Gloom in Hong Kong

Gloom in Hong Kong

From protests and riots to COVID and travel bans, Hong Kong has had a hard time in the last two or three years.  Early spring is always gloomy here.  This year, most people are more depressed than usual.  Finding someone to blame is natural.   There is a joke going around on Hong Kong social media:

Carrie Lam and Paul Chan (Chief Executive and Financial Secretary of Hong Kong) are travelling in a helicopter flying over Hong Kong.  Paul turns to Carrie and says, “if I took a few $1000 and changed them into $100 notes and then threw them out, I believe the people who pick them up will be very happy.”

Carrie replies: “well yes but if I took a few $1000 and changed them into $20 notes and then throw them out, I believe people will be happier as many more people would have a chance to pick up free money.”

Then, after minutes of silence, the pilot of the helicopter turns around and says: “if I threw you both out of the helicopter, I could guarantee that 7.5 million people would be extremely happy!”

Criticism of the Government

The joke could apply to almost every government in the world.  But it has special poignancy in Hong Kong where the government has always been only partly responsible for the city’s wellbeing.   In colonial days, the British government gave advice and instructions.  Today, China does so.  The city’s government enjoys broad support when it is successful: it has little when things go wrong.  

Recent criticism of the Government is especially severe.  The South China Morning Post’s Lilian Cheng on 11th March writes how the Government changed its mind about mass testing to tackle Hong Kong’s latest and most severe phase of COVID-19.

Political academics from across the spectrum agreed that, while the latest change of strategy was necessary, it also exposed how unprepared and disorganised the government had been. Worse, its reactive mode was only further undermining its credibility, forcing trust levels to dip even lower among the public.

Gloom in Hong Kong

In an earlier article in the same newspaper, Tony Cheung wrote about Beijing’s views on Hong Kong’s leadership.

A mainland Chinese state leader has urged Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp to support the local government in tackling deep-seated problems and boosting the economy, as well as in further integrating the city with the nation’s development plans. Analysts and lawmakers said that, while these were requirements for pro-establishment politicians, the state leader overseeing Hong Kong affairs, had also effectively updated Beijing’s expectations of the city’s leader. Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said that Vice-Premier Han Zheng’s comments amounted to an oblique criticism of the incumbent chief executive and her government.

Hong Kong 01, commented on the same subject:

The chaos in Hong Kong’s response to the fifth wave of the epidemic will undoubtedly become “negative teaching material” for the mainland to manage its epidemic prevention. In addition to (not) preventing and controlling the epidemic, Hong Kong has not been able to show the advantages of the Hong Kong system. In addition to relying too much on the “old capital” of a financial centre, it is struggling in important areas such as people’s livelihood issues and economic transformation. Hong Kong adheres to “One Country, Two Systems”. The original intention was to provide more positive lessons, not negative ones.

Pandemic alleviation

No government responded adequately to the pandemic.  As it spread round the world, each government did its best to cope.  Scientists are not sure, even with hindsight, what would have been the best way to handle COVID-19.  The Hong Kong Government was proud of its success in the early stages of COVID.   The Omicron variant has caused chaos in Hong Kong, as it has everywhere else.  The variant will fade, as it has done elsewhere, but meanwhile cases and deaths are rising fast.  

The problem with the pandemic in Hong Kong, as elsewhere, was lack of preparedness and the strain COVID thus put on medical services.   Critics say that the Hong Kong government should have learned from experience elsewhere that Omicron would come to the city, and thus should have prepared better to cope with it.   Instead, it now relies on strategies and resources from mainland China.  This, almost more than the death rate and scenes of patients in hospital corridors, has prompted the most recent, universal, criticism.

Not just COVID

Overseas commentators’ criticisms mostly relate to another ‘failure’ – maintaining Hong Kong’s freedoms under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement with China.  The ‘Atlantic’ is one of the many Western publications with strong views.   

“Since 1857, The Atlantic has been challenging assumptions and pursuing truth,” the journal’s history reads. 

When the founders of The Atlantic gathered in Boston in the spring of 1857, they wanted to create a magazine that would be indispensable for the kind of reader who was deeply engaged with the most consequential issues of the day.

So, when China introduced the Hong Kong National Security Law in June 2020 to control Hong Kong’s rioting, the Atlantic had some trenchant comments about Carrie Lam:

History will perhaps judge Lam as the leader who killed her city without needing any tanks.

In other words, the Hong Kong government had failed to ‘stand up for Hong Kong’.  It ‘allowed’ China to pass a law that the Western media and politicians saw as a takeover of Hong Kong’s autonomy by the mainland.  The article goes on “Carrie Lam embraces a valueless mindset – Lam’s ability is to serve those in power without question.  This is actually a colonial legacy.”

Criticisms of Carrie Lam’s handling of both the pandemic and the Hong Kong riots (that led to the National Security Law) are usually over-simplified.  Much depends on the observer’s viewpoint.  Many people in Hong Kong saw the National Security Law as a positive intervention to end serious rioting in the city.  

Gloom in Hong Kong

British colonialism

In any case, as the Atlantic says, it is hard to see how a colonial civil service could behave differently, merely because another power was in charge.  150 years of traditional British colonial governance were never going to be swept away on 1 July 1997.  Neither the British nor Chinese governments – or the people of Hong Kong – wanted them to be.  The plan was, and is, for a 50-year period of transition.

Yet, the British administration of Hong Kong was not exemplary.  In September 1997, just after the return to China, Ming Chan published a carefully researched and moderately expressed review of the Colonial administration.   The paper holds that:  

The British regime in Hong Kong in its final days was still far from truly democratic, fully accountable uncorrupted, efficient and effective in meeting the basic needs of the people. The British-style rule of law, always regarded as the single most significant British legacy in Hong Kong, was weakened by the sullied records of its legal system personnel, and by a history of legal impropriety and dubious legislation.


When the administration did not wish to seek the approval of Legco, it could resort to the Emergency Regulations Ordinance of 1922 which allowed imprisonment without trial and many other breaches of human rights. Yet such acts were considered perfectly legal. Because this ordinance remains on the statute books, the serious risk remains that the HKSAR government may apply it as did the colonial government.

Ming Chan was prescient.  Carrie Lam invoked this Ordinance on 4th October 2019 to help control Hong Kong’s riots.  The Government did so again on 24th February 2022 to allow Mainland doctors into Hong Kong to help with the current pandemic crisis.


Hong Kong people are justifiably unhappy with the ways things are.  The Hong Kong Government – like all governments – has failed its people on many occasions.  Its leaders, necessarily, are the product of British colonialism.  Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view.  What is beyond doubt is that today’s legal and operating infrastructure of Hong Kong were put in place by the British. 

As Ming Chan comments:

In retrospect, looking at the full spectrum of 150 years of British administration of Hong Kong, it is definitely not the best, although far from the worst record of colonial rule in the world. If the post 1997 developments in the HKSAR turn out to be far from ideal, the burden of blame should not rest entirely on misguided policies and actions by Beijing. Rather the inadequate foundation, unhealthy political culture, flawed legal administrative framework, and questionable bureaucratic practices inherited from the British … ought to be blamed as well.

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