Those standing up for Hong Kong’s rich economic and cultural traditions are its best ambassadors

Step aside Jackie Chan, it’s Joshua’s time now to carry Hong Kong’s unofficial tourism torch

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 3:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2016, 10:42pm

Jackie Chan, we love your apple-cheeked smile, and those amazing flying kicks and other aerial feats and the personal journey of your life.

But it is time to move aside as Hong Kong’s unofficial tourism ambassador and I elect Joshua Wong for the job.

Sure, I recognise that the young student activist might not be interested in promoting Hong Kong’s flagging tourist arrival numbers.

When Beijing threatened to stop issuing permits for visiting Hong Kong to mainland visitors during the Umbrella Revolution, Wong tweeted, “You call that punishment?”

But anyone, whether a young rebel or ageing loyalist, should realise that Hong Kong benefits from a lively, cash-generating and job-creating tourist industry. We just want an enduring one.

The current model not only accrues many of the benefits of tourism to property cartels, but it is risky in nature. For instance, it relies heavily on tax arbitrage, for instance, with mainland shoppers avoiding various taxes of up to 50 per cent on luxury items by shopping in Hong Kong.

But these days many malls in China are struggling, and policymakers are increasingly turning to “supply side” stimulus to boost retail activity.

On September 30, Beijing slashed consumption tariffs on high-end imported cosmetics, and other tax differences could be eliminated over time.

Moreover, catering to the shopping needs for such an enormous flow of annual tourists – eight times Hong Kong’s resident population – puts outsized stress on the local infrastructure.

This is no excuse for unfortunate incidents of unkindness and even xenophobia shown towards mainland visitors, but it is tough to watch mixed neighbourhoods give way to monolithic shopping malls.

Great cities ultimately are visited for their culture – this is something that is enduring. Jackie Chan is a part of Hong Kong’s culture, as is the local film industry in which he began his career, and Canto-pop, the excellent food, the colonial architecture, the art and antiques markets, the clubs of Wan Chai and Mongkok.

We could go on and on, but what really makes Hong Kong unique from a Chinese city perspective are its freedoms: its freedom of speech, and its freewheeling character.

This trait could and should be an incentive for attracting mainland culture tourists, who might want to hit a museum that freely discusses the anti-British riots in the 1960s or the Tiananmen violence of 1989, or take in a movie that is barred in China, or a controversial stage show or lunchtime discussion, or read newspapers that have not been vetted by state censors.

Or buy a book that is prohibited from sale back home.

There is only one city in China with a strong rule of law, civil rights, transparent government, and a free speech tradition that keeps the ruling institutions accountable

Even watching the spectacle of youngsters blocking roads, as during the Umbrella Revolution protests, should be a phenomenon of interest to visitors, just as Occupy Wall Street was for New York in 2011.

The Zuccotti Park locus of the protests became a popular stop for tour operators, up there with the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. (Leave it to New York to monetise an anti-banking movement.)

Many Hong Kong business and establishment figures, and some celebrities such as Jackie Chan, have expressed concern that the pro-democracy movement will hurt Hong Kong’s economic interests.

In a recent speech, former chief secretary Anson Chan eloquently argued otherwise.

“It’s a pity that those who have power and influence in our community, particularly in our business community, do not have the courage of their convictions to stand up and defend our rights even when they are being blatantly breached,” she said.

“The prevailing view seems to be that their [business’] best interests lie in getting on the best side of China. I don’t think so. Because when your own values are starting to be picked apart, particularly with the book’s publisher saga, people should realise that it is not just confined to political considerations.

“That one of these days if you get into a business dispute with somebody from the mainland... you could easily be made just to disappear.”

There is only one city in China with a strong rule of law, civil rights, transparent government, and a free speech tradition that keeps the ruling institutions accountable.

These traditions have made Hong Kong rich both economically and culturally – and those standing up for them are Hong Kong’s best ambassadors.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer