Most Hongkongers are fine with their freedoms, the rest is noise
- Yonden Lhatoo counters the resurgent narrative about the erosion of freedoms and rights in the city, arguing that the evidence shows the vast majority of people are still enjoying them
Looks like we made it to 2019 safe and sound after all, despite the threat of spontaneous combustion wiping Hong Kong off the map, given the toxic political narrative that defined the past year.
I daresay the resurgent rumours of the “death” of this city have been greatly exaggerated, regardless of all the hullabaloo about the “erosion” and “shrinking” of rights and freedoms that set us apart from the rest of China.
The counter to the wolf criers came in the form of a tellingly paradoxical quote from their own ranks during the New Year’s Day rally, an annual ritual for Hongkongers to vent their grievances against both the local and central governments.
“We can still fly these flags only because there’s freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” a protester said when asked about the prominent display of pro-independence banners and placards, along with Tibetan and Taiwanese flags, on the city streets.
Um … so, we do have freedom of speech and expression here? I’m a bit confused: what exactly are we protesting about then? Sounds like we should be marching instead to celebrate the fact that we can still openly, and with impunity, defy and provoke Beijing over the one thing it hates with a vengeance – separatism. Or we should at least get our slogans straight when we take to the streets in self-righteous indignation, no?
There’s no denying the local government’s increasingly hardline stance towards independence advocacy in Hong Kong, whether because of pressure from Beijing, or a genuine sense of patriotic duty. Whether this is justified or a paranoid overreaction – given that only a handful of fringe dwellers among a population of more than 7.4 million are touting this crazy idea – is a topic for endless debate.
The fact is, the average person on the street remains unaffected and couldn’t give a hoot, as all these rallies organised by opposition forces show. Organisers claimed 5,500 people (with about a dozen independence activists among them) turned up for the New Year’s Day march, while police lowered it to 3,200 at its peak. Both estimates were about half of last year’s. That’s how representative these “mass rallies” are when opposition politicians cite them to paint alarmist pictures of “suffering” Hongkongers crying out for democracy. It feeds right into the doomsday narrative that Western governments lap up and media outlets perpetuate.
Don’t forget what happened in the last two by-elections to fill seats vacated by opposition lawmakers, who were kicked out of the legislature because of their anti-China antics. The much-hyped voter backlash against the government never materialised, and the administration’s political allies ended up trouncing their rivals and cementing their dominance over the pan-democrats.
Voter turnout for the November 2018 polls was less than 45 per cent, which means more than half of those registered to cast ballots couldn’t be bothered to on election day. This has pretty much always been the case in Hong Kong, and it speaks volumes about our society.
The vast majority of Hongkongers are essentially pragmatists, driven by the practical demands of daily life rather than ideology. They are far more concerned about immediate priorities such as making a living, buying a house, and bringing up a family, than the constitutional implications of co-location, or joint immigration facilities at the new cross-border railway station.
Opposition politicians will do well to remember this ahead of the next election, and the rest of the world should also take note. It’s not that the vast majority of Hongkongers don’t care about their democratic freedoms and rights – they already have plenty of it, which is why “we can still fly these flags”, and they know it.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post