The Hong Kong Phenomenon

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

Writing about what is happening in Hong Kong must be a common temptation among opinion makers. I see several TV shows, articles, and social media posts, not only from the Philippines but globally. I thought I could choose another topic since Filipinos have been getting their full share of the Hong Kong controversy. But, of course, I cannot help it.

Hong Kong is a phenomenon. When I first began to visit Hong Kong in the ’70s, and with regularity after that, I already witnessed the quiet preparation of many HK families to build a safety channel to other countries in anticipation of their turnover to China in 1996. Even though our trips to Hong Kong were mostly stopovers and some shopping, we found many opportunities to make friends from the local merchants. Truly, Filipinos had been going there for decades, to eat and shop.

Though they had twenty years more to go, those who could afford made sure that a child or grandchild would find his or her way to the West, both America, and Europe. They started out as students and later gained enough residency to apply for immigration. Most of them got it. And most of them became bases for the rest of their families in case the need to migrate away from Hong Kong became necessary after China took over.

When the turnover did happen and the years went slowly and politically quietly by, many Hong Kong families did have children abroad who could claim them, or who already prepared the way for them. Many did migrate out of Hong Kong and lived the rest of their lives in another country – democratic countries, that is. Many more China towns in different nations expanded their population as a result – and their businesses, too. Chinese and business – somehow this age-old formula still works. It’s in the blood, I guess, and more definitely, it’s in the culture.

Many, however, did stay despite their being able to leave Hong Kong. And that is because mainland China wisely and sensitively calibrated its governance. The moves to exercise control were subtle, and there seemed to be a deliberate effort to continue the kind of professional governance that was already in place from British rule. As a regular visitor, there seemed to be very little change from British to Chinese governance.  Hong Kong maintained its primacy as a financial, tourist, and shopping center. The presence of foreigners, both visitors and professional ex-patriates, remained constant. Hardly any visible change from its established patterns.

Not only that, Hong Kong continued its economic ascendancy in the region. Proof of this was that more and more Hong Kong families began to afford to employ Filipino domestics. A communist-run country hiring democracy-run people. Strange but true. Economics was the foundation of Hong Kong and mainland China did not see any reason to upset the apple cart. Hong Kong was the main public face of a new China image to the world. In other words, China is not the monster that the West had pointed it out to be from the ’50s. Nothing was more effective than having a free and prosperous people hosting all other peoples of the world.

The last twenty years, however, had mainland China itself changing, year after year, towards one clear direction – global primacy in politics, economics, and military power. The drive towards being a superpower was on, visibly and relentlessly. It has not stopped, and it will not stop, not on its own. From wanting to be a superpower to working towards being THE superpower will translate itself into geopolitics that has economic power on the left and military power on the right. It is an awesome combination that many Western colonizers had effectively used for centuries. A more creative mindset would try sustainable growth in some other manner but an authoritarian culture cannot but go global as other global powers before them. Colonizers were totally authoritarian, by the way, for those who may have forgotten.

It is an old saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The reason why this saying is still around and largely believed, or largely proven right, is because history has seen power using people more than people using power. Not only that, many visionaries and statesmen had put in place built-in restraints to the use of power because history has proven beyond doubt that power corrupts. To point to an exception is simply to rationalize the use of power no matter its consequences, as an exception proves the general rule.

Hong Kong is a success story. That is why it is a phenomenon. It is a free country while its boss is an authoritarian. There are benefits, of course, and these benefits continue to be been the reason why authoritarianism bent back a little to accommodate a freedom-loving Hong Kong. But a leopard cannot change its stripes, they say. Just as an authoritarian mindset cannot allow freedom for long. There will be too many provocations down the line.

Such as now. One million Hong Kong citizens out of seven million go to the streets to protest peacefully, one-seventh of its population. That is equivalent to fifteen million Filipinos along Edsa from a population point of view. Then, one week later, two million took to the same streets, two-sevenths of its population or the equivalent of thirty million Filipinos in one contained area. This is a delicate provocation to an authoritarian worldview.

I am awestruck now, not because I side with Hong Kong against China, or I side with China against Hong Kong. Either way, I will be awestruck. China does not have an answer now, and Hong Kong protestors are shocked themselves at how far they have taken this confrontation. There is no formula yet, no resolution except temporary compromise. In that lull will be soul-searching that cannot but ultimately bring the tempest. That I believe, that I fear. And because of that, I pray for the harmony of one people with two mindsets, that they find a peaceful way.

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