Is Hong Kong prepared to pay the price for undermining its freedoms?

Philip Bowring says any advantages that the authorities may gain from outlawing the Hong Kong National Party will not outweigh the costs of damaging the city’s reputation as a protector of freedoms. Even in the West, such freedoms are under threat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 9:11pm

You “cannot have your cake and eat it”, says the English proverb, dismissing the natural desire to receive a benefit at no cost. It is rife.

Take UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s “moderate” Brexiteers, who seem to think they are entitled to 90 per cent of the benefits of membership of the European Union while obeying only 60 per cent of its fundamental rules. They further seem to believe that the UK should be on equal negotiating terms with a group of nations with a combined output five times its own.

Closer to home, there is another cake illusionist, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Barely a day goes by without some reference to the need to integrate with the mainland, in particular, the agglomeration of jurisdictions now called the Greater Bay Area. At the same time, her ministers are making every efforts to persuade the US not to include Hong Kong in its tariffs and other measures aimed at slowing China’s economic growth. Such an appeal is clearly in Hong Kong’s interest, yet it is hard to see how it can be sustained in the face of the official Greater Bay Area push.

It is not as though Hong Kong businesspeople are unaware of opportunities in southern China, or indeed the mainland generally. The push is political and is part of pressure on Hong Kong to become more nationalistic. This will make it ever harder for Hong Kong to claim separate economic status. Other countries – not just a vengeful, Donald-Trump-led United States – will take note.

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Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s position will be further undermined if the US retreat from global trade pushes China back towards the Mao-era focus on self-reliance.

The same applies to moves such as the outlawing of the Hong Kong National Party, as though this tiny entity is an actual threat to the security of the nation. Instead, the move undermines another crucial aspect of how Hong Kong is seen both by its own people and the outside world – a place where ideas can flow freely, advocacy other than to violence is allowed, and commerce is kept free of politics, be they of Taiwan or Tanzania. There is nothing in the Basic Law which disallows advocating change to that law.

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However, threats to freedom of speech do not come just from authoritarian regimes and religions. There are disturbing trends in the West, with groups demanding to enjoy free speech while not being prepared to face contrary opinions or equality before the law.

A former colleague, Ian Buruma, who was with the Far Eastern Economic Review in the 1980s, became a well-known writer and earlier this year was appointed editor of the New York Review of Books. Two weeks ago, he was forced to resign for running an article by a former celebrity about the social isolation he suffered after being accused but found not guilty of sexual harassment. This offended the university press publishers who provide much of the magazine’s advertising revenue. So much for academic freedom.

Another former Hong Kong colleague was sacked as head of communications for Netflix for using the word “nigger” rather than “the N-word” in a discussion. He was merely referencing actual use in the past. But history now has to be rewritten. As the Netflix boss put it: “For non-black people, the word should not be spoken as there is almost no context in which it is appropriate (even when singing a song or reading a script) ... The use of the phrase ‘N-word’ was created as a euphemism.”

Imposition of euphemisms simply reduces the opprobrium that should attend any current usage, and reduces the impact of reminders of the brutal racist past when the word was in common use among whites.

We’re all under pressure from social media

Mob and noisy minority rule via social media is an increasing challenge to both liberalism and the law. It is now hazardous to criticise the #MeToo movement, even though, while bringing justice to some, it has opened the way to a deluge of unprovable allegations, sometimes based on memories from decades ago which may have been mistaken or influenced by later events.

This is helped along by bizarre laws. In many US states, such as California, sexual intercourse before the age of 18 is illegal. Yet the average age for losing one’s virginity is 16.9 for men and 17.1 for women. About 25 per cent have sex for the first time before they are 16. None of this is surprising, given that teenagers, male and female, often drink a lot at parties, specifically to lose their inhibitions.

Few people in this world would like to be held responsible as adults for pre-18 foolishness. And how many women would like to be reminded of their adult resort to sexual lures to get a promotion, a migrant visa or another benefit?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator