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The Floating City: Inside Hong Kong Now

View of Hong Kong from Lion Rock, which overlooks Kowloon from the North, November 2011. Almost half of Hong Kong’s population lives in public or government-subsidized housing. Lit up at night, the glowing public estate blocks are hard to distinguish from high-end luxury towers.
View of Hong Kong from Lion Rock, which overlooks Kowloon from the North, November 2011. Almost half of Hong Kong’s population lives in public or government-subsidized housing. Lit up at night, the glowing public estate blocks are hard to distinguish from high-end luxury towers.

Hong Kong rose up as the essential gateway into Communist China over the second half of the twentieth century—a British-run laissez-faire playground whose bottom-line pragmatism proved lucrative for all, maintaining a fluid, delicate balance between East and West, socialism and capitalism, the ancient and the hypermodern, legitimate society and the underworld.

In the 1997 return to a booming Motherland, official blurbage promised to continue this function, assuring “One Country, Two Systems” and “Hong Kong will remain unchanged for fifty years,” a showcase of Beijing’s good-faith efforts to foster democracy and rule of law. Fifteen years on, however, continued lack of universal suffrage and fading relevance are provoking local anxiety that Hong Kong is becoming just another freedom-deficient Chinese city.

Beneath the designer skyline and the gleaming hordes of suits and shoppers, we see mounting disquiet. Hong Kong’s rich-poor gap is the highest in the developed world. Nearly half the population lives in government-subsidized housing. Even gangsters complain that the scramble for scraps has displaced triad virtue and loyalty; a former enforcer from the organized crime group Sun Yee On said, “It’s more of a business for profit now.”

China’s presence has ratcheted up the economic pressure as well as the political. Hong Kongers once looked down on visiting Chinese nationals. Now, dependent on their spending power, they resentfully call them “locusts” for devouring real estate, luxury goods, and maternity beds. Meanwhile, news reports critical of China are disappearing, and schools are being “urged” to adopt patriotic, Party-whitewashed history texts.

This is the landscape of imbalance and unease in a Hong Kong that—after more than a decade and a half of Communist rule—is trying to preserve a unique identity that is both more cosmopolitan and more traditionally Chinese than China itself.

Mark Leong is a fifth-generation Chinese-American from Sunnyvale, California. After graduating from Harvard University in 1988, he received a George Peabody Gardner Traveling Fellowship to visit...