Capitalist Hong Kong survives but freedoms take flight


There were mixed feelings among the Australian executives, bankers and lawyers in their high-rise office towers overlooking Hong Kong's harbour this week.

After a year of economic misery because of six months of mass protests followed by a global pandemic, most of them just want life to get back to normal.

The sight of riot police pouring into the streets below while office workers were on their lunch break was an uneasy reminder of the chaos that tore the city apart last year.

Beijing's shock move to impose its own national security laws on Hong Kong reignited political tensions in the city as protesters emerged from a coronavirus-induced hiatus to demonstrate against a move they say threatens their freedoms and will end the city's status as Asia's financial hub. "Hong Kong is over," one pro-democracy leader declared.

But even as China's latest move imperils the city's political autonomy and western-style legal system, many of the Australian executives who have made Hong Kong their home for decades are staying put.$zoom_0.327%2C$multiply_2.0212%2C$ratio_0.666667%2C$width_378%2C$x_145%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/e_sharpen:25%2Cq_42%2Cf_auto/a9f476f9043b33de37937d63484e2ccadc2def3f
Xi Jinping votes in favour of the Hong Kong security bill which has alarmed many people in the city. Getty Images

"Generally across the business community, we haven't heard anybody who says it’s not a good thing to end the protests and disruption," one senior Australian businessman in Hong Kong tells AFR Weekend. "The economy is on its knees. Business is looking forward to an end to the disruption."

"Hong Kong lawyers and policymakers are very much concerned about the Chinese security agencies being based here. We all laugh at that, they are here anyway. Doesn't it just mean they come out from under the shadows?"

The perspective from the city's financial district about the national security push is a world apart from the streets of Central or Causeway Bay where students and young professionals say they are fighting to protect civil liberties and freedom of speech for generations to come.

But money has always been Hong Kong's driving force and one of the few things the territory has in common with mainland China. Under British rule, the small cluster of islands and hilly land off the Kowloon Peninsula became an economic powerhouse and a symbol of Asia's prosperity.