As you drive on the highway from the airport to Hong Kong, about half way you pass by massive concrete pylons of what, when finished, will be the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, linking the three biggest cities of the Pearl River delta. At some 50 kilometres long it will be a monument to engineering and a world-class landmark.
Yet it’s not proving popular in some local quarters, possibly because it will allow three lanes of tank traffic in each direction. OK, that was my bad joke, but it’s arguably not too far from the true sentiment. Nearly 20 years after Hong Kong was returned to China by Great Britain, many locals are still uncomfortable about being too closely connected to their big brother (with and without the capital letters) on ” the mainland”.
The relationship between Hong Kong and China is a peculiar one. “One country, two systems” is far less about the economics, since China practices capitalism these day as much as Hong Kong, albeit of a more state variety than the laissez-faire one, which has always been a Hong Kong trademark. The two systems are really more about the outlook on life: freedom versus control, openness versus distrust. Hong Kongers still find more affinity with their cousins in the “other China”, Taiwan; like them a small enclave of liberalism and a glaring example of the other path to prosperity and happiness, one not under the watchful guidance of the Communist Party.
Beijing is all present but all discreet in Hong Kong. Even the People’s Liberation Army barracks are located in a modern skyscraper, whose commercial design and a light show at night make it indistinguishable from the high-rise temples of trade and commerce that surround it. Thus the Chinese army troops discreetly practice their crowd control and suppression skills overlooked from the windows of some of the city’s premier firms, at once a surreal and unsettling spectacle. In Hong Kong, Big Brother is always watching you, but through Armani sunglasses and with a fake benevolent smile.
The people of Hong Kong continue to make the best of it. There are still democratic elections of sorts, and the media continues to be relatively vibrant. Books banned in mainland China are openly marketed at the 2016 Hong Kong book fair. Falun Gong, seen by China’s communist rulers as a dangerous and subversive cult and persecuted accordingly, openly flaunt their presence throughout Hong Kong, particularly in the areas of biggest exposure to visitors from the mainland. But there is no denying that Hong Kong today is less free, and it feels less free to its residents, than it did two decades ago.
Living, as it does, under the mainland’s light shadow, Hong Kong continues to be a bright shining light in the world; a continually vivid example of what human enterprise and ingenuity can conjure out of virtually nothing if given freedom under law to do so. That this picturesque rock, singularly devoid of any natural resources, including even much drinking water, is now a bustling, wealthy and vibrant metropolis and one of the true world cities, is as much a testament to the hard work and business acumen of the Chinese people as it is to the freedom-generating institutions of the British Empire, something I blogged aboutÂ not too long ago. This is not something that twenty years of mainland oversight will change, in part because Beijing doesn’t want to. Hong Kong will be used and it will be tolerated on the understanding it won’t get out of control, which it won’t. It’s a tacit bargain that is not the happiest one, but is well understood by everyone, if grudgingly by many.
PLA tanks have never rolled into Hong Kong in a reenactment of 1989, as was commonly feared, and they probably won’t either in the future, once the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is completed. The somewhat fraught relationship between China and Hong Kong has become a discreet staring match and a waiting game played out over a longer term: will China become more like Hong Kong before Hong Kong becomes more like China?