Worse to come for Hong Kong: Beijing is no longer in the mood to dish out any favours

A struggling economy, persistent anti-mainland sentiment, endless political bickering – be prepared for hard times ahead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 11:26am

“Drive them [the soldiers] into a fatal position and they will come out alive; place them in a hopeless spot and they will survive.” Those who are familiar with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War will recognise this quote by the ancient Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher.

I’m not a military fan myself, but somehow his words sprang to mind during a gathering with friends last week, when one of them exclaimed how “bleak” it had become in the usually bustling tourist and retail hub of Tsim Sha Tsui.

“I was in one of the fine-dining restaurants the other day – oh my God! Only two or three tables, including mine, had customers; all the others were empty the whole night,” the conversation went. Another friend who works for the government and lives on Hong Kong Island chipped in that across the harbour it was no better in the Causeway Bay area.

So much has been said about the plight of the tourism sector that it hardly makes news these days, and alarming figures about shop closures and mainland visitor arrivals have become the new normal. But closer scrutiny of the statistics reveal a picture that cannot be ignored.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did not hesitate to blame independence advocates for the state of the tourism and retail sector

According to the Eating Establishment Employees General Union, 18 restaurants closed down over the past one and a half months, leaving more than a thousand employees jobless. Joseph Tung Yao-chung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council, predicted mainland tour groups would suffer a 50 per cent drop from last year’s 300 to 150 during the three-day May 1 “golden week” holiday.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did not hesitate to blame independence advocates for the state of the tourism and retail sector, saying the actions of this “small group” had serious political and economic consequences that would have to be paid by all the seven million people of Hong Kong. His opponents retorted that he was resorting to scaremongering amid the current independence debate.

It’s fair to say multiple issues, rather than a single factor, have caused the sharp decline in mainland tourists which has inevitably affected the city’s economy in many ways. But what most people tend to agree on is that the worst is yet to come for Hong Kong.

As Beijing becomes increasingly reluctant to go back to preferential treatment for Hong Kong with favourable policies such as free trade deals under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, or the further opening up of mainland cities under the Individual Visit Scheme, it is still urging the city to take full advantage of the nation’s development opportunities.

That brings us back to Sun Tzu and the question: will Beijing allow Hong Kong to fall into a “fatal position” so as to “come out alive” through its own efforts, or let Hong Kong have a taste of hopelessness before it can get a resurrection?

Prominent economist Professor Francis Lui Ting-ming of the University of Science and Technology has warned that Hong Kong’s wealth will shrink by 90 per cent if it ever cuts ties with the mainland, and that foreign investment will pull out of the city along with talent.

Whether Professor Lui’s prediction is overblown is for people to decide themselves, but it just so happened that a star local academic in international politics, Simon Shen Xu-hui of Chinese University, last week decided to take his young family abroad. Shen said he found it hard “to find a connection point” to the international community from Hong Kong, so he would seek options in Singapore, Taiwan, mainland China and Europe.

Of course, people come and go and economies grow and shrink everywhere. But here in Hong Kong, where anti-mainland sentiment keeps building up, political animosity seems never-ending, and the only given is economic uncertainty, we may just have to get prepared for the worst before seeing a revival.