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Storms a way of life for Hong Kong

HONG KONG • I came to Hong Kong four years ago with a plan. I wanted to write about its tycoons, its politics, its food.

I also wanted to see a typhoon.

One week later, I got one. On June 29, the weather observatory hoisted the typhoon signal to 8, warning of gales. That night after work, I took the train to Wan Chai, and walked to the ferry pier. But instead of the crashing waves and lashing rain I expected, there was... a brisk breeze. This typhoon, I decided, was just so much hot air.

But a real storm was starting to gather over Hong Kong. It was the 15th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule. The city was inaugurating a new leader, Mr Leung Chun Ying. China's then President Hu Jintao flew in for the ceremonies. Behind the pomp and pageantry, a wave of protest was rising.

People were fed up. In this city, the rich are fabulously rich while the poor live in ghastly conditions, the biggest travesty being its "coffin and cage" homes masquerading as flats. Younger Hong Kongers feel strangulated by an economy dominated by big business in finance and property, where the best jobs appear to go to the well-connected, mainlanders or foreigners.

Mr Leung, a well-meaning but untalented leader unable to work with his political allies, let alone enemies, is floundering. It does not help that he lacks a popular mandate and control over the elected legislature. Grandstanding politicians - of both the pro-Beijing and pan-Democrat varieties - add to the governance paralysis.

And there is the very real anxiety that the Hong Kong identity and way of life is under threat, as Beijing tightens its grip on the city.

All this came to a head in 2014, when a ham-fisted attempt by Beijing to limit the scope of long-promised "universal suffrage" led to tens of thousands of Hong Kongers camping out on major roads for 79 days to force the central government to budge. They failed.


Hong Kong police standing ready as protesters demand the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying on July 1, the 19th anniversary of the city's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule. PHOTO: REUTERS

But so did Beijing.

The Hong Kong of today is different from the one I first came to know four years ago as a foreign correspondent.

Independence - previously dismissed as a delusional fever of the loony fringe - is gaining currency. Infeasible as it may be, nearly half of young Hong Kongers now want out of China, according to a recent survey.

The differences between the "two systems" - including political cultures and judicial structures - are being thrown into sharper relief as the initial bloom of the relationship wears off. Mutual distrust runs deep: China believes that Hong Kong wants to subvert the country. Hong Kong believes that China wants to "mainlandise" the city.

For the broader society, the credibility of One Country Two Systems hangs in the balance, following the case of a Hong Kong bookseller believed by many to have been nabbed by mainland agents in an extrajudicial action.

As a deeply divided Hong Kong remains mired in doubt, conflict and paralysis, the sun appears to be setting on this city, called the Pearl of the Orient for so long.

FIERCE PRIDE

Yet, Hong Kong retains its luminosity for me. There is much to love about this city.

It may be rude, stubborn and oddly parochial at times.

But it can also be kind, dignified and respectful.

On Sept 28, 2012, I was behind a police cordon when protesters charged, triggering the police's use of pepper spray and tear gas - and later the start of the Occupy movement. I was then four months pregnant. Over the next three months, my colleagues and I were at the various protest sites where scuffles broke out.

Yet, I never felt I was in any real danger. Protesters and police alike were solicitous and respected that I was doing my work as a journalist. On one day, protest leaders "assigned" someone to look out for me. On another, when riot police moved into Mong Kok to eject the protesters, officers hid me in a narrow passageway from which I could observe and record events.

It was also during Occupy that one of Hong Kong's most famous songs came back into vogue. Protesters adopted Canto-rock band Beyond's iconic paean to idealism - Boundless Oceans Vast Skies - as their anthem. Written in 1993, it was a throwback to a time when Hong Kong pop culture reigned in the region.

Today, the oceans and skies have shrunk for Hong Kong, as other Chinese cities emerge and even surpass it in the economic race. Hong Kong films, television and music have fallen by the wayside.

Yet, Hong Kongers maintain a fierce pride in their language and culture, even if few others quite care anymore.

Pockets of excellence - of a standard higher than that I've experienced in Singapore - exist.

In this city, I went through the lowest and highest points in my life, when my husband and I lost two babies and gained one. Through it, I somersaulted through the Hong Kong medical system, from a public hospital that charges HK$100 (about S$17) a day to an eyewateringly pricey private hospital perched on the Peak. All were top-notch in the delivery of healthcare.

Thought has gone into devising systems that work - from the public transport system to how the most humble of eateries neatly packs food so that there is no spillage on the way home.

There is also pride in being a specialist: A shop in Sham Shui Po sells nothing but raw handmade noodles, at least 10 varieties of them. Another in Sai Ying Pun specialises in all manner of bamboo products, from dim sum steamers to hand-held fans.

When Hong Kong wants to be good at something, it can be very, very good.

SOCIETY DIVIDED

Sadly, there are few cheerleaders for Hong Kong nowadays.

Dismayed at the polarisation in the city, one of its most successful investment gurus, Malaysian-born Cheah Cheng Hye, wanted to set up an online news magazine "to encourage dialogue and intellectual debate".

But the idea is on ice. Mr Cheah, a former journalist, has a thick skin, but even he baulks at how "whatever you say or do, you're likely to come under fierce criticism or even humiliating remarks from one group or the other".

He says bluntly: "The outlook for Hong Kong is negative. The society is so divided and the leadership so paralysed that there is no longer a vision for Hong Kong to go forward, much less an action plan to get things done."

Eyes are now on the vetted chief executive race next March. If the unpopular Mr Leung wins a second term, the city is likely to sink further into torpor. One of his advisers tells me: "People like me, we will stand aside and say no, thanks, we won't be serving anymore."

Last month, some people broke out their poms-poms, given signs that Beijing could be open to other options. Financial Secretary John Tsang and outgoing Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang indicated that they might throw their hats into the ring.

But the fact is that whoever becomes Hong Kong's leader, the city's structural problems remain.

At the heart of its crisis today is the collision between two systems: an open, pluralistic Hong Kong society and an opaque, monolithic communist regime.

Nearly 20 years of being part of "one country" have not drawn both sides closer. In fact, for a city that is so dependent on the country, young Hong Kongers have curiously little interest in China. Among the many I have spoken to, few have travelled up north - or have any desire to do so.

Instead, the differences between the "two systems" - including political cultures and judicial structures - are being thrown into sharper relief as the initial bloom of the relationship wears off.

Mutual distrust runs deep: China believes that Hong Kong wants to subvert the country. Hong Kong believes that China wants to "mainlandise" the city.

Over the past year, Beijing has taken steps to assert its influence in Hong Kong's media and academia. Insiders say it reckons that the judicial system is also biased, having surmised that over half of its judges are "pro-West". Even the city's anti-corruption agency is deemed to be laced with "American influences".

And so it will proceed to "reform" Hong Kong, but delicately.

China after all still needs Hong Kong - to spearhead its financial liberalisation efforts and as a hub for "red investments" by Chinese officials and state-owned enterprises.

But as one of Hong Kong's bright young sparks, now looking to emigrate to Singapore, says: "They need Hong Kong's separate system but not us Hong Kongers."

And so the widespread belief that, slowly but surely, China is replacing the native Hong Kong population with mainlanders via immigration. Hong Kong will become "just like another Chinese city".

Time, ultimately, is on China's side. But meanwhile, there will be clashes.

On the eve of my departure, the winds are rising once more. On Tuesday, Typhoon Nida headed on a collision course with Hong Kong, buffeting the city with winds of up to 145kmh.

Increasingly used to storms - both physical and political - Hong Kong is battening down.

•Li Xueying leaves Hong Kong tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'Storms a way of life for Hong Kong'. Print Edition | Subscribe