My first visit to Hong Kong was when I was returning home from a business meeting in New York sometime in the 1980s. I had decided to stop over to visit a friend I knew from my university days. My first impression of Hong Kong was that things seemed to be smaller compared to other cities I’d been to – the streets, the shops, the apartment my friend lived in, etc. But perhaps it was because there were lots more people everywhere. But they were brash, loud, confident and quite gung-ho. To them, Singapore was too orderly and sterile and Singaporeans too obedient and dull. They had bought into the western caricature of a fine (as in paying for an offence) and no-chewing-gum nanny state. They compared themselves favourably with Singaporeans. Hong Kong was then a freewheeling place and all you needed was a good brain and a hardworking attitude to make it. Even though they had no political freedom to speak of, they seemed to be able to do pretty much what they liked, and seemed happy about it.
Today’s Hong Kongers are uncertain of the future, fearful of what can happen, and unhappy with their closeness to China. Although huge inequality between haves and have-nots had always existed in Hong Kong, it is now a source of discontent, made visible by the lack of decent and affordable housing, and even more visible by the luxurious villas of the very rich. The lack of basic housing and good jobs gets translated by the masses into a lack of democratic processes. It’s like telling China’s leaders that they trust the British reigning over them more than they trust China’s government overseeing them.
On July 1, 1997, when Hong Kong officially returned to Chinese rule, I was in Washington D.C. at the time and attended a reception by the Hong Kong Consulate (or Trade Office) to celebrate the occasion. I was given a watch to commemorate the event; I think I still have it although it had ceased to work some time ago. I remember being ambivalent about what Hong Kong would be like in the future although I did think that it had the opportunity as a part of China to grow and prosper way beyond what it had already achieved, which was breathtaking by any standard. The logic was simple. China was racing out of its isolation and entering the world at record speed, and Hong Kong was there with all the knowhow and expertise to lead the way. “One country, two systems” was a brilliant idea to incorporate Hong Kong into China and have its vibrant capitalism lead the communist behemoth into the 21st century.
However, like a lot of brilliant ideas that unite opposing sides of an agreement at the beginning, they get stretched and pulled in different directions to suit the interpretations of the various parties. Hong Kong saw the opportunity for wider democracy and greater autonomy. Having tasted western freedom even if they’d never really enjoyed political freedoms, young Hong Kongers did not relish being ruled by Beijing. Thousands of them are now demanding more say in their future, and identifying themselves more as Hong Kongers as distinct from China Chinese. To Beijing, the taking over from Britain was merely a simple case of changing the guy at the top, and Hong Kong would continue its capitalistic ways under the rule of China. China was willing to accept Hong Kong the way a proud grandfather indulged a favourite grandson, allowed to be spoilt and have his tantrums tolerated, so long as he loves grandpa and comes running into grandpa’s arms every so often.
The ideal time for Hong Kong to negotiate its future was when its leverage was at its highest – when it was a thriving entrepôt, had expertise in international legal systems, was a leading financial centre, and had all kinds of talents in areas China needed. Today, that leverage may have gone forever. Today, Hong Kong is dependant on China for much of its economy. It is fast becoming just another Chinese city. What we see today is a populace resentful of the mainland tourists that they need for their shops and the overwhelming influence of China in their lives. The awakening of its political consciousness is occurring at a time when its fortune is changing, but not to its advantage.
It’s almost impossible to think of Hong Kong without also thinking about what it means to Singapore. So, what does it mean to Singapore? It brings me to a little spat that occurred recently among Singapore’s intelligentsia. Kishore Mahbubani, former ambassador to the United Nations and prominent intellectual and writer, wrote that small states should behave like small states to avoid the problems faced by Qatar which incurred the wrath of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and the other Gulf States for having the audacity to operate independent foreign policies. Qatar is a small country in the Persian Gulf surrounded by much bigger neighbours. Apparently, these neighbours felt that Qatar was too friendly to Iran, supported the Muslim Brotherhood and ran the Al-Jazeera TV channel that often criticised the Arab rulers, among other things they didn’t like. Using the pretext of Qatar supporting terrorism (they probably thought Donald Trump would understand that) they severed ties and closed their borders with the tiny country. Being so small and surrounded by bigger and stronger neighbours, Qatar is quite helpless. It keeps going by using its vast wealth to fly in food and other essentials and getting help from Turkey, but it obviously cannot go on this way for long.
Kishore compared the reality facing Qatar to the situation of tiny Singapore which also lies in a region where much bigger neighbours are all around. Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of the foreign ministry and several prominent government persons accused him of heresy for advocating that Singapore should know its place in the international arena. The reason why this took on special significance was because this was happening at a sensitive time when juggernaut China seemed to be teaching puny Singapore a lesson for allegedly taking the side of its adversary in the South China Sea. Singapore didn’t really do anything of the sort, but appearing to be standing up to China was a no-no. China had impounded the shipment of some SAF military vehicles for violating import/export rules of Hong Kong. Such shipments were routine between Singapore and Taiwan where the SAF maintains a training facility. So, everyone knows that China was simply sending a message that she could without much effort inflict considerable pain on Singapore should we incur her displeasure. Some Singaporeans took to social media to condemn China for bullying a small country. Others, however, blame their government for not being smart or subservient enough in handling its relation with China, making the issue somewhat sensitive.
While small states need to promote the rule of law and observance of international norms of behaviour to try and protect themselves, they need to know how and when to push that. Such is the lot of Hong Kong, Qatar, Singapore and other small states. Small states don’t deal the cards, they merely play the cards they are dealt with the best they can.