The World Today for May 15, 2024


Silencing the Music


The chairwoman of Hong Kong’s weightlifting and powerlifting association mistakenly referred to “13 countries” in her sport’s Asian conference recently. That conference includes Hong Kong, a former British colony where Chinese officials have been expanding their control, and Taiwan, an independent island that Chinese leaders view as a breakaway territory. Chinese officials called for an investigation into the lapse, reported the South China Morning Post.

That’s just the latest example of some Hong Kong institutions bristling at Chinese rule in their city since Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong’s legislature enacted a new national security law that gives officials more power to suppress political dissent, the Associated Press explained.

Levying life sentences for convictions for treason and insurrection that judges would likely interpret broadly, and several years in jail for “possession of seditious publications,” the law was viewed as a crackdown against pro-democracy protesters who in 2019 took to the streets – unsuccessfully – to preserve their civil rights and independence from Beijing.

A month after the law took effect, for instance, Jimmy Lai, the 76-year-old tycoon who formerly published the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was arrested, added the Globe and Mail. He’s now on trial and faces life in prison for allegedly colluding with external forces, sedition and other crimes.

And last week, a judge ruled that Hong Kong could ban “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song popular among protesters, noted Time magazine. The ban appeared designed not only to silence critics but also to set a legal precedent forcing big American tech companies to comply with orders that compromise free speech, contended MIT Technology Review. Until now, firms like Facebook and Google have resisted these efforts by China, but they haven’t been ordered to do so in a court of law before.

These moves, meanwhile, have eroded Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub. Many large international companies have left the city since the 2019 law was passed, reported Al Jazeera. The country has had trouble luring expats back, too, instead experiencing a brain-drain, wrote the South China Morning Post. Earlier this year, the city’s major stock index fell to depths not last seen since 1997, when the British quit the city. The Wall Street Journal even recently moved staff out of its Hong Kong bureau to Singapore, which editors described as the new “center of gravity in the region.”

Chinese regulators have made changes to help the stock market rebound. Some Hong Kong dealmakers are looking to replace lost Western capital with that from the Middle East. Still others, wrote Bloomberg, were setting up new shops with the goal of growing the city’s domestic business market. Entrepreneurs in cryptocurrency ventures have also been signaling their interest in the city, reported TechCrunch.

Hong Kong is adapting, and not all of the outlook is negative, according to Alicia Garcia-Herrero of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel and a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Gary Ng of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, in the East Asia Forum. “Hong Kong’s unique structural advantages will continue to be the cornerstone for growth,” they wrote. “Its location, free capital flows, low and simple taxes, abundant liquidity and internationally aligned compliance and legal frameworks all matter.”

The main point, the Economist noted, is that the city is becoming more like mainland China, especially as locals – and expats – leave. Chinese are increasingly moving to the island, there are more Chinese restaurants to serve them, and Mandarin is not only heard more on the streets, it’s required for jobs now. There are even plans for a mainland curriculum in schools. Still, the freedoms that Hong Kong once had were a main lure.

“Some of these changes cut at the heart of what makes Hong Kong attractive not just to foreigners, but to mainland Chinese,” the magazine wrote. “The territory’s appeal is that it is not just another Chinese city … But as the government in Beijing draws it closer, that image is fading.”

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