“Asia’s world city.” That’s been Hong Kong’s boast for two decades now. Our “brand,” as the public relations flacks like to call it. 

But the city has taken a nasty beating in the PR department over the past couple of years — it seems millions-strong anti-government protests, police brutality and incompetent leadership don’t play well on the global stage. Add to that a suffocating national security law that has destroyed any meaningful form of political opposition and many former pan-democratic legislators and activists who have either fled the city or landed in jail.  

The Central district in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Time’s up, it seems, for “Asia’s world city.” Its sell-by date has long passed.  

Indeed, even our purblind local leaders have recognised the tagline as obsolete and thus decided to rebrand — actually, “relaunch” is the robust verb of choice — Hong Kong. Last year, they dished out HK$44.4 million (US$5.7 million) in taxpayer money to the international consultancy firm Consulum — whose other clients have included that exemplar of civic geniality and human rights, Saudi Arabia — to come up with a grand plan to recast the troubled city’s image in a more favourable light. 

When Consulum’s contract with the Information Services Department expired last June, however, there was nothing to show. No new transformational theme or goal. No new advertising or marketing plan. Nada.

That’s still the case, and even pro-establishment stalwarts like Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the former security tsar who is now a member of both the Legislative Council and the Executive Council, are wondering why. 

At a recent Legco meeting, Ip clamoured for details of Consulum’s publicity blueprint to revive Hong Kong.

People in a shopping mall in Admiralty. Photo: GovHK.

In a written reply, Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui Ying-wai said that, based on Consulum’s research, the government planned to unfold the campaign in stages once the Covid-19 pandemic eases. That research, according to Tsui, showed positive international perceptions of Hong Kong as a “cosmopolitan, diverse, dynamic and connected” city that is also seen as “the ideal springboard to the Mainland and Asian markets.” The city will be promoted as the best place to live and do business in Asia, Tsui said.   

Of course, Covid has made mincemeat of all these promotional plans, but even post-coronavirus this “relaunch” is likely to crash-land in much of the rest of the world. Hong Kong was once seen as a thriving, free-wheeling, free-thinking East-West success story. Now it is increasingly viewed as a city whose creativity and independent spirit have been crushed by the heavy hand of central government authorities, who see dangerous anti-China forces everywhere they look. 

In truth, future perceptions of Hong Kong will be almost entirely dependent on how the world views China, an authoritarian one-party state that, let’s face it, struggles mightily to win hearts and minds. 

Photo: Michael Ho/Studio Incendo.

In its harsh response to the anti-government protests of 2019-2020, Beijing has made its point resoundingly clear: Hong Kong is no longer the one city in China where human rights and freedom of speech and assembly are respected and cherished. In President Xi Jinping’s China, “one country, two systems” — Deng Xiaoping’s ingenious formula for maintaining Hong Kong’s unique culture and way of life — has been purposefully vitiated almost beyond recognition. 

Xi and his underlings, with a big assist from Covid, have successfully brought Hong Kong to heel. The streets are calm, the voices of dissent have been silenced, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her band of kow-towing ministers are unceasing in their praise of this achievement. 

But the subjugation of Hong Kong has not come without its costs. Putting PR fantasies aside, Hong Kong going forward will certainly be a far less “cosmopolitan, diverse, dynamic and connected” city than it was before the national security law and its virtual takeover by the mainland’s liaison office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. 
Once touted as “Asia world city,” let’s hope Hong Kong’s fate is not to become “China’s second or third best city.”

That’s not how we want to relaunch. 


HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.