Beijing too big to worry about what Hong Kong ‘thinks’
All China wants is a settled, prosperous Hong Kong because that removes one less problem
Never does travel broaden the mind so much as when you are away from home. As I perused Hong Kong from the perspective of a two-week trip and several thousand miles, the thought that dare not speak its name hit me with renewed vigour. “Why does Hong Kong still exist?”
From the outside, there are many reasons against one of the most international and free societies in the world existing within China, or most other countries. Men in flip-flops crossing impassable European borders while holding babies and carrying plastic bags of belongings are a testimony to the desirability of what we have. One wonders how the Europeans would defend their borders against armed forces.
Open borders to legal travel, an open economy, a free press, the rule of law and an international culture are not universal attributes around the world. Many leaders ensure that their subjects have severe limitations on their personal actions.
As we look towards elections in Myanmar in November, could we see a repeat of the 1990 election when the military junta lost to a majority of 80 per cent in free and fair elections and ignored the result? Robert Mugabe is still a dictator in Zimbabwe by curbing press freedoms, paying off the key people, and intimidating the rest.
Mao was correct when he said that power comes from the barrel of a gun. It is a tough world where the defenceless come second. But in the modern world, brute force is not the only piece on the chessboard. The status of Hong Kong is a key example of what other pieces are involved.
Richard Hughes, the celebrated journalist based in Hong Kong in the 1960’s and 1970’s, called Hong Kong a Borrowed Place on Borrowed Time. His contention was that it was not Britain that held Hong Kong but that it was China that allowed it. I don’t think many disagreed with him even then – the Chinese Army was said to have more soldiers than the British Army had bullets.
Today Hong Kong is no longer a borrowed place but it is still on borrowed time – just a little over 31 years. But wouldn’t it just be easier for China to complete the handover now, equalising rights throughout the country?
Business will continue to trade with China, directly or indirectly. True the Basic Law is a well-respected document but aircraft-carrierless Britain cannot defend it. Even if the Basic Law was honoured to the letter, there are many sneaky ways to get around a contract with the people – the Chinese authorities have shown little real conviction to attempt it.
Hong Kong is able to defy the normal forces of the world because now, as in Hughes’ day, China needs Hong Kong as much as ever. We are not only the economic gateway onto the world for China’s global ambitions but also a window on how China might behave to Taiwan, and to its global trading partners. Trade is more important to China than ever and the risk of sanctions would torpedo the brave moves to open the economy and to make the RMB more acceptable. It will make the export of Chinese influence around the world much harder as Western public opinion will move against China. Western leaders have to win elections.
So the response to Occupy Central, normally a red rag to the Red Flag, was very low key. It could have been stamped out by force, as the British did in the 1967 riots, but the sight of wounded students just out of their teens would have put China’s global ambitions back 10 years.
All China wants is a settled, prosperous Hong Kong because that removes one less problem. The Chinese authorities are not concerned by revolutionary or even reactionary talk in Hong Kong because we are too small to ‘infect’ China with any new ideas that the people can’t hear from elsewhere. Beijing is too big to worry about what we “think”.
Some decades ago, for some reason, I found myself talking to the colonial Chief Secretary of Hong Kong, Sir Jack Cater. I’m not sure why a fresh-faced twenty year old would be worthy of a quick chat in a crowded room to such a veteran. He had come here in 1946 and was regarded as being so experienced, tough - and honest - that he was appointed the founding head of the ICAC.
He had a few words with me then turned and gave me a steely glare, “Hong Kong is the best place in the world. You should bet on it”. Thirty-five years later, through the unending ups and downs - his words still ring true.
Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management