Hong Kong forty years on

I first went to Hong Kong in 1972, as Director of Marketing for the Asia Pacific edition of the Reader’s Digest.  I was only there for just over a year — the job (and the package) did not entirely meet expectations, although I loved Hong Kong itself.  It was my first posting in Asia.  I remember that as I flew out again in 1973, back to the UK, I was wondering wistfully whether I should ever go back to Hong Kong, or ever see Asia again.  In fact much of my subsequent career, twelve years in all, was spent in the region, and I visited Hong Kong many times, though I never lived there again.

Last week I was there once more, with two MEP colleagues, Konrad Szymanski, an ECR member from Poland, and Frank Engel, an EPP member from Luxembourg (most of the Chinese pronounced him “Angel”).  We were there at the invitation of the Hong Kong government, and under the auspices of the European parliament’s Hong Kong Friendship Group.  We stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Wanchai, a mere stone’s throw from the Hong Kong Convention Centre, the site of the rather emotional handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997.

I remember at the time reading about the commitment in the Sino-British agreement to “One country, two systems”, guaranteed in the Basic Law document, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, for fifty years.  But I have to be honest.  I was completely cynical about it.  I thought that it was a mere courtesy by the Chinese to give the Brits a fig leaf to save face and cover their retreat.  Give it eighteen months, I thought, and the “One country, two systems” pledge will be forgotten as if it had never been.

I was wrong.  I am delighted to report that “One country, two systems” is alive and well, and both sides, China and the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong, have by-and-large kept to the agreement.  More than that, both sides have benefited hugely from it, and have every incentive to keep it in place.

Our small delegation was privileged to meet and have lunch with a number of members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (or “LegCo”, pronounced “Ledge-Co”).  These included representatives both of pro-Beijing parties, and of other parties more immediately committed to democratic reform and to widening the franchise.  These latter included the redoubtable Emily Lau, Vice Chairman of the Democratic Party, and by her own admission seen by some on the pro-Beijing side as a troublemaker — so of course I felt a natural affinity for her.  Before being elected to LegCo, she had been a journalist critical of the Mainland.

The LegCo is an odd beast.  Like the European parliament, it does not form a government, but exists to comment on and amend legislative and budgetary proposals put forward by the executive.  Like the European parliament, its directly-elected members are elected on a regional list system by districts.  But there are only sixty members in all, and only thirty are directly elected.  The other thirty are elected by professional or industrial groups, like the medical profession or the construction industry.  And both groups of thirty have to approve a decision by a majority before it is formally adopted.

The main divide on the democracy scale is between those who want a wider franchise sooner, and those who want it later.  But the currently agreed schedule is that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong (effectively the President) will be elected by universal franchise by 2017 (he is currently elected by an electoral college, soon to be expanded), and LegCo by 2020.  If Hong Kong can stick to this timetable, I think the reforms are worth waiting for.

The HK economy is performing very strongly, with 6.8% growth last year.  For the Mainland, Hong Kong’s financial markets provide opportunities for raising capital on a global basis which would surely not exist otherwise, and attract foreign investment on an enormous scale.  I will write later on the reasons for this.  But what happens fifty years after the hand-over, in 2047, when the Basic Law is set to expire?  Making forecasts that far ahead is a mug’s game.  But if Hong Kong continues to perform, I can’t see the percentage for either side in calling time on the present arrangements.  In any case, if Hong Kong is eventually to be absorbed into the Motherland, I hope and believe we may find that China has become more like Hong Kong, rather than Hong Kong becoming like China.

In 1972, I flew out to Hong Kong first class, courtesy of Reader’s Digest.  I recall sharing the first class cabin on that early Jumbo Jet with Sir Murray MacLehose, then Governor of Hong Kong, and his entourage.  Since then, I don’t remember ever flying first class again.  But on my return from HK this time (Swiss via Zurich) I managed to swing an air-miles up-grade on the HK/Zurich leg, and flew back in unwonted comfort.  Two flights that stand like bookends at either extremity of my nearly four decade involvement with Hong Kong.  I wish the territory well for the future, and I am hugely grateful to the government of Hong Kong for their hospitality.

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