Inside Out & Outside In

Hong Kong and Canada, surprisingly, have a lot to learn from each other

In principle, the two places couldn’t be more different. But look at the finer detail and the similarities of purpose and existence leap off the page

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 July, 2017, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 12:14am

From Hong Kong to Canada for APEC meetings this week, there is a surreal and improbable sense of - so different, but so sneakily similar.

Take the front page story in Toronto’s Globe and Mail reporting that Canada’s Supreme Court had quashed a regulatory permit for an oil-exploration programme that Inuit residents on Baffin Island feared would damage their rights to hunt narwhal, bowhead whales and polar bears.

Or the feature about a cannabis investment forum in Toronto, stimulated by expectations that Canada’s legal marihuana sales will jump to US$3.6 billion as recreational use is legalised in July next year. So different.

In principle, two places could not be more different.

Canada one of the biggest countries in the world in terms of land area. Hong Kong so tiny, and not even a country. Canada bulging with natural resources and a strong (if protected) farm sector; Hong Kong with just people for natural resources, and a little market gardening in the New Territories.

But there comes the first eerie similarity: Canada’s Northwest Territories. So what that they are 1.15 million square kilometres mostly comprising ice, snow, a few moose and the aurora borealis, and Hong Kong’s New Territories are a mere 950 sq km, and teeming with millions of people squeezed into high rises?

But seriously, some of the similarities are strikingly interesting. First, Canada like Hong Kong is haunted by a giant neighbour with a very, very different political system. Despite its huge physical size, Canada boasts just 36m people, and its biggest city, Toronto, has one third the population of Hong Kong.

All political and economic thought is dominated by Canada’s muscular southern neighbour, which accounts for 70 per cent of its trade and even more of its foreign investment – and that was before Donald Trump crashed through the door demanding renegotiation of the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

When you learn that Toronto is North America’s second largest financial services hub, overshadowed only by New York, and that it is North America’s fourth technology hub, behind California, New York and Boston, then parallels with Hong Kong as a finance and services hub are not unreasonable.

So too when you learn that more than half of Toronto’s population are immigrants – lagging only Miami – underpinning one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse cities in North America.

When you see that Toronto only recently settled land rights with the Ojibwa tribe that originally populated the area centuries ago, you can surely be forgiven a passing thought for Hong Kong’s village clans, who still have the Hong Kong administration over a barrel on ancestral land rights.

As fireworks explode over Vancouver’s English Bay for the annual Celebration of Light this weekend, it would surely be curmudgeonly to boast about the awesome comparative scale of Hong Kong’s 20th anniversary celebrations just three weeks ago.

As fireworks explode over Vancouver’s English Bay for the annual Celebration of Light this weekend, it would surely be curmudgeonly to boast about the awesome comparative scale of Hong Kong’s 20th anniversary celebrations just three weeks ago

So what if our fireworks were virtually obliterated by a massive amber rainstorm? And so what if Vancouver’s fireworks were a celebration of culture and art, and provided a backdrop to nightlong rock concerts, compared with the thinly veiled political messaging behind Hong Kong’s extravagant pyrotechnics?

One senses that Hong Kong may have much to learn from Canada about managing life alongside a gigantic and dominating neighbour. I know there is a big difference in that Canada is a nation, and Hong Kong is not, and will not be.

But Canadians are quick to remind you that the US tried to invade Canada (OK, a mere 205 years ago). The reality is that they, like Hong Kong, have a challenge in forging a distinct personality – and in asserting that distinct personality with its dominant and often-bullying neighbour.

The upcoming Nafta renegotiations provide a good example of that challenge. Nafta trade rules that have been clear and stable for 23 years are now up in the air. How do you insist on your right to manage your own GST-based taxation system when Trump’s trade negotiators are threatening to punish you with swingeing border adjustment taxes because their tax system is different.

Luckily Beijing has yet to challenge such differences between Hong Kong and the mainland, respecting the “two systems” part of the “one country, two systems” formula. Long may it remain so.

One area of clear difference between Hong Kong and Canada is how politics is played. And I am not just talking about Canada’s robust party political arm-wrestling. It is bemusing to see Justin Trudeau’s beaming pin-up style from the front page of the US’s Rolling Stone magazine alongside the headline: “Why can’t he be our president?”

Note at the same time the glamorous Emmanuel Macron in France, and clearly it is important nowadays for male leaders to brandish their sex appeal.

It is hard to imagine Carrie Lam or any of her ministers being similarly splayed across a Chinese magazine – nor Xi Jinping for that matter. Certain things may take time to change.

As I fly back next week into the familiar bosom of Hong Kong politics, it is hard to say whether it is the differences or the similarities between Hong Kong and Canada that will stay with me longest. The tolerance in Canada of immense racial and cultural diversity is a difference we should pause and think about.

Also, as Canada celebrated on July 1 its 150th anniversary, it was important for us in Hong Kong to notice how even now Canadians have to fight hard and persistently to protect the independence of their political, cultural and social differences from their muscular southern brother.

As part of this, we in Hong Kong need to learn from Canadians their quiet, dignified confidence in those differences. They have a well-earned reputation for being steady, tolerant, modest and boring. Hong Kong society is very different. I hope that is a good thing.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view