Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Hong Kong: The Next 10 Years

I was very afraid when China took back Hong Kong in 1997. People told me that as soon as the People's Liberation Army entered the city, they would arrest all counter-revolutionaries. Someone predicted 3,000 arrests. Someone else said 400. I was thinking: even if only 20 or 30 people are arrested, I would be among them. So I tried to prepare myself psychologically. I pondered what books I would take to read in prison. I thought that I could accept the reality of the situation. But when I woke up in the middle of the night, I was covered in cold sweat. Then I realized how scared I was.

My fears turned out to be unfounded, of course. Since the handover 10 years ago, I've been able to pursue my reading list free from incarceration. People who know how aggressively my newspaper, Apple Daily, has criticized Hong Kong and mainland authorities might be surprised to hear me say this, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how the past decade has unfolded. Overall, China has tried to abide by the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, and despite a turbulent seven years under the inept leadership of former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the territory is prospering. That is not to say there aren't concerns. Hong Kong suffers greatly from a lack of full democracy. The press censors itself to avoid angering the powers that be. (For refusing to pull its punches, Apple Daily publishes under a boycott by pro-Beijing businesses that costs us $25 million a year in advertising revenue.) Hong Kong's air quality is deteriorating, as is the standard of English. And landmarks that form a key part of Hong Kong's identity are being demolished to make way for development.

But the most important piece of our identity that is being destroyed is, unlike the Star Ferry terminal or Queen's Pier, something you can't see. That's Hong Kong's independent, entrepreneurial spirit. For years we have succeeded because of a low-tax, small-government system that fostered a dynamic economy. The free market provided opportunities for Hong Kong people to use their creativity to get ahead. Since 2003, when China allowed growing numbers of mainland tourists to visit here and goose us out of our post-SARS stagnation, we have grown increasingly dependent on handouts from the mainland. We are becoming more like China, and less like the cosmopolitan, international city we once were. The risk is that we lose our entrepreneurial zeal and become wholly dependent on the mainland's economy.

That would be dangerous. While China's growth over the past 20 years has been impressive, the country has not escaped the laws of economics. There is no such thing as a perpetual-motion machine. Eventually China, like every other country in the world, will hit an economic rough patch—and for China it will be exceptionally rough. Chinese society today is a moral and spiritual vacuum. People care only about making money, not for one another. If the economic pie grows smaller, people will fight one another ferociously for a piece of it. Things could get brutal, and we will feel the fallout in Hong Kong, too. Elsewhere, NGOs and religious organizations help out during hard times. But, in China, the Communist Party has gutted those civil institutions—the churches, temples, unions and cultural associations—that people depend on when times are tough.

Hong Kong can help with that. We were the mustard seed for the mainland economy, providing not just the investment but also the management concepts that allowed it to grow to where it is today. So too can Hong Kong provide the foundation for the civic institutions that the country will need to truly thrive. China should look to Hong Kong for help developing those institutions.

And, as difficult as it may seem, China should look for help from Taiwan. The island has institutions that protect and nurture ideas. It is a place where people don't have to be afraid of holding unpopular opinions. Most importantly, Taiwan has a fully functioning democracy.

China would do well to allow Hong Kong that kind of freedom. It would be to Beijing's benefit. By allowing Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders, China would be praised by the global community of democracies. And that would give the mainland time to work out its own political reforms with less pressure from outside. Hong Kong could provide a model to show what sort of democracy can work best on Chinese soil. And the freedom to pick its own leaders would undoubtedly aid Hong Kong. Under the present system, loyalty to the central government is a more important criterion than loyalty to Hong Kong. That's how an incompetent leader like Tung managed to stay in office so long. Given the right to choose, Hong Kong people wouldn't make that mistake.

People sometimes say that a man whose publications are filled with swimsuit models and car crashes isn't the right messenger for the noble values of democracy and freedom. I reply that I'm not here to be a hero. I'm not here to be a saint. I'm here to fight for what I believe in. Yes, I am still afraid. But Hong Kong is my home. I am stuck in this fight.