The Hong Kong quandary
Wrapped in turmoil, Hong Kong’s current predicament arises more from its socio-economic woes rather than the pro-democracy sentiment
No one could have ever witnessed Hong Kong so frenzied. The protests against the extradition bill have seriously polarised Hong Kong society and opinions even within families are divided. All 13 districts of Hong Kong are in the grip of such stress that the normally bubbling Hong Kong's streets have dense clouds of uncertainty. City's international airport is surrounded by thousands of Hong Kongers—young and old—for the past five days. For the past two-and-a-half months, Hong Kong has not been the same. The protests have resulted in creating a general feeling among citizens and holders of permanent residency permit that they should look for some other country to settle in quest of more safe, secure and free environment.
From Foreign Correspondents' Club at Lower Albert Road to Indian Recreation Club at Caroline Hill Road in So Kon Po and from Swami Narayan Mandir at Hung Hom to Shirdi Sai Baba temple at Tsim Sha Tsui to Church at Kowloon Tong, wherever you will go, you will find every second person discussing probabilities of leaving Hong Kong. People of Indian origin, as well as Hong Kongers, are searching for opportunities in Canada, Australia, Europe, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Indian restaurants such as Sangeetha, Tandoori Nights and Kohinoor on Mody Road, Khana Khazana in Dannies House at Luard Road and Gaylord at Ashley Centre will give you a sense that how deeply confused Hong Kong is these days. One can gauge the storm sitting in India Club at Kings Park or while roaming around in Chung King Mansion. While travelling to San Po Kong, Tai Chik Sha, Sheung Wan, Mount Cameron, Causeway Bay, Austin, Jordan or Central you will experience an unprecedented heaviness in the wind that was never there.
Most of Hong Kongers prefer Canada as their future destination. Vancouver has long been the most popular place for Chinese people. As per the data released by the Canadian government, in Vancouver, there are around 4 lac Mandarin and Cantonese speaking people. The ratio between Mandarin and Cantonese speaking population is roughly half-half. Mandarin is the language of mainland China and Cantonese of Hong Kong. An estimated 30 thousand Hong Kongers hold Canadian passports and they are planning to leave.
The Canadian government also seems keen to give more and more permanent residency permits to Hong Kongers as the number of permits issued to them is increasing rapidly with each year during the past three years. There is a phenomenal increase in the number of applicants this year. London is also seeing more Hong Kongers keen on buying properties there. Migration agents in Hong Kong confirmed that there is a big increase in the numbers of people leaving the territory. They say that uptick over the past few weeks has been quite noticeable.
A respected analyst told me that if companies decide to relocate, the impact on Hong Kong's economy could be very significant. The current uncertainty about Hong Kong's future has led to a lot of businesspersons to delay decisions about big investments, especially in real estate. Apprehensions about the banking system in Hong Kong is one big reason because of that corporates are seriously thinking of putting their Asia headquarters in other markets like Singapore.
The vibrant retail sector of Hong Kong is also feeling the brunt of recent events. Major global consultancy firms recently lowered their forecasts for retail sales in Hong Kong and they expect a five per cent drop this year. This would mean a reduction of around 60 billion US dollars. Last month, a big multinational pulled out from the acquisition of government land for development that was worth US$ 1.5 billion because a majority of its board members felt that the occurrence of recent social contradiction and economic instability would have a negative impact on the growth.
But, my experience of a few years with Hong Kong's basic framework tells me that its economy will not only survive the recent upheavals but could even emerge stronger. It is a political struggle in Hong Kong and not an economic one. Over the past two decades, after the handing over of Hong Kong to China by the United Kingdom, the economic, social and political relationships have been more or less smooth on the basis of 'one country, two systems'. Protests have certainly disrupted this cordiality, but there are indications of a rethinking on various issues by the Hong Kong government.
Western media portrayal of protests creates a perception that Hong Kong's future is at risk because the territory can fully revert to mainland rule. The ground situation is very far from this. Social freedom in Hong Kong is still at par with the days of colonial rule. The discussions I had from time to time during my visits to the universities and think tanks of mainland China also make me believe that the Chinese central government wants harmonious and peaceful reunification with Hong Kong.
The 'one country, two systems' formula was first proposed by Marshal Yi Jiangying to re-unite Taiwan with China. Deng Xiaoping applied this to Hong Kong with a 50-year period for a gradual reunification with the 'motherland'. China will spare no efforts to ensure that the spirit of this remains unhurt because its failure in Hong Kong will put a final end on any hope of implementing it in Taiwan some time. A prosperous Hong Kong with its live connections to the world has been in China's interest. It has helped the mainland in establishing a modern economy and has acted as a gateway to attract huge foreign investments.
Despite the fact that there lies hugely visible tension in Hong Kong, it is also a fact that the majority of local residents are not supportive of 'pro-democracy' protestors. They will tell you that protestors are unnecessarily disrupting society. To my observation, the current agitation is less for 'democracy restoration' and more for venting the frustration out against the certain socio-economic woes. Hong Kong is superbly wealthy region but it lacks sufficient employment opportunities for the youth. It also does not have enough housing spaces that are affordable. People in Hong Kong feel that their government is promoting large land developers than focusing on building housing projects for lower and middle-class segments.
A sizable number of people in Hong Kong were 'refugees' from the mainland during the 'Great Leap Forward Movement' and 'Cultural Revolution'. If the Hong Kong government makes proper policies keeping in view sustaining social stability and takes steps to avoid misunderstanding on extradition bill, the reunification process could be expedited without minimum frictions. Hong Kong's economy today is the freest in the world for the fifteenth year in a row, whereas China is placed at 100th among 169 countries. I have every reason to believe that Chinese leadership cannot afford to ignore this fact and would not try to make Hong Kong just another Chinese city.
(The author is Editor and CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. The views expressed are strictly personal)