It may be premature but, as matters stand, the hot contender for shoe-shiner of the year award goes to Peter Lam, head of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Competition among shoe-shiners in high places is intense, but Mr Lam has a good chance of winning because he is shamelessly using his position as tourism chief to sacrifice the needs of the local tourist industry to please the big bosses in Beijing, who have deemed that Hong Kong’s future must be viewed through the prism of the Greater Bay Area thingy.

Peter Lam Kin-ngok. File Photo: GovHK.

So, Mr Lam says that the tourism board needs to focus on promoting – not Hong Kong as a destination – but on the Greater Bay Area. Bearing in mind that the bulk of local tourism is derived from Mainland visitors who come to Hong Kong precisely because it is markedly different from the rest of China, a promotion initiative promoting the politically correct notion of integration will have predictable results.

However, the SAR’s distinctiveness is no longer part of the Beijing-approved narrative. The shoe-shiners are quick to pick up on this and Mr Lam is not alone in his efforts here.

Media outlets, for example, are encouraged to describe Hong Kong as being just a city, a clearly inaccurate description not least because its legal name reflects its regional status as an autonomous region. However Former tourism chiefs have at least pretended to promote Hong Kong’s distinctiveness – admittedly with mixed results – but none have gone so far as to simply abandon the idea that Hong Kong might be a special place.

Greater Bay Area. Photo: Wikicommons.

The shoe-shiners’ enthusiasm for belittling Hong Kong is endless. As ever it starts at the top with the Chief Executive, who, like her predecessors, scuttles across the border at the merest suggestion that a significant party functionary might wish to see her. Mrs Lam, who claims to be too busy to speak English, is never too busy to find time for a photo opportunity on the Mainland.

More significant, of course, is the way that Hong Kong’s so-called leaders have spinelessly allowed quite minor functionaries in the Liaison Office to dictate all manner of things to the government; ranging from choosing candidates for public office to laying out how policies are to be implemented.

The endless emphasis on vastly expensive cross-border projects to create the physical reality of integration is, of course, more substantial in every way, as is the ceding of autonomy in the crucial realm of the legal system.

All this is relentless but somehow less stomach-churning than the shoe-shiners’ readiness to flatter mainland officials and facilitate the abandonment of Hong Kong’s promised “high degree of autonomy,” as they vie with their colleagues to polish their patriotic credentials.

Photo: GovHK.

Even on the mainland itself, regional officials have been known to be somewhat steadfast in defending the interests of their regions. The centralising grip of the Xi Jinping regime has diminished this independent spirit but not extinguished it, not least because regional officials understand that mere shoe-shining only goes so far; tangible results are expected.

They have learned to be wily and cautious in pursuing their goals but at least some of them are trying to make their provinces work in ways that weave around the central authorities.

This brings us back to Hong Kong tourism and the question of what pitch Mr Lam is likely to make to attract visitors – maybe he has in mind a message to mainland visitors which runs something like this: “Experience the glamour and sophistication of Shenzhen with Hong Kong next door where you will feel right at home because our shiny new rail terminus in Kowloon will be operating under PRC laws which you know and love.”

Have no fear Mr Lam. Authoritarian governments just love shoe-shiners… so they may even come to love you.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship