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Hong Kong Diary

Hong Kong: The city still packs a punch

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Hong Kong: The city still packs a punch

Flags on a street in Hong Kong ahead of the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China, which falls on July 1.

Flags on a street in Hong Kong ahead of the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China, which falls on July 1. | Photo Credit: DALE DE LA REY/AFP

In truth, Hong Kong has not had much to celebrate.

Hong Kong appears to be in a midlife crisis. The 25th anniversary of its return to China, on July 1 this year, marked the halfway point in Deng Xiaoping’s guarantee, enshrined in the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong, that its capitalist system and way of life would be preserved for 50 years under the “one country, two systems” model.

While signs of celebration can be seen around the city, a COVID-19 outbreak in the government headquarters at Tamar dampened the enthusiasm and with it hopes of the Carrie Lam government ending on a positive note.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, speaks during a television interview in Hong Kong, China, on June 14.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, speaks during a television interview in Hong Kong, China, on June 14. | Photo Credit: Lam Yik / Bloomberg

In truth, Hong Kong has not had much to celebrate. Its economy is reeling from two years of “zero-COVID” isolation and a devastating wave in February-March that left many wondering about the point of being cut off from the world for two years. Indeed, travelling to Hong Kong is like going back in time to the height of the pandemic. On arrival at a deserted Chep Lap Kok airport some weeks ago, I was administered a PCR test and made to wait four hours before being whisked away to a government hotel for 21 days of isolation. My only interaction was with health workers once every three days.

The zero-COVID model had ensured normalcy in Hong Kong for two years, limiting COVID deaths to a little over 200 and keeping schools and restaurants open. Then came Omicron, which brutally exposed the model’s weaknesses. The success of zero-COVID disincentivised older residents from getting vaccinated as did the government’s failure to think of an exit strategy or an opening-up timetable. The test-and-trace strategy could not cope with the more transmissible variants. In February-March, the city fell apart. ICUs were overrun, and people died outside hospitals in makeshift gurneys. Deaths soared to 10,000.

Police officers wait for guests to enter a hotel for quarantine outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre  on June 29.
Police officers wait for guests to enter a hotel for quarantine outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on June 29. | Photo Credit: Louise Delmotte/Getty Images

Today, Hong Kong continues to drag its feet on opening up and ending quarantines. The result is a strange purgatory where COVID restrictions are in place, but cases are still high.

International isolation has decimated tourism-related businesses. One long-term Indian business executive summed up the situation thus: “The whole point of Hong Kong was that it has the best of both worlds, access to the China market but democracy and rule of law. Now it feels like the worst of both worlds.” That is without the brute efficiency of the mainland or the openness Hong Kong once prided itself on.

Watchdogs no more

Hong Kong’s media, meanwhile, has borne the brunt of the changing political landscape after the passing of the National Security Law in 2020. Its sweeping definition of sedition has made journalism risky. After raids on some media outlets, many simply closed down. Seasoned reporters now drive taxis or run corner shop cafes for a living.

Entrance of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Lower Albert Road.
Entrance of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Lower Albert Road. | Photo Credit: Chong Fat

Even the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), a venerable institution that dates back to 1949, is feeling the heat. This year, for the first time it scrapped its Human Rights Press Awards, fearing repercussions on prizewinners. The word on the street is that the club may lose its long-term lease to the grand Lower Albert Road premises, which is part living museum and part watering hole where reporters, diplomats, and occasional spies have traded stories for half a century. In its heyday, the FCC played host to famous journalists and even made an appearance in John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

Hidden gems

The opening in November 2021 of what is perhaps Asia’s most impressive new museum, M+, in Kowloon’s new Cultural District right off Victoria Harbour, has provided some relief for a government battling news about Hong Kong losing its lustre. Said to rival London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, M+ is proof that stories of Hong Kong’s demise are premature. The collection of 7,000 artworks includes pieces that one won’t find on the mainland. The “From Revolution to Globalisation” exhibit has a stunning sweep of works from China since the 1970s. There are also works from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  

A construction site at the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong on June 24. From the stock exchange to brokerages, construction projects to the retail sector, Chinese state-controlled firms are increasingly taking market share away from the local tycoons and British trading houses that thrived during the final decades of UK rule. The M+, which opened in November 2021 and is perhaps Asia’s most impressive new museum, is located here.
A construction site at the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong on June 24. From the stock exchange to brokerages, construction projects to the retail sector, Chinese state-controlled firms are increasingly taking market share away from the local tycoons and British trading houses that thrived during the final decades of UK rule. The M+, which opened in November 2021 and is perhaps Asia’s most impressive new museum, is located here. | Photo Credit: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

If you want to go beyond contemporary art, Hong Kong’s smaller galleries can house treasures. At one such gallery in the busy Sheung Wan district, its affable owner, Oi Ling, ushered me upstairs to a tiny space that had horse figures from the seventh century Tang Dynasty and exquisite furniture from 14th century Ming China. No doubt about it, Hong Kong still hides some surprises.

Ananth Krishnan is China Correspondent for The Hindu and was in Hong Kong recently.