To friends of Vision 2047 Foundation
29 July 2019
As you will be aware, Hong Kong is currently undergoing a period of unrest. It is a challenging time for all of us who call Hong Kong home. We are concerned and saddened by what is happening and grappling to understand how to address the situation and what the longer-term ramifications of current events will be. At this time, we don’t know how and when matters will de-escalate and be resolved.
What we do know is that, whilst there are dark clouds hanging over us, the sky has not yet fallen in on Hong Kong! In spite of the unrest, we remain one of the safest societies in Asia. Our excellent public services are continuing as usual. We enjoy freedom of expression, a free press, access to information and the right to public assembly – all aptly demonstrated by recent events. Our legal system remains strong and, when called upon to handle aspects of the recent happenings, will do so in a consummately appropriate manner and in accordance with the rule of law. None of what differentiates Hong Kong as a regional centre has fundamentally changed.
Saying this is not to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, nor underestimate the traumatic reverberations the city is suffering right now, but we are aware that much of the international media has focused on incidences of violent clashes and disruption, giving the impression that Hong Kong is under siege and has come to a standstill. This is not the case. Economic activity proceeds as usual and people are generally going about their daily lives in much the same way. Some retail outlets and smaller local businesses have been affected, some people have cancelled trips to Hong Kong and some are holding off on decisions to locate conferences, meetings or, indeed, themselves here. This is entirely understandable in the circumstances. We are yet to appreciate the cost consequences of the past few weeks – economic, reputational, psychological, political – and whether there will be on-going disruptions in the future weeks. At time of writing, it does seem likely there will be on-going protests until the Government steps up in a positive, decisive way to bring a halt to the fermenting angst.
What’s been happening?
Since June, following one of the largest street marches Hong Kong has ever witnessed, several other marches and demonstrations have followed. Each of the subsequent events have increased in intensity, including scuffles, defacement of private and government property and, in some cases, violent clashes involving some protesters, the police and, in one incident, thugs, with some local residents and media getting caught up in the turmoil. There have been some suicides attributed to frustration with recent events. Bomb-making material has been found. All of this is very shocking because Hong Kong is populated, as you know, by largely tolerant, hard working citizens and our streets are safe as people are generally law abiding and peaceable. In fact, it is a small minority who are acting aggressively and engaging in vandalism. The majority of protesters are orderly and acting extremely responsibly. Having said this, those who are more radical have become increasingly emboldened, appearing to believe they hold a moral high ground entitling them to go so far as to break the law. Skirmishes, until now, have been local and targeted, though recent events have spread beyond outlined boundaries. There is some disruption to the general public, but this tends to be at weekends. The recent demonstration at the airport was off-putting to some of those arriving, although others were impressed with the inventiveness and orderliness of the demonstrators. Certainly, the situation did not cause delays in operations nor pose a safety risk to air travel. One incident involving an arriving gentleman was widely distributed. Footage showed him being harassed by a group of youths as he attempted to leave the airport. Whatever the reason for the fury of those involved, most people considered this a shameful act of intimidation and have widely condemned the incident. Fortunately, these events are not the norm. Unfortunately, such incidences have been widely publicised, particularly in the PRC and have discredited the peaceful movement.
Why marches and demonstrations in the first place?
The first march was called to oppose the Government’s proposed amendment to our extradition law. The bill was deemed not to have been introduced with all due process and many believed the amendment exposed Hong Kong citizens, and foreign nationals here, to non-common law legal systems, which they do not trust, in particular and of greatest concern, that of the PRC. As a result of public opinion, the bill was not presented to our Legislative Council and was stated as being shelved or “suspended”. Since then, however, demands of the protesters have expanded to include the Government explicitly stating that the Extradition Bill is “withdrawn” not just suspended; retracting the classification as a riot of a protest on 12 June – such classification has sentencing implications for those arrested; unconditional release of detained protesters; an independent enquiry into police behaviour during the demonstrations and Government actions; an enquiry into the incidents of “thug” or triad involvement; and calling for the resignation of key Government figures. So far, the Government has not acknowledged any of the above demands, let alone addressed them. This has frustrated many people and the escalation of events has been attributed to this.
What are people talking about here?
The situation is more complex than just wanting to stop a bill being passed through our Legislative Council. As with any challenging time, worries escalate and raw nerves get frayed. Questions have surfaced around the One Country, Two Systems model – is it working, is it being disrespected and abused by those in authority, does it need to be modified? There are questions about how our Government and Legislature operates. Also around how different Chinese cultures relate to each other and live amongst each other. And questions that many societies around the world are grappling with related to quality of life issues, future prospects of young people, elderly care and affordable housing. There are strident calls for political reform. Some are even calling for independence from the PRC. The pot of bubbling questions that has been generally simmering in recent years, boiled over onto the streets when this extradition bill proposal became a tipping point. Sadly, instead of the heat being turned down, the fire has continued to be stoked by frustration because people believe they are being ignored by the Government; by a lack of trust towards officials and law enforcement; and by various vested interests who are capitalising on the situation.
In the midst of this, some US politicians have recently questioned whether Hong Kong should continue to be recognised independently of the PRC as a separate customs, tax and legal jurisdiction, which we currently are, a distinction which is of extreme importance to us. The latest PRC-US trade discussions appear to have eased those rumblings. Also, the British Foreign Secretary and a former Governor of Hong Kong have spoken up, though remarks from UK tend to annoy the PRC leadership who deem UK’s involvement in Hong Kong as having ended at the 1997 Handover. In fact, any comments from international commentators is considered interference and pointedly rejected. However, there are many UK nationals, as well as many other foreign nationals resident in Hong Kong, with over 4000 international companies based here. As you can imagine, the various Chambers of Commerce have called for a resolution to recent unrest. Overseas HQs are questioning their local offices on the continued stability of Hong Kong. Fortunately, no one has voted with their feet yet and, apart from obvious disquiet about the general situation, most companies are carrying on as normal, at least for the time being. Some countries have issued travel advisories regarding visiting Hong Kong and this has resulted in slower bookings of travel services and hotels, especially on Hong Kong Island. There have been unpleasant altercations between Hong Kong students and PRC students studying at overseas universities. Both feel offended by the other and are choosing to meet their differences head on. Some here with overseas passports allowing them access to live in other countries are considering future options, which may include them moving elsewhere. This, incidentally, is not true of any of our members. As a group of long-term Hong Kong residents we remain actively committed to the future progress and prosperity of Hong Kong.
The honest answer is, we don’t know. We wish we could provide certain answers. It is a very fluid situation with resolution not yet in sight. Up until now, the PRC Central Government has shown incredible restraint; but, as tensions escalate, that could change. What we do know is that the PRC is always focused on ensuring that civil unrest does not erupt on the Mainland, so undoubtedly they will be concerned that what is happening in Hong Kong does not become widespread. Today, at a press conference in Beijing, full support was given to the HKSAR Government and a commendation was given to the police attempting to maintain law and order. Here, people are concerned that if our police force, which is under considerable strain right now, becomes overwhelmed by the continuation of events that requires massive policing, and if our Government remains entrenched and events continue, then this will inevitably result in Mainland authorities stepping in. It would seem Beijing wants to avoid this, though there has been no indication that this is ruled out in escalating circumstances.
As a friend of Hong Kong and someone who takes an interest in what happens here, you will be aware that what is occurring is a work in progress. Outcomes remain to be seen. When the dust settles, much has to be done to address systemic issues that give rise to what has recently happened. This letter is to encourage you to keep an informed and balanced view of current events. Seek many sources for your information. As a British Territory and now a Special Administrative Region of the PRC, we have weathered many storms. Hong Kong has a habit of reinventing itself, thriving through adversity and continuing to be an international centre of choice in which to live and conduct regional and international business. Even in the current circumstances, there’s no reason to believe this has changed.
Vision 2047 Foundation does not take an institutional position on issues that affect Hong Kong. Diversity of views amongst our members and frank and open exchange is encouraged. The common link between members is our commitment to the long-term well being of Hong Kong and the belief that thoughtful and respectful exchange generates greater understanding of different views. This letter does not represent any one view of members, nor reflects all views. For more information on our organisation, please visit our website www.vision2047.org.hk
Vision 2047 Foundation
Committed to the Future of Hong Kong