Opinion | Hong Kong rises again, defying US and British projections
By Tom Fowdy
The past four years have been an immensely difficult period for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. In 2019, the city was struck with violent riots, which were openly backed by US politicians and the Western media. The unrest plunged the city into a state of disorder, and led to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress enacting the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), according to the requirements of the Basic Law. On top of this, the city then faced the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to difficult decisions being made to restrict travel in and out of the territory up until 2023.
Because of these challenges, the US and its allies have pushed a political agenda to interfere in Hong Kong's affairs at large, under the premise that they have a greater say in its future than the sovereign state it belongs to, and have pushed a narrative that the NSL was a political death knell for the city and its future. Articles have frequently been published proclaiming the end of Hong Kong as a major global financial center, attempting to encourage capital flight and the withdrawal of firms, while the United Kingdom actively sought to promote an exodus from the city using the British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport scheme.
Having painfully waited out the last three and a half years owing to the impact of the pandemic, I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong over the May Day holiday period. Hong Kong has always been a special place to me, as I had the opportunity to study at the Hong Kong University from 2015-16. The last time I was present, however, the city was being rocked by the violent riots of 2019 and I remember witnessing the scenes of sheer destruction and devastation that had been inflicted throughout the territory. As a result, I knew I would view my first trip back in years through the lens of the past, wondering how much it had changed amid the turmoil that faced it, for better or for worse.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised. Life has rapidly returned to normal throughout the city and it has lost none of its former magic. It remains as busy, energetic, and fast paced as it always was. With the May Day holiday, the place was full of tourists. While of course large numbers descended on the city from the Chinese mainland, with border crossings for that weekend passing 800,000, there were also much to my surprise, many Western tourists to be seen too. This was a point of curiosity for me previously because I wondered just how many Westerners would be taken in by the mainstream media narratives against the city which have sought to depict it in dystopian terms. Even though the US government has also pushed politically motivated travel warnings against Hong Kong, many Americans were also present.
In conjunction with this, the city's expat community has also not dwindled, with foreign businesspeople and residents visible in large numbers. This has also been a big mainstream media talking point, which sought to depict the NSL and COVID regulations as undermining the city's competitiveness.
However, the irony has always been lost on such reports that "rival" financial centers, such as Singapore, have the same, if not harsher national security laws! The premise of course that the NSL is bad for business in Hong Kong was always ideologically motivated and premised on wishful thinking. From what I observed, the city has not lost its business or financial appeal in any way.
Of course, what about the supposed "exodus" under the BNO scheme? While figures show that 100,000 or so residents, largely the most anti-China ones, have chosen to leave the city and relocate to Britain, the figure is nonetheless far lower than the UK government's highly ambitious forecast of 320,000; and not only that, a recent report featured in Bloomberg found that BNO visa applications fell 44 percent quarter on quarter at the end of 2022. In other words, the appeal is diminishing. This is because as Hong Kong returns to normal, most of its residents have simply come to terms with the new reality and life goes on.
The logic of abandoning your entire life to move to a country which is economically struggling (Britain) does not make a whole lot of sense. At the same time, Hong Kong has recently been able to attract 14,000 new residents itself through its new Top Talent Pass Scheme, again demonstrating its competitiveness has not been undermined.
And on that note, it was my observation that Hong Kong is politically stable and prosperous again. The city has not been "chilled" or "stunned" by the NSL, but is able to prosper again as it always has; and having been there it truly felt as if the riot movement which beset it never existed. Likewise, the impact of COVID-19 has been quickly offset by the rebounding of tourism, which led to restaurants and hotels being full to the brim.
If there is thus one key takeaway to my trip, it is that Hong Kong is back, and Western attempts to condemn it to perpetual chaos, unrest and instability failed. This is a city that has always thrived on being a stable, certain and lawful environment, and the British ironically enough, should know that.
The author is a British political and international relations analyst.
The article was first published in China Daily.