As the aeroplane door closes, with its reassuring ker-thunk heralding the end of another little trip to Hong Kong, I cannot help but indulge in a little retrospective. Hong Kong is a place that seems always to pull me different directions. The views from the rooftop bars are inspiring, but the pollution wearying. The opulence of the big-name shop fronts is dazzling, but the relative limits and expensiveness of the place for ordinary shopping become boring. The markets still retain a little of their grubby allure, but distinctiveness has become smudged into an endless array of tat, the same across Hong Kong and, really, across China.
Yet the wealth and the poverty, the order and the chaos, the tidiness and the dirt, the crowds and spaciousness: these are the contrasts that bedevil (or enliven) every city and they are not the true source of my unease with the place. For there is something else, a more particular story, that is being told in Hong Kong. A peculiar unravelling of a social story that, as I sip a long drink on a balcony overlooking the Johnston Road in Wan Chai, I may not be able to see, but I can yet still feel.
For Hong Kong is a city where its government has become something that is at times seemingly truly unrepresentative of, and unmotivated by, its people. Though the government may claim to be responsive, it feels at times it is only responsive when responding to local concerns aligns with responding to high politics. For many of the locals I meet, futures narrow and hopes dim. Yet a vibrancy still remains, be it corralled into ever smaller pens.
On Saturday 2 December, a demonstration took place. It was cheerful and orderly; the police were out in force with metal barricades, berets and their little whispering plastic earpieces, but there was no anger or animosity in the crowd and the uniformed youngsters (as they seemed) just looked a little silly when they ran with their backpacks full of banners, ready to unfurl messages of warning, dismissal and, even, imminent arrest to the collection of students, parents and grandparents.
It wasn’t a large march, though they carried their placards determinedly. Perhaps a thousand; perhaps five hundred? It is always so hard to judge numbers just from a casual untrained look. Joshua Wong was there, out on bail and awaiting his next sentencing. And this was what the protest was about: a shout at the authorities that Hong Kong should not be a place with political prisoners, that Hong Kong should not be a place that fills its prisons with young citizens merely because of the workings of their conscience. But for the people in the march, this is what Hong Kong has become. Through the courts, the political parties opposing increased control by, and harmonisation with, Beijing have been shattered, their members either imprisoned, awaiting sentence, or banned from running for office. By-elections have been delayed until March 2018 (the seats fell vacant in July 2017) amid on-going appeals, leaving the pro-Beijing camp with a veto-busting majority in the city’s Legislative Council.
Of course, the government denies any undemocratic tendencies, but it is hard to take their spokesmen seriously when their playbook is so artlessly copied from you-know-who. Court judgements that talk of social harmony and worrying trends of civil disobedience: of the importance of citizens obeying the law (but not of the law being just). Government officials that deny government interference despite it being the government that has called for retrials and more stringent penalties. There has even been talk of retroactive application of the to-be-implemented law penalising ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem with imprisonment. And everything cloaked in Beijing’s ultra-shriek that any comment by a foreigner is an insult and interference that is not to be borne.
This shriek has been heard much less than it should have been. Britain has been powerless and voiceless, perhaps also spineless; the EU apparently simply uncaring; America distracted by an executive with priorities quite different from championing the rights Americans are meant to cherish. The voices within Hong Kong have also been muted. The city’s system of functional constituencies (also known as entrenched vested interests) grants real power to various business groups that look beyond what might be right to what might merely be profitable. The executive too, mindful that ultimate promotion and success are increasingly in the gift of Beijing, look beyond the city’s shores for guidance. Everything is wonderful, officialdom smiles fatly. Only the young, the elderly, or those with families might wish to worry about a future they are in danger of being priced out of.
In the first-floor dining room of a shabby branch of a once favourite dim sum restaurant chain, I found an odd parallel with Hong Kong’s wider malaise staring at me from my food. I remember my first trip to Dim Dim Sum, with its delicious dumplings and cute pig-faced custard buns. I remember too my second and my third trip. But over time the delight faded, and this last time will likely have to be the very last. For while the pig-faced custard bun was as cute and piggy as ever, I couldn’t help but notice the encrusted grim and filth that coated the dish they were served in. The table too was stained with dirt; the ceiling low and the room cramped. But most of all, it was the dried (but now soggy) detritus of dumplings long past lurking at the base of the serving dish that made me think that this was a restaurant living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time. Walking through Causeway Bay, reading the desperately formulaic English of the supposedly spontaneous anti-Falun Gong and anti-Japanese street protests (exhibitions that dripped with an arms-length official hand), one cannot help but wonder if Hong Kong too is living on a reputation borrowed from an earlier time.
But now my time has ended once again. The door is shut, the aeroplane is pulling away from the gate. My phone, switched off, is no longer bleeping incessant warnings about the toxic air I spent hours taking great lungs-full of as I walked along the streets. Soon the aeroplane will turn onto the runway, take off and climb into (or is it out of?) the dingy, dirty, grimy, noxious air that has coated the city throughout my stay.
Oh, Hong Kong! Until next time?