Knowing Hong Kong’s place

US leaker Edward Snowden’s short, unhappy stay in Hong Kong highlighted the confusion about my adopted hometown’s status under Chinese sovereignty. The July 1 anniversary of the 1997 Hong Kong handover is a good opportunity to clear things up.

First, let me say that, like most Hong Kongers, I’m of two minds about Snowden, though perhaps for different reasons. I’ve held a US security clearance, and I didn’t take the responsibility lightly. I also can imagine the weight Barack Obama’s administration feels to protect the American public because, unlike the George W Bush people, it can’t bask in the belief that an attack that kills thousands of Americans is science fiction. It’s also a political fact that the Obama administration got more heat for a guy on an airplane with explosives in his underwear who was apprehended without causing damage than the Bush administration got for ignoring a memo that warned Al Qaeda was determined to strike the US and doing nothing to prevent the thousands of deaths that resulted from that tragedy (not to mention the phony war it drummed up in its aftermath), unless buying expensive shoes, sporting a bad haircut and flapping your overbite are anti-terrorism measures.

I also feel very strongly about the right to privacy and snooping into our personal lives. I’m quite sympathetic to the argument that the National Security Agency wasn’t collecting any more information than Google, phone companies and big data aggregators do. To me, that means we should be fully exposing and debating what those private companies do, rather than expanding these hidden privileges to the government.

Snowden presented Hong Kong with an unwelcome dilemma. It was caught in the middle of a dispute involving two of its most important partners. His disclosure of US spying at Chinese University of Hong Kong rightly raised questions about the US-Hong Kong relationship. Snowden’s revelations of US cyber espionage on the mainland provided juicy political ammunition for China to counter US accusations of China’s hacking of US targets. But the US-China relationship is far more important than anything Snowden could offer. So getting him out of their hair Hong Kong was a good thing for all.

It was troubling to see Cyd Ho, one of Hong Kong’s leading pan-democratic politicians, ask Beijing to reveal its position on Snowden before Hong Kong courts heard his case. But it’s not Hong Kong’s place to get in the middle of a Sino-American dispute, unless Hong Kong itself is the subject.

But far more wrongheaded than Cyd Ho’s deference to Beijing was the stream of US politicians bloviating about Snowden taking his secrets to China, as if Hong Kong is just another city in China. The whole point of Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region (SAR) of China is that it’s not just another city in China.

The Basic Law, the mini-constitution for post-handover Hong Kong, guarantees the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy” in its domestic affairs for 50 years, with Beijing having a leading role in defense and foreign affairs only. (Snowden’s connection to foreign affairs gives local politicians an excuse for deferring to the mainland.) That high degree of autonomy includes freedom of expression and western style civil liberties that remain distant dreams in the mainland. Hong Kong has more than 7 million people, its own currency, its own courts and its own official language. There’s still a border between the Hong Kong and mainland, and citizens of each need permission to cross it. Deng Xiaoping summed up relationship best: “one country-two systems.”

The Hong Kong government makes it own laws with the help of an elected legislature. The electoral system isn’t terribly fair, but as much blame for that lies with the British and Hong Kong elite as Beijing. The British ruled undemocratically for 150 years and only began caring about giving Hong Kong’s masses a voice when the clock was running out. The local Chinese elite the colonial government leaned on were largely disinclined to cede power.

The relationship between China and Hong Kong is not analogous to the US government and a state. It’s more like the US relationship with Puerto Rico; few American would say that a person who went to Puerto Rico had thrown himself into the arms of the US intelligence services. But the US and Puerto Rico are in some ways closer than Hong Kong and China: Chinese citizens cannot freely visit, live and work in Hong Kong and vice versa.

As I wrote in Hong Kong On Air, everyone wondered how well “one country-two systems” would hold up after the handover. The problem, in these ensuing years, hasn’t been the structure but Hong Kong’s elite.

Hours after the handover (and completely unrelated to it), the Asian economic crisis hit the region as currencies collapsed. The crisis began China’s transformation from a supporting player amid the Asian tiger economies to the region’s leading dragon. Before the handover, Hong Kong expected to be the rich teacher to the mainland, but Hong Kong and China’s economic fortunes were abruptly reversed. Since the handover and the SARS epidemic of 2003, Hong Kong’s economy has become far more dependent on the mainland.

Despite that development, grassroots Hong Kong recognizes that loving China and doing business with it doesn’t mean loving the Communist Party’s rule. People here rose up against a plan to put mainland propaganda into the school curriculum and continue to campaign for free, direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, its head of government. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers turn out annually to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that still cannot be spoken of across the border.

But Hong Kong’s elite have always been dependent on whoever’s in charge. Propaganda about Hong Kong and Singapore as the world’s freest economies notwithstanding, local tycoons got rich by kowtowing to leadership for favors and licenses. For example, property is the source of most wealth in Hong Kong and the government owns all the land, not exactly the way Adam Smith drew it up. Hong Kong’s rigged electoral system gives those tycoons disproportionate say in the legislature and lets Beijing chose the people who choose the chief executive. These so-called leaders put far greater emphasis on “one country” than “two systems” and skew outsiders’ views of Hong Kong. Their laxity about safeguarding Hong Kong’s prerogatives represents the small circle that elects them, not the majority of Hong Kongers.

What the tycoons and their acolytes fail to recognize is that they have the most to lose if Hong Kong really does become just another Chinese city. Fortunately, the people who ride the subway instead of Rolls Royces and Bentleys keep standing up to prevent it from happening. At least some of us recognize where our best interests really lie.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.