“Hong Kong is just the world’s richest refugee camp. The fact that Hong Kong is rich cannot cover up its social structure as a refugee camp”, so said a successful fund manager friend of mine who has spent most of his life in Hong Kong. As I see events unfold in Hong Kong today, I realise how apt that metaphor is.
As in a refugee camp, the people in Hong Kong, both rich and poor, act as if they would rather be somewhere else. The rich with foreign passports in their pockets pledge allegiance to the Communist Party of China, while the poor young people who have no firsthand knowledge of colonialism wish the colonial power to come and “rescue” them. Both parties think that they will stay in Hong Kong for as long as is necessary until they make enough money to afford tickets to Australia or Canada.
As anyone who has studied or worked in refugee camps knows, not all refugees are equal, and those refugees with access to economic power and outside links will likely emerge as accidental “leaders”. Camps are managed by mangers who have no stake in the welfare of the refugees themselves since such “executives” are neither funded nor elected by refugees but by outsiders with their own agendas.
Refugees do not want to live for long in refugee camps and merely use them as a transit zone to go somewhere else. This leads to some “everyman for himself” mentality that is so prevalent in Hong Kong. The rich have been relying upon Hong Kong's bulging money reserves to support a fixed exchange rate with free convertibility -- a privilege that is not available in any developed country. The bulging reserves of Hong Kong are probably more used to providing social security and health care for the masses than to guaranteeing investments of the rich. But that is not how the “rich refugee camp” runs.
It is not just property tycoons who prevail over monopolies that harm the society at large, but also professional monopolies. Even the smallest move by the Hospital Authority will be boycotted by Hong Kong’s doctors. The legal professionals, while paying lip service to the “rule of law” endlessly, preside over a system which has become unaffordable to all except the very rich, and which leaves many people choosing to represent themselves without lawyers in a court of law. The unions resist any moves to import labour for construction, which leads to inordinate delays in many construction projects.
The duopoly of supermarkets has driven out the more efficient foreign supermarket operators by threatening suppliers of fresh produce. The students of Hong Kong, who talk a good game of “freedom”, resent “foreign” graduate students at local universities, despite the fact that, without foreign graduate students, almost all graduate schools of Hong Kong universities will collapse.
The list of “refugee camp-like” behaviour is endless. No society can be built upon such values and soon the Hong Kong people will realise it. The only moment I see behaviour not rooted in refugee camps is when I see people dutifully queuing for everything from minibuses to buying of lottery tickets. Perhaps this provides a small basis for thinking that one day Hong Kong society too can transform itself away from a refugee mentality into a modern society where people discuss and devise rules for sharing resources amicably.
Most countries do not want refugee camps on their soil either. Hong Kong has extensive experience in dealing with refugees since the Vietnamese started arriving in Hong Kong as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. After an initial honeymoon period of welcoming Vietnamese refugees, many of whom were ethnic Chinese, the mood in Hong Kong turned decisively against the Vietnamese refugees who were seen as “parasites”. It is possible to discover in the Chinese mainland attitudes towards Hong Kong beginning to mirror the attitudes of Hong Kong towards the Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s.
The sad truth is that Hong Kong can no longer sustain its social structure as a refugee camp. It has become too rich, too sophisticated an economy and too many generations have been born within the camp borders that it continues to act as a refugee camp, which has a trillion dollars in reserves.
The world of 2020 will no longer be welcoming of refugees, and the people in Hong Kong should realise that it is demeaning to be a refugee, no matter how much your pocket is bulging with money. Recent studies indicate that it is this sense of “community” that gives people a sense of self-worth and happiness. From football matches in Europe to poor Americans cheering for Trump, it is evident that most people need a sense of belonging to a larger “community” to feel happy. Money alone is not enough.
No one wants to live in a company town masquerading as a “harmonious society” and led by a “Chief Executive”. Hong Kong is the only society on this earth led by a “Chief Executive”, characterised by the lack of a sense of “community” and happiness. Various groups in Hong Kong, including protesting students, have to realise that, “I want my share. I don’t care what happens to other people either within Hong Kong or across the border” is not a viable basis for building a society, “democratic” or otherwise.
Unique among refugee camps, Hong Kong does not have to beg for money from others in order to sustain itself. It has more than enough financial and human resources to build upon what it has. However, mental transformation is always the hardest of transformations, as anyone who has ever dealt with addictive behaviour will know it. It remains to be seen whether all sectors of Hong Kong, the rich and the poor and the professionals will make the supreme effort to realise such transformation.