Hong Kong political reform

In China’s embrace, Hong Kong people face a stark choice: money or freedoms

Michael Chugani says with the mainland drawing Hong Kong closer every day, Hongkongers who seize the huge economic opportunities on offer must realise they may also have to give up personal freedoms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 5:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 8:08pm

We know mainland China is intent on drawing Hong Kong closer to it, but has that process accelerated? I asked myself this after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor used Mandarin at a national security forum last Sunday. Maybe she shunned Cantonese in deference to Beijing’s liaison office boss Wang Zhimin. But it jolted me into realising we need to wake up and smell the change.

A local think tank organised the forum. It was held in Hong Kong. Shouldn’t Lam have chosen the dialect of Hongkongers even though Wang understandably used Mandarin? But we’re now living in a Hong Kong very different from that of just a year ago. And you can bet next year’s Hong Kong will be even less recognisable.

The sell-by date of saying you don’t want Hong Kong to be just another Chinese city has long passed. We’re already halfway there. You’re living in la-la land if you believe “one country, two systems” and 2047 were meant as buffers.

‘One country’ has never been in question in Hong Kong

Beijing never intended Hong Kong to be a part of China in name only, letting it retain all the trappings of a British colony. Sculpting the city to fit into the national character was always part of its plan. The question was at what pace.

It was gradual and unobtrusive at first. But then came the Occupy uprising, localism, the independence movement, booing of the national anthem, and Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s thoughtless talk in Taiwan of independence. Yes, it was free speech and I will defend his right to it, though not necessarily to the death. But he exercised it in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Benny Tai’s mob lynching and the age of intolerance in Hong Kong

Nothing personal, since he’s a friend, but I really think Tai can do us all a favour by quitting his university law professor job and agitate for political change as an ordinary citizen. His folly further convinced Beijing it needed to hasten the pace of morphing Hong Kong into a shape that is less distinguishable from mainland China. We now need to think of mainland China as a giant magnet drawing us unstoppably closer.

Expect our officials to use Mandarin instead of Cantonese whenever mainland officials attend local functions. We must love the country and party. We must stand for the national anthem. Mainland officials no longer have any qualms about pressing the government to enact national security legislation. New limits have been drawn on who qualifies as a Legislative Council candidate. 

Are loving China and the Communist Party the same thing?

You can welcome the magnet absorbing us as a new frontier of opportunities or fear it as a black hole. My part-time local domestic helper told me just months ago that her university-aged daughter wanted to stake her future in democratic Taiwan rather than in a city being gradually swallowed by a communist state.

But, last week, she told me her daughter is now considering staking her future in the promised economic gold mine of the Greater Bay Area. From seeking democratic sanctuary to risking personal freedoms for economic opportunity – that’s the Sophie’s Choice Hongkongers now face.

We never had to make that choice before. We took for granted that economic opportunity was hitched to the personal freedoms we grew up with. But economic opportunity in Hong Kong is now a myth. It exists only for our tycoons.

Poverty in Hong Kong hits record high with 1 in 5 considered poor

If you’re young, want to be rich, afford a flat, or simply land a job with a mobility ladder, get out of Hong Kong. Consider mainland China. Its lures are plentiful but the price is high. You must pay by giving up Facebook, YouTube, and free political speech. You must stand for the national anthem and love the party.

As the magnet draws us ever closer, the differences between us and the mainland will narrow anyway. The Sophie’s Choice will then be to stay and pick the abundance of low-hanging fruit in a nation hurtling towards being the world’s largest economy, or flee to a democratic haven that may not offer everything else you want.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host