Wither Hong Kong’s economy?

It’s hard to know what to make of the near-surreal news flowing through Hong Kong at the moment in relation to its economy. It’s as if there are people here, living in ivory towers, who cannot see what is happening on the streets and in the shopping malls while they issue policies and commentaries that have no bearing on reality.

The Hong Kong government has announced details of another round of relief measures, which include instalment plans for tax bills and direct subsidies for utilities, aimed at supporting those smaller companies whose businesses have been hit hardest by the protests. The message seems to be: don’t worry, we know times are hard, so take a bit longer to pay us what you owe, but we know you will get on your feet again, eventually, and in the meantime, don’t worry, we won’t shut off the lights and water.

If this sounds like a kindly landlord, that is likely because it’s intentional. Yet the irony is hard to escape. It was a rentier-dominated economic mindset that got Hong Kong into this mess in the first place. Though it might read like a Dickensian novel, Hong Kong’s reality is more brutal: No amount of kindliness is going to change the fact that the system is rigged in favour of the landed gentry, and no amount of sweeteners are likely to melt the hearts of the downtrodden. How the government cannot see that is explained only by realising how out of touch these officials have become with the reality of the people they govern.

It wouldn’t take more than a quick walk around Hong Kong’s malls at the moment to see that the city has changed fundamentally. And a knowledge of history will help to convince that this change is irreversible. The mainland tourist hordes that drove the economy for the past 15-plus years aren’t coming back. Not now, not for the foreseeable future, and likely not in the same kind of numbers ever again. Why can’t the government acknowledge this and start talking about the deep change that is necessary to restructure the economy?

They are not alone. Such a walkabout in the malls would likely not stop those cheery people at Euromonitor from blithely suggesting that all this, too, will pass, and that the mainland tourists will come back, because “visitors forget”, just like they did after New York and Paris suffered their terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2015, respectively.

Putting aside that mainland tourists who come here are loved by the locals about as much as Vichy officials were in wartime France, it is hard to imagine how this consultancy can be talking about the same place as the one currently being torn by internal civil discord rather than being subjected to one-off terrorist attacks.

Perhaps Bluebell might know better. The city’s biggest distributor of luxury goods clearly sees that the customers who drove their sales to world record highs per square foot in recent years aren’t coming back. But can their landlords be expected to show a heart? Would Bluebell be asking via the news media if they could?

Against all of this, is it any wonder that the protesters are demanding universal suffrage, even though they know it is about as acceptable to Beijing as an untasted, foreign-made soup would be to anyone?

When will the need for deep-rooted economic reforms in Hong Kong be acknowledged? Once the city’s fiscal reserves have dropped below the $1 trillion mark?

There are clearly some sensible people ready to burn the midnight oil in Legco. Live-streamed, of course. At what point will they start to engage in some spirited debate about how rotten the state of the economy is? For Hong Kong’s sake, the answer must be: not a moment too soon.

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