“Hong Kong must be terrible,” said a woman standing behind me in a London suburb pharmacy after we fell into discussion, as you do when queues are long. She had no clear idea about what is going on, just an overwhelming impression of how things have deteriorated.
I am getting used to people in Britain commenting on Hong Kong and doing so without prompting. It is very, very different from when I previously lived here, over three decades ago. Then, the sum of knowledge for most people seemed to be kung fu fighting, possibly a liking for chop suey and a vague impression that it was a great place for knock-off goods.
Now, Hong Kong is astonishingly on the political radar. You expect that political professionals would know what’s going on but there also seems to be a widespread public awareness of how the freedoms of the former British colony are disappearing.
This is unusual in many ways, not least because Britons rarely spend much time thinking about the politics of countries far away. Their political leaders tend to be similarly negligent because, as they constantly look over their shoulders pondering electoral prospects, they feel the need to focus on more immediate domestic issues.
Yet the situation in Hong Kong has struck a chord, derived from an impression of how a brutal regime has decided to destroy a place that was working and enjoying the heady atmosphere of liberty. It may sound trite to say this, but people here are offended by a sense of injustice.
Moreover, in practical terms, and this is supported by polling evidence, British citizens are quite prepared to contemplate a mass influx of Hongkongers seeking to flee the new regime. Having very rapidly, and with little effort on my part, contacted recently arrived Hong Kong immigrants, I cannot find evidence of the discrimination they are alleged to be receiving, as portrayed in much of the SAR mainstream media. Of course, the incomers face problems. How could it be otherwise for new arrivals practically anywhere in the world?
In response Hongkongers have established mutual support groups up and down the country, connected by social media. The support is practical: advice and experience are shared and, in case anyone in Beijing fondly imagines that Hong Kong exiles have abandoned concerns for the politics of their former home, I can categorically say that this is not so.
These are first impressions and allowance should be made for their superficiality, but I was brought up here and returned with certain dismal expectations that have pleasantly proved to be unfounded.
Because my departure turned out to be more high profile than I had either imagined or, frankly, desired, I have had a great deal of interaction with local media and organisations. What impressed me was that my interlocuters were amazingly well informed about Hong Kong and sailed way past the cliches and blithe assumptions that might have been expected.
So, Hong Kong is firmly on the map but lamentably it is part of that map with many negative connotations. The powerful people in Beijing have argued that they are not even vaguely concerned about what Britons think of them and cling to the notion that in areas where it really matters, namely the pursuit of business, there will be no change as long as the world’s biggest market dictates the terms of commerce.
However, impressions matter a great deal for a place like Hong Kong that produces more or less nothing in terms of tangible goods but has thrived as a centre for the facilitation of business. Does anyone seriously believe that this crucial role can be maintained when the perception of the SAR is that it is a dark place where people are seized from their homes in the early hours of the morning, where banks freeze assets for political reasons and where freedom of expression shrinks by the day?
The cheerleaders for the new order say, with justice, that the impact of these changes has hardly made a dent in the conduct of business. While conceding that there may be some unease, indeed some exits by companies, they have an arrogant confidence that the lure of profit will put a stop to all this nonsense.
But perceptions are important and indeed vital for Hong Kong which had as its calling card a first-class reputation for freedom and rule of law. People wanting to do business with China will accept the consequences of dealing with a dictatorship. But they are hardly likely to pay the premium of doing so from the very costly base of the SAR, as it transits towards the kind of total integration with the mainland that leaves it bereft of the advantages that once commanded these additional costs.
From my new vantage point here in the UK, I find it heart-wrenching that Hong Kong is increasingly seen in this negative way and alarmed over the longer-term consequences that will develop. However, I am also vividly aware that the view from Beijing is that the demise of the city really does not matter.
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