Modern China

When I arrived in Hong Kong 50 years ago, most locals looked down on their mainland counterparts, referring to them dismissively as “country bumpkins”. Now the shoe is very much on the other foot, and social media users to the north are referring to us as residents of a clapped out international financial centre. The pendulum really has swung, and as often happens in such cases, has gone too far. The problem is far too many Hongkongers, particularly the younger generation, have been slow to recognise the new reality.

That is one reason why former chief executive Leung Chun-ying constantly urges our young people to visit China, learn more about the current situation and explore opportunities there, particularly in the Greater Bay Area. It is presumably also part of the impetus behind the recent proposal to have a new museum setting out the country’s many achievements. I see nothing wrong with that idea in principle but surely rather than disturb what is currently our most popular facility the obvious location for the new one should be West Kowloon near the Summer Palace. Then we would create a node bringing the best of the past together with the best of the present and future.

There will be a lot to put on display in the new facility. China is now a world leader in many areas such as electric vehicles, solar energy, mobile phones and so on. The country’s achievements in space and aeronautics are mind boggling in both scope and pace. Ten years ago who would have guessed we would have our own space station, have launched a rover to Mars, and landed a capsule on the far side of the moon. From being stragglers we are now among the leaders. The next field will surely be aviation: last week China brought two home grown modern aircraft to outside air space for the first time, right here in the SAR.

To my mind one of the greatest success stories of the modern era has been development of the high-speed rail network which I have used three times so far and it has been impressive on each occasion. China has more than twice as much high-speed train track as the rest of the world added together.

But what impresses me doesn’t awe everyone, as became apparent earlier this month when a young political activist jumped bail despite having been given a special tour of Shenzhen designed to highlight many of the positive aspects of modern China.

The saga of Agnes Chow Ting raises a whole raft of questions which merit further scrutiny. The first is the question of police bail which is provided for under section 52 of the Police Force Ordinance. The issue in Chow’s case is that she has been on police bail for over three years. That is an absurd amount of time for a case to still be pending. Common sense suggests three months should be enough in most cases, six months perhaps for more complicated ones. But no case should be allowed to go beyond one year. The Secretary for Security should be asked to give an account of how many people have been on police bail longer than that.

Then there is the matter of the visit to Shenzhen. What travel document did she use to go through immigration on both sides of the boundary? Her passport was only given back to her on return, and anyway a HK one cannot be used to visit the mainland. A Home Return Permit? Many young people have yet to apply for one, mainland authorities routinely reject applications from activists. Perhaps under police escort she didn’t need to go through official channels at all, which some would see as a sensible practical arrangement while others might find such informality disturbing. Other aspects of the visit (apology, confession etc) were also unusual. Perhaps if we want our young people to go to see for themselves, we should be making it easier to secure the permit and any refusals kept to an absolute minimum. Is there any reason our own Immigration Department could not have delegated authority from Beijing to deal with issue of the permits in future, as they deal now with applications for naturalisation?

The reason the Chow case taxes me is that some years ago I intervewed her on the RTHK radio talk show Backchat that I co-host every week. Around the same time, I also had occasion to meet another co-founder of Demosisto Nathan Law Kwun-chung. Frankly I found both to be very intelligent, articulate and attractive personalities. In an ideal world they would have gone on to hold senior positions in the SAR government. They made mistakes of course: Demosisto pushed the envelope on “high degree of autonomy” so far that it began to overlap with the headbangers in the independence movement. But young people in their late teens and early twenties do make mistakes, it’s part of growing up. One is now a fugitive in the UK with a million dollar bounty on his head, the other has just said she won’t come back after completing studies in Canada. Our community needs to reflect on why we lost the chance to keep these and other talented young people within the fold so that despite any youthful excesses they could still contribute to society.

Meanwhile, a word of praise for Chow’s security case officer: giving her back the passport was the right thing to do. It was a gamble, and it didn’t work out this time but it was definitely worth trying. And who knows, maybe she will come back eventually.