Leading Article: The real threat to Hong Kong

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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up