Peter Kammerer
SCMP Columnist
Shades Off
by Peter Kammerer
Shades Off
by Peter Kammerer

Hong Kong is a city of duelling narratives, but deep down we know the truth

  • Beijing supporters say destructive elements of society have been removed. Pro-democracy voices claim dissent has been outlawed by an unresponsive government
  • The government calls it a restoration of stability but, to many foreign commentators, Hong Kong is now a police state
Anyone following Chinese and Western media knows there are two Hong Kongs. The former says that, with the city now being ruled by patriots, stability and good governance are guaranteed, along with protection of rights and prosperity.
From the other side, the narratives are of doom and gloom, freedoms having been all but stripped away and the good times being over. Here at ground zero on the 25th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule and the return to the motherland, it is difficult to know which is the correct version.

For me, there should be no confusion. After 42 years in journalism, I should have a good grasp of what is right and wrong. My work involves researching, checking facts and reporting truthfully. It has stood me well as I have never been out of a job.

So, when I read and hear two vastly different accounts of the same event, the natural assumption is that one is not true. What I consider the landmark event of the past quarter of a century, the anti-government protests of 2019, is an obvious example.
Having spoken to people who took part in the mass protests on Hong Kong Island, I know they were citizens who loved the city they lived in and wanted to see it improve and thrive through better governance.

Pro-Beijing media and officials have a different narrative, though. They see foreign forces being behind the demonstrations, handing out cash and incentives to the protesters and supplying them with weapons. Meanwhile, anti-Beijing forces worked from within the government to undermine and derail the system.


A look back at Hong Kong 25 years since the handover

A look back at Hong Kong 25 years since the handover
Contending that the protest movement was driven by outside forces with evil intent is at odds with my understanding that most people took to the streets because of frustration with poor governance.
The British colonial government failed to ensure affordable housing, decent wages and a reasonable standard of living for all in society and a comfortable life for the elderly. Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule promised change and citizens finally being able to govern themselves.

Is Hong Kong a great place to live? How quality of life changed post-handover

A provision in the Basic Law gave people even greater hope, with universal suffrage being an eventual goal. More than two decades having passed and circumstances generally being perceived as worse, not better, was reason enough for the mass protests.
In another milestone of the past 25 years, Beijing’s imposition of a poorly defined national security law gave police powers to silence dissent. Overnight, opposing authority seemingly became a crime. Dissent understandably ended as not knowing what amounts to an offence causes uncertainty and fear. Beijing calls it a restoration of stability but, to many foreign commentators, Hong Kong is now a police state.
Hundreds of supporters of Western-style democracy are in jail awaiting trial, dozens of them former lawmakers. Scores of civil society groups have been forced to disband or have done so of their own volition. Media outlets that advocated democracy have similarly disappeared, those behind them and their top journalists having been arrested.

Authorities contend that destructive elements of society have now been removed, but Western human rights groups see matters differently. They say the city has plunged in global rankings of freedoms and that the rule of law is threatened.

The state-run China Daily said the swearing in of John Lee Ka-chiu as the next chief executive represents a turning point for the city, marking a “transformation of Hong Kong’s development stage from chaos to order, and from good governance to prosperity”.

For the 34 years I have lived in Hong Kong, I have always thought of it as being among the safest places in the world. Its people are law-abiding, honest, hard-working and determined to make the most of what they have. They have deserved better.

There are always two narratives to events, those of the winners and losers. Hong Kong is a Chinese city, but one that is the product of a Western system. A quarter of a century after the handover from one to the other, there is bound to be confusion about the course of events among those who lived through it. No matter what the laws and rules, we know within ourselves the truth.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post