Why protecting Hong Kong’s freedoms is in China’s best interests

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 10:30pm

It is silly season, when a goodly part of Hong Kong travels overseas. I have been no exception, and frequently check news from home through the South China Morning Post’s website. Most recently, I have not needed to – for we have made the global news.

The report that a global study on walking made Hongkongers the most active in the world was unbelievably good. Few of us would dream of not taking the lift or escalator. We prefer going to a mall and the cinema over the gratuitous pastimes of hiking or running. Nevertheless, that was a win for Hong Kong in an otherwise gloomy news flow.

Several times I was badgered in the pub by someone saying “Well, is Hong Kong going down the tubes then?” My reply was “do you know something I don’t?” – but nothing glib will dent first impressions.

Rumours of our decline are greatly exaggerated – but justified. A constant barrage of “warnings” from senior leaders during the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty back to China was widely reported, culminating in the message from the very top that Hong Kong people fall in line or else.

The fate of Hong Kong is not a life-or-death issue to China but its continued prosperity is critical

The needless defenestration of four pro-democrats was a silly own goal – we will only get more pro-dems in the by-elections – but the global press reported it as a general clampdown on freedoms. China scored a big fat zero in its handling of the sickness of dissident Liu Xiaobo, which was followed in the global press like the death of royalty. Reports of growing financial regulation sparked enough fear to cause 500 small Chinese stocks to fall limit down, more than 10 per cent, this week on Black Monday.

We went through local political worries during the handover, and for 20 years the “One Country, Two Systems” has served us extremely well. There was always a big likelihood that China would eventually tighten its tentacles around Hong Kong – you would expect that, for we are a Chinese city within a sovereign state.

We know that many other countries allow democracy, devolution, in parts of their sovereign territory, Switzerland being one. Beijing chooses not to do it that way. It is one thing to have democracy in a system that developed in the middle ages, quite another for a cautious administration that’s 68 years old.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong is distinct from China. It is a community that developed more than 156 years ago as a separate society, laws, behaviours, customs and culture – a different kind of Chinese system. Those differences cannot be extinguished, especially as floods of wealthy mainlanders come to Hong Kong to enjoy that culture.

At the heart of Hong Kong and its economy – for our raison d’etre is economic – are the three freedoms – law, press and religion.

China deeply needs a stable Hong Kong but it is as fragile as a treasure in the Palace Museum

The rule of law (rather than China’s rule by law system) minimises abuses. The freedom of the press is indicated by publication of this article – and ensures that the South China Morning Post is probably the freest daily in Asia and the best printed source of China news.

Freedom of religion implies not just a faith in God but encompasses the concept of free and independent thought, little of which is a threat to the administration.

The fate of Hong Kong is not a life-or-death issue to China but its continued prosperity is critical. It is realistic to expect that there will be marginal breaches of our traditional freedoms. It is to be expected; they are the sovereign power. It is natural that the huge mainland will overwhelm small pieces of our culture. But if China goes too far, it will be a spectacular own goal.

Without the three freedoms, Hong Kong will perish and so will many of China’s ambitions overseas; to be seen as a trustworthy, modernising superpower with a strong economy. China’s credibility with global counterparties will suffer. It would be embarrassing if the Brits could make a success of Hong Kong only for China to close it down.

If China continues to create unnecessary negative headlines for Hong Kong, our future will be in jeopardy. China deeply needs a stable Hong Kong but it is as fragile as a treasure in the Palace Museum.

Hong Kong’s success is natural; it cannot be manufactured, nagged, browbeaten or beaten.

The best indicator for Hong Kong’s future lies with the unwitting comment of an Occupy Central student who, when interviewed by the BBC, was asked “Why is freedom so important to you?”

He looked mystified and then brightened: “Errr, because we want to use Facebook!”

Richard Harris is a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster – and financial expert witness