It is nice to see the pro-government press displaying such solicitude for Hong Kong’s reputation. Germany got a lot of stick last month when it emerged that two fugitives from what we officially still call Hong Kong justice had been allowed refugee status there.

This, according to the People’s Republic of China poodles, was doing untold harm to Hong Kong’s reputation as a haven of the rule of law and other platitudes.

Li Tung-sing Ray Wong
Alan Li Tung-sing (left) and Ray Wong. File Photo: Stand News/Cloud.

An important matter, no doubt. As Shakespeare said: “Good name in man or woman, dear my Lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

But the complaint is surely getting the flow of causation in the wrong direction. It is not that the disreputable pair have been accommodated and therefore Hong Kong’s reputation has been damaged. Why, after all, would the relevant German ministry wish to damage Hong Kong’s reputation?

A better explanation is that the two alleged rioters were afforded shelter because Hong Kong’s reputation had already been damaged, by other people. As a recent article in Foreign Policy put it:

Within the last three years, the Hong Kong government, which is appointed by Beijing, has taken many unprecedentedly repressive steps. It has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned young activists from running for office, prohibited a political party, jailed pro-democracy protest leaders (including a sitting lawmaker and two respected professors), expelled a senior foreign journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing kidnapped its adversaries in Hong Kong.

This gloomy summary omits some developments which cannot be attributed directly to the government, but which reflect the atmosphere it has fostered, like the restrictions on freedom of speech in local universities, or the physical attacks on journalists from critical news outlets.

Ray Wong facing the police at the Mong Kok protest.
Ray Wong facing the police at the Mong Kok protest. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Where else in the world would a school principal, upon hearing that his pupils had organised a petition on a matter of public interest, call the police?

The upshot of all this is that Hong Kong’s reputation is not what it was. It is all very well for officials to say that on a day-to-day basis, at least on most days, we are as free as we ever were. Perhaps this is true.

But human beings, as Kahneman points out, do not judge by averages; they judge by stereotypes. The careful observer of news about Hong Kong gets the impression that it is at present somewhere between the Hungarian and Turkish phases of democratic decay and moving in the Turkish direction.

We still get starring roles in some surveys of economic freedom or competitiveness as it is known in business circles. But this is not the freedom which you and I would wish to enjoy. Surveys of this kind are aimed at international business and consider the freedoms which international business values: to exploit workers, fleece consumers and con investors.

We can all agree that the Hong Kong government’s efforts to preserve these economic freedoms have been exemplary. Similar solicitude would be welcome for the more traditional rights to free speech, a fair trial, fair elections, and free media.

judiciary high court
File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

If you believe that these have not been eroded in the past three years, I have an Eiffel Tower I would like to sell you. Hong Kong’s reputation has suffered, and rightly so. Even the independent judiciary line has wilted since the Court of Appeal trod in several legal puddles in its effort to jail Joshua Wong.

Still to come here is the outcome of the Ted Hui phone-snatching case, an interesting example of using a legal sledgehammer to crush a nut. Mr Hui snatched the phone which a minor official was using to track legislators around their own building, withdrew to a gentlemen’s toilet and spent a few minutes exploring whether he was one of the models photographed. He then returned the phone.

Now consider. If you were a teacher and a pupil came up to you and claimed that one of the kids had taken her phone and kept it for 20 minutes before returning it intact, you would no doubt scold the miscreant, perhaps even send him to see the headmaster. But would you call the police? If the outcome of Mr Hui’s case is another Legco mini-purge do not expect observers elsewhere to regard this as a pristine example of the rule of law in operation.

Never mind. Aggrieved Beijing loyalists may derive some consolation from another offering from Shakespeare, who also said: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”

Hong Kong’s psychedelic disco rock superstars Shumking Mansion will play this year’s Hong Kong Free Press 2019 fundraising party at the Hive Spring in Wong Chuk Hang. Tickets are available now for a minimum donation of just HK$50 in advance (free for HKFP monthly donors).

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.