How Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou became the face of the trade war – and of Hong Kong’s discontent

  • Alice Wu says Hongkongers have been unhealthily obsessed with the Huawei executive’s three Hong Kong passports. But this diversion from the trade war actually reflects a crisis of faith in the Hong Kong government
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 6:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 6:45am

You could be forgiven for thinking Sabrina Meng Wanzhou of Huawei was some sort of modern-day Helen of Troy. With the world’s great powers going to great lengths to either arrest or free her, her problems definitely seemed larger than life. Her incarceration and subsequent bail hearing were the stuff of melodrama. Meng may not have launched a thousand ships, but her arrest and release struck a lot of nerves, to say the least.

And there is, of course, a power play unfolding on the international stage. Meng has caused a diplomatic frenzy. Canadians have been detained. The president of the United States has vowed to intervene in the Justice Department’s case against Meng if it would serve national security interests or pave the way for a trade deal with China, provoking an outcry over what it would mean for the rule of law. So much is at stake on such a massive scale, Meng has effectively become the face of the US-China trade war.

But what really boggled the mind were the protests on the ground, and the placards on display. The most incongruous of those were fliers declaring undying love for Huawei, the telecom equipment giant founded by Meng’s father. Yet, that love must run deep – so deep that many were ready to offer their properties as collateral as part of Meng’s bail conditions. More extraordinary, still, has been the blatant display of Meng’s privileged lifestyle.

The public fixation on Meng’s case isn’t surprising, though it isn’t necessarily healthy. The Huawei executive’s arrest is an important story in the context of an acrimonious trade war that is threatening the world economy and possibly the world itself, and yet Hongkongers have just been hung up on the number of passports in Meng’s possession.

Never mind that Hong Kong is caught in the crossfire of the trade war. That officials, banks and even the Hang Seng Index are reminding us about our economic vulnerability. That the US is raising the awful possibility of suspending Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs area from China.

We have been so obsessed with the three Hong Kong passports issued to Meng that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor felt compelled to break with usual practice and explain Meng’s passports. She had to clarify that only one of Meng’s Hong Kong passports was valid, and then a Canadian court had to corroborate that clarification, before we would let the matter rest. Lam even explained her explanation; she said the Meng case was exceptional and she had made the clarification to avoid “dire consequences”. But, really, our exceptional fixation with Meng’s passports was our moment of escapism from the trade war and its inevitable impact on this city.

Meng’s mansions: inside Huawei CFO’s Canadian connections

More worrying is how the passport issue reflects a public weariness with the government. The matter of Meng’s passports simply provided an outlet for public sentiment. Enough Hongkongers found it utterly believable that Meng would enjoy the privilege of holding three valid Hong Kong passports: the ultra-rich can’t get away with murder in Hong Kong but they sure can get extra travel documents. And even the government’s eagerness to dispel suspicions about Meng’s passports is a kind of special treatment that few others will get.

Obviously, there is not only a wealth gap in Hong Kong, but also a privilege gap that Hongkongers have grown to expect. This is bad news for the Lam administration. A deep distrust of the government, with regard to basic things like the issuing of passports, does not bode well for governance.

This alarming state of affairs didn’t happen overnight. The crisis of faith in the Hong Kong government has been building up, especially over the past few years, and the government must face the fact that it is failing to win the people back.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA