At only 20, Hong Kong under Chinese rule is still trying to find its feet
Peter Kammerer concedes that the city’s governance remains a work in progress two decades after its return to China, but believes solutions to its many challenges will surely emerge
Confucius and science are not that far apart when it comes to determining when someone is adult enough to make competent decisions. The ancient philosopher and teacher said he “knew where he stood” at the age of 30, while modern medicine puts it at 25 years, when the typical human brain is fully developed. Just 20 years have passed since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, not long enough for full cerebral maturity, so it’s understandable why our city is still searching for direction.
It may seem a stretch to compare a person and a city. But as grown-up as Hong Kong may have appeared on July 1, 1997, it was less worldly wise than wide-eyed, much like a newborn baby. When that day dawned, it left behind 156 years of British colonial rule and entered an uncertain future under Chinese oversight with the untried and untested “one country, two systems” model. Old ways of thinking had to be replaced by new ones that many Hongkongers are still coming to terms with.
In the two decades since, there have been successes, failures and disappointments, but I’d contend things haven’t turned out too badly. Hong Kong remains a prominent global financial centre, a leading trading economy and an icon of infrastructure and development. The famed skyline is even more eye-catching, with additions like the 118-floor International Commerce Centre and Two IFC. The population continues to grow, the GDP growth rate is rebounding and housing prices are at record highs, proving our city’s vitality.
But no matter how adult Hong Kong seemed when Britain handed it back to China, its senior civil servants lacked experience at making decisions for themselves. Top administrators, who had been used to following London’s orders and suddenly found themselves in charge, with businessman Tung Chee-hwa at the helm as chief executive, were on the steepest of learning curves. Chief executives have come and gone and officials now know more about governance, but the political system that has evolved is obviously a failure.
Beijing has made clear that Hong Kong’s evolution will take place as it sees fit. Promises made in the Basic Law on democracy and freedoms have question marks over them, frustrating those among us who believed “one country, two systems” was about self-governance “to a high degree”. The nexus between the executive and legislative branches of government is broken and vested interests ensure that citizens are not being given what they need. Standards of many developed societies, like universal pension schemes, a work-life balance and pollution-free air, have yet to materialise despite years of pledges and talks.
My list of what has been achieved in the past 20 years isn’t encouraging. Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves have skyrocketed, the median monthly income has risen from HK$9,500 to HK$15,500, a minimum wage is in place, Victoria Harbour is cleaner than it has been for decades, we’re less wasteful with plastic bags and we have many new MTR lines, a tourist cable car, a cruise terminal, Disneyland and food trucks. The elderly allowance, popularly known as fruit money to reflect its miserliness, has also been dramatically increased.
There’s still a long way to go in alleviating poverty, lessening the gap between rich and poor and getting people into their own homes. Even if our political system changes overnight, it will still take time to properly function. But Hong Kong under Chinese rule is 20 years young and still has a population with lots of energy and promise. No matter whether we follow ancient philosophers or science, the odds are we’ll have the wisdom to come up with solutions.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post