Can embattled Hong Kong vanquish the ‘five horsemen’ of its apocalypse?

Regina Ip says among the five disruptive forces that could send Hong Kong society into steady decline, the inability of the administration to govern remains the greatest existential threat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 December, 2015, 9:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 December, 2015, 9:30am

The holiday season is usually a time for good tidings. But in embattled Hong Kong, where government business runs into fierce opposition in the legislature, it is timely to reflect on the city’s future, in the light of forces shaping civilisations.

Professor Ian Morris, a classical historian who has studied the social development of civilisations across millennia and continents, has identified five forces which determine whether a civilisation could break through a “hard ceiling” on development. These disruptive forces – the “five horsemen of the apocalypse” – are: climate change, famine, state failure, migration and disease.

The future of this city has ramifications out of proportion to its tiny geographical size and small population

Although Hong Kong is no more than a mere speck on the South China coast, with its economic importance as an international business and financial hub, and its strategic importance as the first special administrative region of China under “one country, two systems”, the future of this city has ramifications out of proportion to its tiny geographical size and small population.

Hong Kong is advanced in social development by any yardstick. Using Morris’ analytical framework, whether Hong Kong could break through the “hard ceiling” on its development would depend on its ability to vanquish the “five horsemen of the apocalypse”.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s challenge is to restore confidence or face a brain drain

Climate change, now high on the global agenda, is clearly one important factor affecting Hong Kong’s long-term well-being. In lockstep with its motherland, China, which is a party to the recently concluded universal agreement to combat climate change, Hong Kong will do its part to curb carbon emissions. But the success of its efforts will depend on the actions taken by the international community.

The threat of famine might seem a joke to many who see Hong Kong as an affluent society. But those who scoff at this threat should bear in mind the acute shortage of powdered baby’s milk in 2012, which came to a head in early 2013. The demand from mainland Chinese mothers for infant formula became so overwhelming that the chief executive had to slap on export controls, to the anger of our mainland brethren. Absent such controls, the shortage of powdered baby milk could return to haunt our mothers.

Migration has long been a threat to Hong Kong’s well-being. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong was threatened by illegal entrants on two fronts – mainland China and Vietnam. In the late 1970s, the numbers of illegal entrants from mainland China became so unmanageable that, in 1980, the government terminated the “touch base” policy, under which any illegal entrant from the mainland who entered the urban areas was allowed to stay.

READ MORE: Hong Kong won’t be immune to the risks of climate change

The decades which followed witnessed the heroic efforts put up by the Hong Kong authorities to contain the number of arrivals from mainland China, as well as accommodate and resettle the tens of thousands of Vietnamese boatpeople who sought refuge here. Things stabilised at the turn of the century, when Hong Kong closed the last camp for the boatpeople, and immigration from mainland China for family reunion came to be regulated under a daily quota of 150.

The flow of people from the mainland, however, continues to be a flashpoint for the periodic outburst of friction and anger, with some Hong Kong people blaming the mainland arrivals for overstretching our resources.

Mainland China and Hong Kong are so closely linked, and the sheer volume of mainland residents who wished to enter Hong Kong for childbirth, tourism, business or other purposes was so great that the relaxation of travel arrangements between the mainland and Hong Kong led to “anti-locust” or “anti-parallel trade” protests. Any mismanagement of cross-border travel arrangements caused underlying tensions between the two cultures to erupt.

READ MORE: A gentler, kinder Hong Kong will usher in closer ties with mainland China

As contacts between the mainland and Hong Kong intensified, the past two decades also saw unprecedented outbreaks of infectious diseases which originated in the mainland. Since the first outbreak of the avian influenza in 1997 and the outbreak of the even more deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2002, Hong Kong has been on high alert for the return of such a pandemic. Hong Kong’s position as a travel hub means a high level of vigilance is necessary.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s political problems are simply too hot to handle

Among the five horsemen identified by Morris, none is perhaps more threatening than the deterioration of state capacity, or, in the Hong Kong context, the authorities’ ability to govern. Hong Kong tried to break out of its governance impasse by introducing election of the chief executive by universal suffrage. After the government’s motion failed to pass in June, events which followed – the tightly contested district council elections in which the pro-government camp failed to score a clear victory, and the intensifying filibustering in the Legislative Council – mean government business is all but grinding to a halt, and the fate of mega infrastructure projects hangs in the balance. In Legco, due process and painstaking scrutiny of bills are drowned out by noisy protests. This horseman would really spell disaster if the government is unable to get it under control.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Party