🎙️ | Steve Vines, Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World's Largest Dictatorship
My guest today is Stephen Vines. Steve is a British journalist, writer, broadcaster and restaurateur, who was based in Hong Kong for over 30 years from 1987 to 2021. He is also the author of Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World's Largest Dictatorship, which is today’s focus.
In Defying the Dragon and today’s conversation, Stephen documents Hong Kong’s recent struggles with the "One country, two systems" model, places it in the wider context of the CCP’s history of dictatorship, and explains Hong Kong’s values of protest and identity.
Must listen podcast, so please my conversation with Steve Vines!
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My takeaways and lessons:
On the future of Hong Kong
“I’m guilty of it as anybody, in a state of terminal depression. I mean, to see what has been lost in Hong Kong is so heartbreaking. I can’t really put it in any other way to see as I do practically every day. [...]
Having said all of that and however depressing it is, I just do not think this is the end of the story.
The consequences of restoring liberty usually involve chaos and very difficult circumstances. But I think at the end of the day, the system will implode because it’s not working.”
Why did the British make this a 99-year lease and not land in perpetuity? Would this whole situation be avoided, or would China still find a way to kick up a stink and try to get Hong Kong back?
it [Hong Kong] wasn’t like India, which was, you know, big colony. And Britain had enormous aspirations for it. And it wasn’t like the so-called white colonies of Australia and New Zealand where there was this sense of kinship between the so-called mother country and the colonial countries. Hong Kong was full of people who they’d never heard of looked a bit odd. I’m trying to do this through the eyes of the Victorians. You know, we never heard of these people. Who are they? Oh, are we, are we really supposed to be responsible for them? Well, what a nuisance that is. So, you know, it was this strange situation where there was a carelessness about the British colonial enterprise and the third treaty, which gave Hong Kong its greater land mass was I think conducted in that spirit of carelessness. 99 years. That seems like a very long time.
We’ll probably have lost interest in Hong Kong by then. […] So, you know, it was this blindness to what that would actually mean. I think if anybody spent more than six minutes in London thinking about Hong Kong, they thought about it as this sort of port with a deep harbor, a few people and a sort of conduit for doing business. It never occurred to them that this territory, which at the time of occupation was probably occupied by no more than tens of thousands of people would end up to be home for 7.4 million people. That in that extraordinary development of society in Hong Kong, a Hong Kong identity would be established. Who knew that, you know, so on and on you go through what they weren’t thinking about rather than what they weren’t thinking about and they weren’t thinking about a hell of a lot.
[00:00:31] - [First question] - how you Steve came to Hong Kong in 1987 and why he left in 2021
[00:14:23] - Why couldn’t the CCP honour the 1 country 2 systems model?
[00:18:03] - Why did the British make the New Territories a 99-year lease and not land in perpetuity like the rest of Hong Kong? Would this whole situation be avoided or would China still find a way to get Hong Kong back?
[00:22:31] - Differences between Hong Kong and Macau
[00:28:04] - If the one country two systems model was a trial run for incorporating Taiwan back into China, why has the CCP done such a terrible job?
[00:33:48] - Thoughts on Hong Kong Identity
[00:41:53] - Anything we haven’t covered about Hong Kong today?
Connect with Steve:
Kalani Scarrott (00:31): Okay, my guest today is Steven Vines. Steve is a British journalist, writer, broadcaster, and restaurateur who is based in Hong Kong for over 30 years. He is the author of Defying the Dragon Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, which is today’s focus in Defying the Dragon. And in today’s conversation, Steven documents Hong Kong’s recent struggles with the One Country Two Systems model, places it in the wider context of the CCPs history of dictatorship, and explains Hong Kong’s values of protest and identity. So I learnt an absolute tonne in this one, so please enjoy my conversation with Steve Vines. Cool. So Steve, thank you so much for coming on today. and maybe just for guests who might not know, before we get into the nitty gritty of Hong Kong, could you tell us a little bit about how you first came to Hong Kong in 1987 and ultimately why you left in 2021?
Steve Vines (01:25): So, I originally came to Hong Kong, as you say, in 1987 primarily to work for the observer as the grandly titled Southeast Asia correspondent. And, and the reason I went to Hong Kong was because it was the easiest place in Southeast Asia to be based, easy to get access, good communications, no worries about people harassing you for doing your work. All those sort of things. And the people in London thought at the time, they said, oh, you know, Hong Kong’s not much of a story, but you know, you stay there and you go around the region, it will be easy. And then it soon became clear to me, and to be fair to them, that there was actually a very big story in Hong Kong. The resumption of Chinese sovereignty was due in’s time. The agreement to hand over Hong Kong to Chinese rule have been signed three years previously in 1984.
(02:29): And then the most significant event was the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. And it was significant, obviously in China itself, the suppression of the democracy movement. But it was this extraordinary explosion in Hong Kong of support for the democracy movement on the Chinese mainland. The monster demonstrations that were held after the massacre on June 4th, 1989, finally nailed the lie, the big lie that the British had propagated that so many people from the Hong Kong establishment of propagated, which is, oh, you know, Hong Kong people, they’re only interested in making money, they’re not interested in politics, they’re not they’re pretty self-centered, selfish, whatever you wanna call it. You know, you don’t need to worry about that stuff. They’ll carry on making money. And there’s a few people on the edge who, who, who have wider concerns. Well, that turned out to be complete. I’d always suspected it was nonsense, but here was the manifest demonstration that this was complete nonsense.
(03:37): So anyway, I was meanwhile really becoming very attached, emotionally attached to Hong Kong. So I was very determined to stay there. But 1989 persuaded me that there were good reasons, both personally and from a journalist point of view to stay there. And so, you know, as I stayed there over the while, I the observer got fed up with me being there too long and said, you either ship out or ship off. So I said, okay, bye bye, and started working for other people. But, but I mean, you know, even after 1997, which of course was the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, resume Chinese sovereignty, if you like, it seemed as though that promise that had been given by ding the China’s paramount leader, that there would be one country, two systems, Hong Kong people would be ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of atomic.
(04:38): These are all quotes from, they’re not things that I’ve made up. it kind of seemed to be working. I mean, it wasn’t working perfectly, but I’ve never come across a system that worked perfectly. But my, my estimation at the time, and even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think it was terribly wrong, was that we’d find a way of modeling on, you know, it wouldn’t be the same as before, but it certainly wouldn’t be intolerable. Hong Kong was still a better place to be compared with the alternatives. You know, some people said, oh, why don’t you go to Singapore, ghastly authoritarian society, why don’t you go to Thailand? Which at the time was convulsed by political upheaval as was Indonesia incidentally at that time, as was the Philippines, you know, so, so Hong Kong seemed not only like an island of stability, but also as far as being an operational base, the best place to be.
(05:39): So, you know, I, I happily stayed on, I increasingly moved my focus from Southeast Asia onto Hong Kong and China itself, because you can’t sensibly understand what’s going on in Hong Kong if you don’t make an effort to find out what’s going on in China. And I made increasing numbers of visits to the Chinese mainland, which were very eye-opening to me because, you know, I wasn’t well informed, at least I don’t think I was. And all of this trundles on until basically the assumption of power in Beijing by the General secretary or Chairman, it’s always unclear how you describe it, general secretary or chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping. And it became clear only in retrospect, I have to say that at this point that no element of autonomy would be allowed in Hong Kong. So we’re, we’re talking about, this is 2018, not 2019 when the protest started, no element of autonomy would be allowed, no freedom would be allowed to operate on the one country, two systems.
(06:54): In other words, the two systems would be melded together. And then you had in 2019 the outbreak of these protests, which were triggered by a proposal to change the extradition rule, which would’ve subjected Hong Kong people to being deported across the border to face Chinese courts. Where as soon as you appear in the do you are deemed to be guilty. There’s no question that something like 99%, 99 point something percent of the people who appear in the dock of a Chinese court are then convicted of crimes. So the great thing that Hong Kong people had valued, even those who were bitterly anti-colonial, was that the British had established rule of law that you could go to a court and you had every possibility of a being judged by your peers cause you had a jury system and b, being judged by an impartial judiciary who didn’t have to look over their shoulders at what their political masters want to do.
(07:59): This was a matter of extreme importance to individuals, but of course to business, which is why Hong Kong became such an enormous international business center because if you were establish your business in Hong Kong, under Hong Kong laws and a commercial dispute arose, or you thought that there was infringement of your legal rights, you had redress and you had a pretty reasonable chance of getting it sorted out in an impartial court of law. So the threat of changing the extradition law was a very big one. But you know how these things go. It starts with one issue, and then people say the core problem in Hong Kong isn’t just the extradition or it’s the lack of democracy, it’s the lack of accountability political accountability. So of course the protests widened, and you’ve got the, the government officials bleeding in the background. Oh, I thought this was about extraditional. Why are they talking about democracy now?
(08:56): Well, fellas, that’s how it works. You start with one thing and you know, it’s like swimming. You think you can do one length and you end up doing 29. So, you know, the fact of the matter is that, that by June of 2019, it was an uprising, but it was a peaceful one, demonstrations on the street of 1 million people demonstrations on the street of 2 million people, you know, 20 odd percent of the population. Can you imagine that it’s unknown? And I’ve lived in a number of other countries, unknown in any place I’ve ever lived, that that percentage of the population would be motivated to get out onto the streets as the protests escalated, so did the violence of the police, and so did the violence of a section of the protestors. So it became very, very tense. But you know, the remarkable thing, and I remember this in Indonesia, when there were very extreme riots going on at the end of the Suharto regime, you know, and I feel I was sort of contributing to this as a journalist, you know, all the images that we were sending back were of burning and people tracking rocks and police firing at crowds.
(10:21): But, you know, I remember going to some of these demonstrations, walking three streets down business more or less as usual. So in Hong Kong it was kind of like that, it looked as though the whole place was in turmoil. The reality is that it wasn’t, it was certainly in a, in a state of tension. It was certainly a traumatic time for everybody involved on both sides of the fence. I don’t question that, but you know, it wasn’t as the propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party now maintain, it wasn’t a state of turmoil in the sense that that, that people were out of control. That simply wasn’t the case. But it did give the regime in Beijing the opportunity that it had been looking for since 2014. This is apparently when the decision was made to crack down on Hong Kong’s freedoms to end so autonomy.
(11:18): And of course, by 2020 I, the, the, the year after the protest brought out the Chinese state imposed the national security law in Hong Kong. And then things got really difficult. The law itself is ominous. It’s an unspecific law, which means that you can be picked up literally off the streets or by the chosen method of the Hong Kong police force, which is to call on you at, at dawn, usually mob handed. I mean, you know, you, the people I know who’ve been arrested, you know, who barely cross a, a road on a red light, were having 20 police officers storming through their, their apartments. Most people in Hong Kong don’t live in houses. They have in small apartments, 20 policemen in small apartment. There’s a lot of people seizing all your electronic equipment, you know, rifling through your papers, et cetera, et cetera. So at that point, all of us who were heavily involved in the Hong Kong media had realized that that, that we were targets as well as reporters becoming a reporter in Hong Kong, became a dangerous enterprise.
(12:33): was presenting a current affairs program for radio, television, Hong Kong, which is the public broadcaster. And the regime had decided that the radio, television, Hong Kong, rt, h k, had to be purged. So a new director general was installed and he brought with him what can only be described as com Arts because their only role was political. These were people who had no experience of broadcasting, but strutted around the building, firing people, censoring programs rectifying out many, many errors. And I’m sure they were many. And, you know, that was scary enough. I’d been, so the program I was doing, of course, was eventually closed down, but I actually quit just before they did that. I was doing a radio program, which they then purged. I was writing a column for the Apple Daily newspaper, the only mass circulation Prodemocracy newspaper in Hong Kong that was closed down.
(13:31): I’d just written a book about the protest in Hong Kong called Defining the Dragon, which was effectively banned, although it has never been formally banned. It’s just, you can’t buy it in Hong Kong, and it won’t appear on library shelves. So, you know, everything was crashing in. I felt that I couldn’t do my work anymore. but, you know, I, and then various ominous forms of harassment started to begin. And I thought this, this is the end of the road. I mean, I never, ever in my wildest imaginations thought I was going to live in Hong Kong. You know, I’d lived there for 34 years. It was essentially my home. I didn’t see any reason why I’d want to go and live anywhere else. And here I am back in Britain <laugh>
Kalani Scarrott (14:23): To go off some, this is, this, this is a simple question and it’s going off something you just mentioned. So you said that Xi Jinping would never let Hong Kong have its autonomy. Yeah. Why, why couldn’t they just let Hong Kong continue under the one, two sorry, one state, two systems,
Steve Vines (14:38): One country, two systems, yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (14:39): Mind blank, one country, two systems. Sorry.
Steve Vines (14:41): Yes. I think because it is the DNA of, within the DNA of the Chinese Communist Party that they have to have control. The idea that you would allow genuine autonomy to any part of the territory under control of the Communist Party is an asthma. It simply cannot be tolerated. She himself has frequently said, and it’s a core part of shooting Ping thought, which has now become the states guiding ideological thought. It is a key part of that, that party above all, there is no such thing as division of powers between the legislature, the judiciary, and the ruling communist party. Everything is subservient, the Communist Party. So in Hong Kong, where there were very significant areas of autonomy, the people engaging were saying to themselves, why the hell are we allowing that? You know, it’s, it’s our place. They’re strutting around. They hold, the judges don’t defer to the government before making a decision.
(15:52): What’s, what’s that all about? you’ve got newspapers that criticize the Communist Party. What’s that all about? You’ve got teachers who, who, who aren’t towing the line you and, you know, so it goes on. And even though it means, and of course it does mean because Hong Kong is now in the di economic situation, even if it means destroying the underpinnings of the economy, that’s far less important than retaining the iron grip that the Communist party has on power. So it’s interesting, and when I was doing research for, for the book, I mentioned, I had to go back more carefully to look at what Dun shopping had said who’s credited as the father of one country, two systems, and what was being said back then, this is in the early 1980s, and I realized, my goodness, I should have been paying much better attention.
(16:55): when you go back over the material, what you realize is even then they were saying basically, well, you know, Hong Kong can sort of operate freely, economically, but make no mistake, Hong Kong will not be allowed to operate freely in the political and social sphere. And I think all of us, and when you’re in the middle of something, you try and look on the bright side, all of us see, oh, we’ll be allowed to carry on as things were, but, but forgot to look at the butts and the ifs and the butts and the ifs then became no longer buts but ifs, but became the ruling dictum of the party and the people who, who were in control. And then they also appointed all these most extraordinary array of quislings to do their work in Hong Kong. These are Hong Kong people who should eternally be ashamed of themselves for the way that they have failed to stand up for their own people in Hong Kong. But every dictatorship produces quislings. So we shouldn’t be that surprised.
Kalani Scarrott (18:03): And from your book, I’ll read a quote and then ask my question after, but you said “the 1898 convention of Beijing gave the British the largest piece of land mass attached to the Chinese mainland, which became known as the New Territories. As the new territories became the biggest part of Hong Kong, continued British rule became unfeasible without this swath of land. However, whereas previous agreements had granted Britain this land in perpetuity, the third concession was a 99-year lease, a time span dreamt up with little thought for what might happen in 1997 when the lease would expire.” So I’m not sure this can be answered, but I’m pretty curious about this pivotal point in history. Why did the British make this a 99-year lease and not land in perpetuity? Would this whole situation be avoided, or would China still find a way to kick up a stink and try to get Hong Kong back? Do you have any opinions on this? Because that stuck out to me when reading your book.
Steve Vines (18:50): Yeah, and, and actually this is a good point. I now think I should have said more about this because I have thought about it quite a lot and it is important. And I think the answer is this, is that back then the China, China’s imperial leadership was, was very weak. And foreign powers, not just Britain, Portugal, Germany France were all busy nibbling away at bits of Chinese territory. And it was every, every indication that it was easy to do that as, as far as the imperial powers were, were concerned. And Britain was kinda careless. You know, Britain had never really wanted to establish a colony in Hong Kong. It was just that the commander of the British forces here, just you had actually took that decision without reference to London, which Lord Palmerston, who was then the prime Minister was furious about.
(19:56): So Britain was never, it wasn’t like India, which was, you know, big colony. And Britain had enormous aspirations for it. And it wasn’t like the so-called white colonies of Australia and New Zealand where there was this sense of kinship between the so-called mother country and, and the colonial countries. Hong Kong was full of people who they’d never heard of looked a bit odd. I’m trying to do this through the eyes of the Victorians. You know, we never heard of these people. Who are they? Oh, are we, are we really supposed to be responsible for them? Well, what a nuisance that is. So, you know, it was this strange situation where there was a carelessness about the British colonial enterprise and the third treaty, which gave Hong Kong its greater land mass was I think conducted in that spirit of carelessness. 99 years. That seems like a very long time.
(20:56): we’ll probably have lost interest in Hong Kong by then. Anyway yeah, let’s do that. and, and, and it was of a piece, I mean, other territorial concessions such as the German concession in Ching were, were, were signed on the same kind of basis. So it wasn’t that Britain was doing something particularly novel. Britain was the most active of the foreign powers who were seeking to carve out chunks of Chinese territory. And in instantly at the time, Britain had also carved out two other parts of Chinese territory in, in, in the mainland itself, which were, were also on a temporary basis. So, you know, it was this blindness to what that would actually mean. It never, they, they, I think if anybody spent more than six minutes in London thinking about Hong Kong, they thought about it as this sort of port with a deep harbor, a few people and a sort of conduit for doing business. It never occurred to them that this territory, which at the time of occupation was probably occupied by no more than tens of thousands of people would end up to be home for 7.4 million people. That in that extraordinary development of society in Hong Kong, a Hong Kong identity would be established. Who knew that, you know, so on and on you go through what they weren’t thinking about rather than what they weren’t thinking about and they weren’t thinking about a hell of a lot.
Kalani Scarrott (22:31): And for some context around Hong Kong and special admin regions, could you talk and explain about how Hong Kong and Macau differ? So given they’re both special admin regions, but they both have wildly different outcomes. You mentioned in the book Macau might be seen as the favored son in the eyes of the CCP and Hong Kong is maybe a bit of a brat. So could you elaborate on that and yeah, why they’ve had vastly different outcomes?
Steve Vines (22:54): Well, I mean, it’s, it’s very interesting. First of all, of course the Portuguese were established in Macau well before the British arrived in Hong Kong. Portuguese rule of Macau is much longer, and it is much more, I mean, Portugal was interested not just in, in Macau, they had settlements in, in Southern India. what, what has become East Timor in, in Indonesia, et cetera. So Portugal has a longer history, a longer colonial history in China and incidentally in other parts of Southeast Asia. But what happened was that with the fall of the fascist dictatorship, the Salazar dictatorship in the 1970s, the new Democratic Portuguese government basically said, what the hell are we doing here? Well, why have we got a colony in Portugal? And they tried to hand it back. They were quite keen. They, you know, they, they sent Aries to Beijing and said, you know where do we sign?
(24:01): We wanna give it back. And, and the few then in Beijing was first of all, that Macau had its uses. And second of all, the bigger interest they had, although it wasn’t burning frankly in the 1970s, but the bigger interest they had was in, in Hong Kong. And they, they were thinking vaguely, but certainly not specifically. Well, you know, if we have a plan for this, we’ll do the whole lot. We’ll do Hong Kong and Macau together. Let’s keep Macau, but tell you what, if we are gonna keep it, let’s exercise a bit more control over it. Because, you know, the Portuguese authorities made it clear that the door was pressed open. So they thought, well, okay, so the level of cha mainland Chinese influence in Macau from the 1970s has always been infinitely greater than it ever was in Hong Kong. And as the years progressed, particularly in the 1980s, China effectively was remotely running Macau, even though it was still nominally Portuguese colony.
(25:09): And of course it only formally ended being a Portuguese colony two years after the reversion of Hong Kong, the Chinese rule. But by then the, particularly the secret police were very well in installed in the Macau. A lot of the civil servants were either directly appointed, but through a securist route by Beijing, or they were indeed people from, from the Chinese mainland itself. Macau was very much under control. So what I think was the view in Beijing was not only was it under control, but the situation was as it is today, that the majority of people living in Macau, in fact are now from the Chinese mainland, was that Macau was effectively integrated even though it was nominally apart from the rest of China. And there was no significant democracy movement. There wasn’t not, there wasn’t an absence, but there was no significant, excuse me, democracy movement in, in, in Macau.
(26:19): And you know, they sort of saw this as a model, you know, I mean the fact that Macau main economy is gambling, that, that its main economic activities are the ones typically associated with gambling, a prostitution, money laundering and drug smuggling. You may say these are not the most savory and desirable economic activities on the planet, but you know, you, it was a kind of safety valve. Gambling is illegal on the Chinese mainland. So if you create this little cespit all of its own where you can do it, you kind of think, well, you know, it releases the, the pressure it gives people somewhere to go, oh yes, well, right, there’s a bit of money laundering goes on, oh, prostitution, we don’t really like that. There’s a bit of that going on, et cetera, et cetera. So you turn the blind eye, you let the safety valve open, and it’s still open of course, because gambling is still the predominant part of the Macau economy. And you say despite all of that, you say Macau is such a model, such a great place. Nobody goes on the streets and says nasty things about the Chinese Communist Party. Nobody has, the temerity is not true nstead, cuz some people do have disparity, but nobody has the temerity to stand up in the legislature and demand that Macau exercises, the Macau government exercises autonomy over the territory. So, you know, in that sense, Macau is, is constantly referred to by Chinese leaders as a shining example for Hong Kong. Oh God, help us <laugh>.
Kalani Scarrott (28:04): So from my reading as well, and correct me if I’ve interpreted this wrong, but given that the one country two systems model was essentially a trial run for incorporating Taiwan back into China’s fold, why has the CCP, I guess, effectively done such an abysmal job and ruffled so many feathers and eroded so much trust in Hong Kong? Have they shot themselves in the foot? Why would they do this?
Steve Vines (28:23): Well, I think we go back to this question of control trump’s everything else. So as you say, this is quite correct when d was thinking about one country, Jesus, he was actually really thinking about Taiwan, how do we get Taiwan back into the fold? I will use this method. And then Hong Kong comes along and thought, I’ll tell you what, we’ll do it there and see how it goes. But they can’t help themselves, you know, they don’t believe in one co I mean this is the fundamental problem is they don’t believe in one country, two systems, they believe in one country, one system. So that when it became necessary as from the view of the Chinese Communist Party to assert its iron grip on Hong Kong, they kind of realized that it would have consequences in Taiwan. But they were fool because if you run a one party dictatorship, you are easily mislead into reading signals that you wish to read because you know, nobody dares tell the leader things they don’t want to hear.
(29:31): So what they heard from Taiwan was the largest party that Roo would, has a lot of pop popular support and was basically favorable to some sort of deal with the Chinese authorities. And that the, the so-called independence, the democratic people’s part, the DPP would remain a sort of minor irritant in the, in, in, in the background. Well, the reality is that the goin the came county is imploding, not least because of people in Taiwan saying, we don’t wanna be another Hong Kong. And if you are the party that supports that, you can go to hell. So they’re imploding. The DPP has got stronger and stronger. It controls the legislature. The President China one was reelected with a bigger majority just over a year ago. And you know, China now barely talks about one country, two systems for Taiwan. What you hear from Beijing is, we have a superiority, we can invade it any time we like.
(30:44): So the, the, the option that they’re discussing for reunification is one of military, it’s a military option. That doesn’t mean that military option will be exercise tomorrow, but it is a very real possibility and anybody who discounts that, is it in ears because the, obviously there obviously are plans, contingency plans in Beijing, foreign invasion of Taiwan, but you know, it requires a political decision as to whether they want to go down that road. And this is where the international community plays a very heavy rock. The extent to which the Chinese leadership has been convinced that if push comes to shove, the international community will say, Taiwan is not worth it. If they really wanna take it over, we’re not gonna do anything. Well, there’s still that hanging question of whether that really is the response to the international community. If you listen to what’s being said now in Washington, it seems that there would be more of a response, but nobody can, I wouldn’t put a lot of money on that.
(31:58): But it’s quite interesting, if you look around the region, you look at Japan, which has, of course Japan has also been a ruler of Taiwan. Shouldn’t forget that. But you look at Japan, which has basically always played this rather non assertive role in the region, its legacy of the Second World War and has been much more reticent in asserting any kind of view of what should be happening in the region is now taking a very hard line on Taiwan is increasing its military expenditure and is joining joint patrols of the area around Taiwan. So it does seem that even in countries, I mean there are some countries in the region like Cambodia, which are basically vessel states of the people’s Republic of China nowadays. But there are other countries in the region I would point to Malaysia, which is basically has very good relations with Beijing, but very uneasy, very un good, but uneasy relations, you look at other major powers in the region. The only other one of real significance in any kind of proximity is Indonesia and the Indonesians are very busy hedging their bets and they don’t want to get into an open conflict with the authorities in Beijing. But you know, it’s not simple if you’re sitting in the hot seat in Beijing and you are the absolute dictator, which Shing is even, he must be hearing from any of his subordinates who are brave enough to say anything, which he doesn’t want to hear that. This is a tricky one.
Kalani Scarrott (33:48): And back to Hong Kong, and just with your time there, you wrote in your book how more now than ever that Hong Kong was a choosing to identify as Hong Kong is not as Hong Kong Chinese. Where does Hong Kong’s identity come into this? Is it strong enough to survive everyone immigrating and all the crackdowns? I’d just love to hear your thoughts on that.
Steve Vines (34:07): Well, it, it’s very interesting. I’m living here in a small town in Britain, small town close close to London with, with a lot of Hong Kongers. I didn’t realize before I came here, that would be how it was, but it is, and I’m very happy. It is, it’s mainly young families who’ve come here because they don’t want their children to go through the purged education system. They’re very, very worried about that. And they’re prepared to make enormous economic circumstance sacrifices to ensure that that doesn’t happen. And it’s quite interesting people, and they keep telling me this, people keep saying to them, oh, are you Chinese? They go, no, I’m a Hong Konger and this is, this is a new re in terms of the great sweep of history is, is a new development, which you can again really trace back to the 90, the early 1980s.
(35:05): So by the early 1980s for the first time in the history of Hong Kong, and I include the, the the, the times during the other, you know, the Ching in the stair and back, the majority of people in Hong Kong were born in Hong Kong. This was a significant new development. They were a generation that were formed obviously by birth, but most importantly by the culture. I mean, Hong Kong has a fantastically vibrant local culture. It has the Cantonese language, which incident is the oldest language in China. a point not readily recognized in Beijing where they want everybody to speak Mandarin anyway. but it, it is, it is a very vibrant culture and it has a very distinctive identity. And it is an identity that people rejoice in. You know, that there’s a they they, they speak in Hong Kong of this Hong Kong jinga, which means the Hong Kong spirit.
(36:08): It’s the, it’s a, it’s not an intangible thing. It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. And it is a driving force for people to identify as Hong Kongers. I have to say, when I first came to Hong Kong, this is in the late 1980s, Hong Kong people was mainly a bit uncomfortable regarded their identification with Hong Kong as a sort of superiority. You know, we superiors of the people on the mainland we’re more sophisticated, we’re more we’re certainly richer. Nobody could doubt that as people are so poor and, you know, sort of, we look down on our country, bunking cousins across the board, there was a lot of that going on. And I think a lot of that was born of insecurity. You only have a disparaging view of others if you’re not really secure of yourself. I don’t think this is Hong Kong. I think this is a universal thing.
(37:06): But as the, the 1980s developed and there were all sorts of positive reasons for identifying as Hong Kong, as the economy was indeed flourishing. The cultural life of Hong Kong was indeed flourishing. And most importantly, and this is something which has now been destroyed, was the enormous expansion of civil society or civil society organizations were, you know, for housing, for medicine, for trade unions, et cetera, et cetera. So, you know, people were getting invested not just in a vague idea, but in the reality of a separate entity that was flourishing. The missing element in all of that was the right to elect their own government, which Hong Kong has never had an, has even less now, but, but there has been some, or there had been, it’s all been reversed. Some democratic advances. There were pockets of representative government in Hong Kong. So you put all that together and you have a very distinctive Hong Kong identity.
(38:19): What is clearly a big aim of the regime is to extinguish it. They want for Hong Kong to become a seamless part of China. You know, you look at places like Xang, which have been rightly much in the news, where the majority of people were, of course not even ethnically Chinese, the people who live in the northwest of China, they have now installed by massive movements of population, the sort of thing that only dictatorship can do, a majority and Chinese population, they’re trying to extinguish the local languages. There’s not just one, there’s more than one. They’re trying to control the birthright by these forced abortions. Another almost unspeakable crimes against humanity, which are going on in Chiang Jack. And you know, in that way, even though Shing really isn’t vaguely ahan Chinese part of China anymore, incidentally than Tibet, which again has a different language that people look different, they different sectors they try and install in these places complete generally, because all dictatorships want to do that in the same way as the Soviet Union wanted everybody to speak Russian, even though the vastness of the Soviet Union meant that there were many, many languages being spoken and people were different in all sorts of ways.
(39:52): And you see how fragile that grip is in making homogenous what is not homogenous homogenous. Nobody in the former Soviet Union wants to go back there, look at what’s happening in Ukraine. Does anybody seriously believe that the majority of Ukrainians want to be part of Russia again? I mean, they wouldn’t be a war going on if that was the case. So, you know, it, it’s true that they can impose this and the Soviet Union manage it and China has managed it and is doing it even more tenaciously. But I, I think that the spirit of all places where there is a strong basis for separateness is so overwhelming that it cannot ultimately be conquered. And I do think that there will come a time when the Chinese state, this grass vast sprawling piece of land mass will be more sensibly governed in its parts rather than as a whole.
(40:59): It’s not tomorrow. But that, I mean, you know, in in, in the, in the same way as, as the United States, of course has a central government, but has extremely powerful state governments, you know, and, and most, most big countries in the world have found ultimately that the political system that works is one that appreciates the diversity of the people. I mean, you know, I live in, it’s a pretty small place, but we have devolved governments here in Scotland, Wells and Northern Ireland. It’s not because you know, they occupy great bit of land mass. It’s because the people in those three places are basically not the same in their culture and in the way of looking at things as the people in England. And so if the political system doesn’t recognize that it’s not gonna work, it it become dysfunctional.
Kalani Scarrott (41:53): Yeah, and very conscious of your time, Steve. So last question before we wrap up. Is there anything we haven’t talked about today that’s consequential about the future of Hong Kong, in your opinion?
Steve Vines (42:02): Well, I think that it’s very easy to get yourself, and I’m guilty of it as anybody in, in a state of terminal depression. I mean, to see what has been lost in Hong Kong is so heartbreaking. I can’t really put it in any other way to see as I do practically every day. People I know quite well being put on trial and found guilty without any possibility of appeal to an impartial court of law and being given incidentally very long prison sense is to see this kind of thing happening is to see in front of your eyes the destruction of a society. You know, much as I admire and love mainland chand itself, I’m vivid aware that the Chinese mainland has never enjoyed liberty throughout its history. It simply has never enjoyed that. But you have got this tiny little part of the Chinese land map, which is Hong Kong, which has enjoyed it.
(43:09): So in order to assert troll, you have to destroy that. Having said all of that and however depressing it is, I just do not think this is the end of the story. It’s easy to destroy. I know that, and the consequences of restoring liberty usually involve chaos and very difficult circumstances. But I think at the end of the day, the system will implode because it’s not working. I mean, even now, you know, this ridiculous policy they have in combating covid is the sort of policy that can only exist in a dictatorship where you, you stop people moving, you clamp down everything, you monitor everything. Of course, it does nothing to stop covid. You know, when you time after time resort to force rather than consent, rather than sensible collaboration with the people rather than trusting the people itself. The regime is cutting the underpinnings of its own authority, and I think that that process is accelerating rather than decelerating.
Kalani Scarrott (44:23): Good way to wrap up though. So Steve, thank you so much for coming on that, I really appreciate it.
Steve Vines (44:27): My pleasure.