Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Opinion | What Hong Kong’s spiffy marketing campaign for tourists can’t disguise

Opinion | What Hong Kong’s spiffy marketing campaign for tourists can’t disguise


Say hello to the new Hong Kong.

This former freewheeling British colony, now subjugated to Communist mainland China, has become a city of contradictions. Consider: Chief Executive John Lee was in the Middle East on Tuesday trying to drum up business. Days earlier, he had launched a costly global (and widely panned) ad campaign, called “Hello Hong Kong,” declaring the city open and ready to welcome tourists and investors.

Meanwhile, back at home, the long-awaited trial began of 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists accused of conspiracy to commit subversion. What was their allegedly nefarious plot? The defendants conducted an unofficial primary election to choose the strongest candidates among them, with the aim of winning a majority of seats in the local legislature. They hoped this might give them the power to block government bills. In much of the world, that’s called democracy. Here, it’s a violation of national security.

The “Hello Hong Kong” campaign aims to convince the outside world that the political turmoil and pandemic restrictions of recent years are in the past. It’s a pricey rebranding effort that includes sporting events, concerts, exhibitions and exhortations to “tell good stories” about Hong Kong. But no amount of spin or rebranding can disguise how this once free and vibrant city has been irreversibly transformed.

Hong Kong offers 500,000 free plane tickets to lure tourists back

Civil society has been decimated. Pro-democracy politicians and activists are mostly in jail, in exile or too fearful to speak out. Press freedom has been eroded. More people are leaving, or planning to, than coming in. Lawyers facing intimidation and threats have fled. The million people who defiantly marched in 2019, and the 600,000 who voted in the democratic camp primary a year later, have been silenced; even peaceful protest has withered.

Then there are the grim statistics and negative headlines that keep pushing “good stories” off the front pages. February brought news that the economy shrank by 3.5 percent in 2022, worse than expected. Some 3,500 teachers resigned in the last academic year, withdrawing more than a billion U.S. dollars in accumulated savings and stoking a wave of emigration that has left some schools struggling to find replacements. And the head of the Airport Authority warned that passenger levels would not return to pre-2019 normal for at least 18 months.

Even the much anticipated reopening of the border with mainland China, largely closed for three years, did not produce the economic boost expected. Mainland tourists have largely stayed away, preferring instead to travel to neighboring Macao, a gambling hub.

Also, the draconian national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 continues to show pernicious reach. In January, security police raided a stall at a Lunar New Year book fair and arrested six people for publishing and selling a supposedly “seditious” tome that chronicled the 2019 anti-government protests. Police called the six detainees “members of an anti-government organization.”

Meanwhile, another high-profile trial is set to resume — that of editors of the now-disbanded online outlet Stand News, who are accused of publishing seditious materials. Still to come: the trial of jailed media tycoon and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, whose popular newspaper Apple Daily was shut down and its funds frozen in mid-2021.

The Post’s View: Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai goes on trial soon. So does freedom of speech.

This month, the respected Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index showed Hong Kong sliding to 88th place out of 167 countries, below Liberia and Ukraine. Similar indexes have shown Hong Kong slipping steadily downward.

Even with most pandemic restrictions lifted, Hong Kong has not returned to pre-covid normal. The city remains one of the last places on earth where everyone is required to wear a face mask, even outdoors, despite the advice of health experts that the mask mandate is no longer needed. By contrast, economic rival Singapore announced on Thursday that all remaining covid restrictions are being scrapped before Valentine’s Day, including a requirement to wear face masks on public transportation.

The Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ response to criticism has been to lash out. The Economist Intelligence Unit report was blasted as “politically-biased, untruthful and misleading.” Critics of the national security law are routinely accused of “smearing.”

This hypersensitivity to criticism led to an unusual exchange recently between local police and a staunchly pro-Beijing newspaper, Oriental Daily. The police criticized a video that took issue with police tactics in the recent shooting of an unarmed Filipino man on Peng Chai island. In a letter, police complained about the paper’s “unprofessional, irresponsible, and biased criticism made in a mocking manner.”

Oriental Daily published the letter alongside an editorial that boldly asserted “the media has the right to monitor” a force paid by taxpayer money. “How is it press freedom if only praise is allowed and criticism is banned?” the paper wrote. “Do the police want to silence the patriotic Oriental Daily after the anti-China Apple Daily was swept into oblivion?”

Ultimately, the city’s campaign may succeed in some respects: Tourists might be lured in by free plane tickets. Investors will return, enticed by the vast mainland market. The property market, now in a doldrums, will eventually bounce back. And Hong Kongers will no doubt again find the resilience to weather big changes.

But Hong Kong will never be the same as it was. And that’s exactly what Beijing wants.

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