Leading Article: The real threat to Hong Kong

Share
Related Topics
Can anyone really own Hong Kong? In less than 48 hours from now, it will have "returned to China". Early on Tuesday morning, as the mightiest of all parties in the city's convivial history staggers to an end, travellers on the dawn ferries will look back at the receding waterfront and see no change. This is one of the world's great cities. Like Manhattan, its towers soaring up from the sea have an unearthly beauty transcending the very earthly money-making that reared them. Can a mere change of flag be a threat to power and certainty like this?

But, of course, it can. That Tuesday morning, a large column of infantry and armour from the People's Liberation Army will be settling into quarters in Hong Kong. This arrival, which nobody in Hong Kong was told about until a few days ago, sends two kinds of unwelcome signal.

At one level, it is mere symbolic politics, a sudden extra statement that "we are the masters now". But for the West, already tormented by confused anxieties and guilts about the handover, it is exactly the symbol they could do without. This is not the China of solemn agreements on human rights to guarantee "one country, two systems". This is a reminder of that China which sent the tanks against students on Tiananmen Square eight years ago. Which one will be in charge?

The other signal, which Hong Kongers can read more expertly than Westerners, is also ominous. It is about institutional corruption. The PLA, which is something of a state within the state, is desperate to get a foothold in Hong Kong. For underpaid officers, this is a dream posting with untold opportunities, and competition to be part of it has been intense. It is a foretaste of how Chinese administrators may approach the running of a city which is one of the richest fleshpots on earth.

For many months, Hong Kong people have been trying to get this point across to visitors and interviewers. It is not that they are complacent about what may happen, suddenly or gradually, to the freedom of the press, to trade unions, to the rights to demonstrate or oppose. They worry about these things, but not - as the West does - to exclusion. They look at modern China, and they see not only a vast extension of economic freedom, a unique attempt to reconcile Communist government and the free market, but an almost universal spread of financial corruption throughout the state and its bureaucracy. This, they think, is the real threat to Hong Kong.

It is not that this sort of thing is unknown to the city. Under the British, as Hong Kong rose from a colonial outpost handling the South China trade to one of the busiest industrial producers on the Pacific rim, there was every kind of sleaze. Corruption in the Hong Kong police was notorious. But then the city changed. Industry gave way to financial services as the main source of wealth. And the British administration, in perhaps its finest hour, turned on the colonial bureaucracy and purged it clean.

These two things were connected. In the global market, banking and insurance require a minimum standard of integrity if they are to retain international trust. And this is the most basic threat to the survival of Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty. The danger is that corruption will gradually invade all transactions and perhaps in time compromise the very regulation of Hong Kong's financial services. And if that happens, international confidence in Hong Kong as the channel for investment in the markets of China and all Asia will seep away.

The flag comes down, and it is too late to worry. In one sense it is a relief for Britain, which for many years has not really known what it was doing in Hong Kong. The attempts to expand political democracy in the territory undertaken by Chris Patten, the last Governor, were little more than window-dressing, addressed mostly to Britain's unquiet conscience.

But China, to which Hong Kong returns, is something infinitely greater than the Communist regime - which will not last for ever. There is some comfort in that. And in reaction to a world full of nationalism, there is a movement towards independent city-states, founded on commerce and drawing in the labour and talent of continents around them. Hong Kong, if it can survive the next decades, may have an even more spectacular future.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower