Hong Kong has a lot going for it. Victoria Harbour is world renowned, a natural and man-made haven that has sheltered a variety of merchantmen from stormy weather.
The city of the same name, once perched precariously on the steep slopes of mountains that rise majestically from the South China Sea, now stands a beacon of modernity — and yet, between its towering skyscrapers, streets and alleyways full of business, life continues.
Then there is Kowloon, the sister city across the water, built in the shadow of the Lion Rock. It is a city developed along connections, between roads that once ran from the waterfront fort to the colonial boundary, and others that long ago linked local settlements and clans to the North. Through its heart runs the first boulevard in China, Nathan Road.
Once described as the Champs-Élysées of the East, it is in fact far more grounded in the very real and often destitute lives of the many peoples that make up the city. It is, to my mind, far better for it.
Terence Conran once described Hong Kong as a city that combined “examples of the very best and the very worst.” The phrase always struck me as being far more insightful than he appreciated.
It is in its incredible and often overlooked diversity, and the interplay between them, that makes Hong Kong and Hong Kong people so unique. Ours is a city of extremes in living and ideology — a city of communists and nationalists, and of internationalism and nativism.
Hong Kong is a port city and an international financial hub, at once looking out towards the world and also a Chinese City reliant on the Mainland.
Hong Kong is a city founded on commerce and yet secured by force. It is a city underpinned by the rule of law and press freedom, and yet large tracts of the New Territories and its residents have always been – and remain in effect – a law unto themselves. The foundations of British law and administration exist in equilibrium with a “dai gou” big brother culture.
Yet for all its unique contradictions, and for the depth and nuances of our society, I know of no other community so oblivious to its own intricacies. So taken by celebrating material beauty, and so dismissive of our shades of ugliness, we forget that it is in both that the real Hong Kong and the relationships that drive this city are to be found.
I often ask people in what ways do they understand Hong Kong as being a diverse city?
When this question is put to those in Hong Kong’s “international” circles, the answer is that we are an international city of Australians, Americans and Canadians, and of British and Chinese, locals and expatriates; we are a community of professionals drawn from all over the world.
When put to a more local, and more identifiably culturally Chinese circle, the answer is very different. Hong Kong, I am invariably told, is diverse because we are a city of Chinese migrants. We are Hakka and Hokkien, from Shanghai and Singapore, and from Toi Shan and Chiu Chau; and we are Leftists and Rightists, and Taiwanese and Mainlanders. “Gweilo” and “Huk yun” are a single category.
As we begin a new year, perhaps it is time we all, individually and collectively, embraced our city’s diversity for what it is. We can also embrace, with pride, our shared history — and celebrate that Hong Kong and our values were not made by British colonialism, nor made by Beijing and China, but by us and our forbearers. We must not look back with prejudice, but forward with pride.
Perhaps our government, under the new administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, will put aside the vision of Hong Kong that she and her officials wish to impress on Beijing, and instead accept this vision of Hong Kong as our shared history. Perhaps it will no longer be politically sensitive to see our city and people for what and who we are.
And as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region turns 21 years old, it is time our government found the maturity to stop resorting to the politics of division, and realise that with authority comes also both the responsibility and ability to set the tone of political discourse.
It is time to stop being prejudiced and judgemental. Stop pointing fingers and start working together with the opposition, even if this means having to rein in those parties and associations that claim to act in your interests.
Let this be the year when the government shows that it understands Hong Kong and those issues that are most pressing for the majority of Hong Kong people. It is time the government did more than administer, and started to govern. Within the Basic Law there remains significant scope for the HKSAR government to propose and enact policies that could make a very real and positive difference to the lives of many.
We are a city fiscally like no other. In our last budget our surplus was eight times more than forecast. Our financial forecasters seem uniquely incompetent and yet uniquely blessed. Government reserves are approaching a trillion dollars, more than is needed to weather even the most ferocious of financial storms.
Yet why do so many dare not expect the unexpected? After all, an executive is defined by his imagination and policies, and the capability of civil servants by their ability to enact such policies effectively. Did we not inherit a first class civil service, with the reputation and salaries to match?
As many in the developed world ponder the feasibility of a universal living wage, with trial schemes rolled out in Scotland and Norway showing promise, might our government show both the intent and the imagination to tackle our city’s own record levels of inequality through such an imaginative scheme?
Might our government finally consider seriously tax reform, and reintroduce (yes, re-introduce) inheritance tax? Might we expect our government to recognise tax to be not only an economic but social policy that could do much to help bridge an increasingly divided community, and lessen the moves towards radicalisation in our politics?
To match corporate and capital gains tax to income tax would be a welcome streamlining of the existing structure, in line with the Basic Law, and go some way towards ensuring the compatibility of Hong Kong’s tax regime with that on the Mainland.
Most of all though, let this be the year when Hong Kong celebrates our youth, who have undeservingly received a sustained torrent of public and published abuse since the 2014 protests.
What must stop is the perception that this negative view of our youth is officially endorsed, with the most vitriolic voices appearing as they do in “pro-establishment” and state-run newspapers. All it would take is a word from the government to silence these hired pens. Might we hope that the courage is found?
“Hong Kong people are like spoilt children. I am disgusted by them. How can they not be grateful for all that we have done for them?” So I was told by a taxi driver when I was last in Guangzhou. It is always the same line. “Hong Kong people don’t think they are Chinese.”
So in this new year I also wonder too whether our countrymen on the Mainland, so eager to be the custodians of the Chinese identity, would, if they care enough to hold an opinion, spend a little more effort in getting to know the truth.
I hope that they might, like the Chinese people of Taiwan and those spread across the world, understand that human rights are universal and not nationally determined; that agreements are made in good faith; and that political ideology does not define a historic people and culture.
Finally, I hope that our national government in Beijing, and the Chinese Communist Party that claims to represent not only our national but ethnic and cultural interests as Chinese people, embraces Hong Kong for what it is, and sees in our limited scope for political opposition that critical voice any civilisation needs to prosper.
History has shown that under authoritarian rule, where internal conflict is not acknowledged and critical voices suppressed to oblivion, civilisations stagnate and wither. China may now project an image of strength internationally, but by painting the board white we fool nobody but ourselves.
As our and other former colonial powers have discovered, real strength lies not in imperial ambitions but through embracing the shades of grey that exist within our own communities. Britain is stronger for giving the people of Scotland a referendum than it would have been if it had insisted on its historic union.
These are my hopes for the new year. In 1997, I was one of many who welcomed the end of colonialism with the hope, if not expectation, that my home would be governed for and by Hong Kong people. I was told, by many others, that my hopes were naive. But I did, once, have hope.
May this be the year that those sinews are strengthened, and that a light again appears in the dark hole so many Hong Kong people feel deep inside their hearts.