Hong Kong at the crossroads

Hong Kong at the crossroads
Activists join hands before a news conference announcing the voting results of a civil referendum held by the Occupy Central organisers in Hong Kong.

HONG KONG - Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers voted online, via smartphones and polling booths in a ten-day unofficial referendum that ended on Sunday. It was deemed illegal by the central government.

However, the vote was designed, conducted and concluded in a way that has raised questions about its political goals. The "Occupy Central" protest group offered voters three choices in support of electing the chief executive by popular vote, but none against. Also, external observers were not used. Furthermore, instead of 10 days, most parliamentary democracies use a single election day.

In practice, the number of voters in the "democracy poll" represented one-tenth of Hong Kong's population of seven million, and a fifth of registered voters.

Economic integration is measured by flows of trade, investment, and people. Today, the mainland is Hong Kong's largest export partner and its largest import partner. And more than 75 per cent of the inflows of foreign direct investment can be traced directly to the mainland or to Chinese companies incorporated abroad.

In 2013, Hong Kong received a whopping 55 million visitors, including 26 million tourists, of these, 75 per cent of all visitors and 67 per cent of all tourists were from the mainland.

As incomes have risen in the mainland, the number of the mainland tourists visiting Hong Kong has soared, which has led to complaints. And yet, mainland tourism also makes a huge contribution to Hong Kong's economy. In fact, it stems from the 2003 Individual Visit Scheme, which the central government launched to support Hong Kong after its economy had been hit by the outbreak of SARS.

The political forces that would prefer the mainland to play little or no role in Hong Kong ignore the realities that, without the mainland, it would be left with only half of its trade, one-fourth of its foreign investment and visitors, not to mention only one-tenth of its water and food supply.

A small minority in Hong Kong may consider such a path politically desirable. But most see it as an economic nightmare.

In early 2013, pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong participated in protest marches with many demonstrators carrying the former British colonial flag of Hong Kong. Some of the misguided colonialist nostalgia has been accompanied by anti-mainlander discrimination, even virulent bullying.

The political irony is overwhelming. When Hong Kong was under British administration from 1841 to 1997, the UK did not promote democracy. That only began just before and especially after the reunification.

The difference in average living standards is even more poignant. From the launch of reform and opening-up to the reunification, Hong Kong's living standards quadrupled. In 1980, they were 40 per cent below those in the UK; in 1997, 15 per cent higher.

This growth was not automatic. Amidst the handover, the Asian financial crisis caused property prices to plunge in Hong Kong. But by early 1998, then premier Zhu Rongji promised the central government would protect Hong Kong "at all costs". And as the central government bought stocks and futures, the speculative attacks were rebuffed.

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