is dwindling interest among Hong Kongers for these elections. Once they could expect 80% to 90% turnouts. Now they are heading towards single figures.
China continues to make reassuring noises about the ‘one country two systems’ approach to Hong Kong. But when I ask people here if even the pale excuse for a democracy that currently exists will persist beyond full assimilation into China, they shrug their shoulders. Likewise if I ask whether the Chinese border will be extended to include Hong Kong. Beijing assured Hong Kong of 50 years of relative autonomy but that is being severely eroded and nobody realistically expects it to wait for the full 50 years before taking over completely.
The result of the rapid political change and loss of freedom of expression means that half a million Hong Kong people have left the SAR since the start of 2021. I had dinner with one leading local academic in my field who is emigrating to Australia. His wife, also a senior academic, is leaving with him as are their very well-educated children. Hong Kong’s loss is certainly Australia’s gain over this, and they have no intention of returning. This brain drain is benefiting many countries, mainly the U.K. but also the U.S. and Canada.
The local newspaper of record is the South China Morning Post (SCMP), now in its 120th year. Published in English, it used to take an independent and even critical position over China.
It would be unfair to say that it has capitulated completely but, apart from the changing political situation in Hong Kong, its ownership since 2016 by Jack Ma, also known as Hangzhou-based Alibaba, is surely influential. One contributor Stephen Vines was clear that the SCMP had become an instrument for Chinese propaganda and stopped writing for it. From an outsider’s perspective, it has certainly changed. There is no longer a pullout section on local news and the main broadsheet contains three pages dedicated to news from China. This seems unnecessary as the remainder of the SCMP is largely already dedicated to news from the mainland. Nevertheless, it remains a readable and informative newspaper, but a local expat colleague said that is not stocked by many outlets now.
The above said, Hong Kong remains an incredible place. The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is one of the first of its kind in the world. Of course, mass transit rail started in London and has spread across the world, but in Hong Kong, starting in 1979, they have perfected the art and science of the MTR system. It is far superior to the much more recently developed system in its regional counterpart Taipei. The systems in Beijing and Shanghai are much harder to negotiate. Trains run every three minutes and move rapidly through the system which operates at 99.9% service reliability. On slow news days, delays within the system of several minutes have been reported in the local newspapers. The system of interchange stations where you step out of a train on one line and walk across to one on another line is unique.
I visited LOHAS park which was near my accommodation. Construction began in 2008 and, when completed in 2024, will accommodate 58,000 people. LOHAS is a concept, it means ‘Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability’, which probably tells you all you need to know. What I found was a complete cultural desert. Imagine a cross between SIM City and the Stepford Wives. I did not stay long.
The well-heeled locals and expats I saw in LOHAS Park are an entirely different class of people from the 338,000 immigrant domestic workers, almost exclusively female and mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, who work in Hong Kong. Conditions improve for these workers but traditionally they are very poorly paid, live in cramped rooms without air-conditioning and are all but invisible most of the time. If they are seen it is taking their employers’ children to school or washing the family car very early in the morning. That is, until Sunday, their one day off, when they gather by the hundred under bridges and other shaded areas to chat, sing and share food. A temporary and very neat tent city of Indonesian workers appeared overnight on Saturday across from my hotel. The smell of food and the sound of animated conversation drifted over the road. By late Sunday evening they were gone, and silence reigned. All part of the magic and fascination of this unique place.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry. He writes in a personal capacity.