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

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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Harvey Proctor's home was raided by the Met under a warrant investigating historical child sexual abuse  

Harvey Proctor: A gay sex ring in Westminster? I don't believe it

Harvey Proctor
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk