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The Impact of Hong Kong’s Economic Recovery on its Freedoms

by Joshua Brown
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Taxi driver Leung Tat-chong from Hong Kong said that things in the city are slowly but surely returning to the way they were before there were pandemic restrictions and protests. He is earning almost as much money as before, but people have been divided since 2019 when hundreds of thousands of people marched against the government because they thought it was being controlled by Beijing.

After months of the pandemic, in March the city of Hong Kong suddenly got busy again. There were tons of art collectors and dealers at Art Basel Hong Kong fair, where two floors were filled with people. At the high-speed rail station, people even had conversations over dim sum – it was just like the old times.

Sometimes Leung turns off the radio in his cab because a news report or public affairs program could make his customers really mad. He is a supporter of the government so he needs to be careful when talking to friends or else they might get into an argument.

Living in Hong Kong today is complicated because people feel lots of different emotions. After many interviews, it seems like people think that the city is slowly returning to normal after a long period of travel restrictions, but when it comes to politics, Hong Kong might not be as open and free as it used to be when it was under British rule.

After the 2019 protests, Beijing said that only “patriots” (people loyal to China) should be running Hong Kong. They also made a law called the National Security Law that made certain types of peaceful protest illegal. This allowed the government of Hong Kong to arrest activists and former opposition lawmakers who participated in an unofficial election.

To make it seem like everything is now back to normal, they created a campaign called ‘Hello Hong Kong’ to promote tourism.

Shopping sales have increased, the country was able to make more money this year, and there are not a lot of people without jobs. In the first 3 months of the year, four million and four hundred one thousand tourists visited our city which is twelve times more than last quarter and thirty percent less than it used to be before the pandemic hit.

Mak Kwai-pui, one of the owners for dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan, is noticing good results from his business – because a lot of tourists are coming in to his restaurants, which means that their income has risen to a level more than 80% from what it used to be before the pandemic. He also added, “It’s really coming back. It’s true.”

Similarly, Anne Kerr who works at British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said many businesses from U.K. have been asking about setting up shop in the city lately.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong did a survey this year and found out that most businesses were feeling “optimistic” about the future. Among those companies based in Hong Kong, 61% said they would stay where they were for the next three years – which is more than the 48% last year. However, 9% planned to move away compared to only 5% from the previous year.

According to local artist Wong Ka-ying, there’s more art and culture in Hong Kong after the pandemic. She saw a lot of emerging artists, independent art spaces and different cultural activities at Art Basel. However, she also felt a chill due to the National Security Law that made art less bolder than before. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong where she teaches, Wong Ka-ying advised her students to be careful when creating their work.

When Cyrus Chan, who is 32 years old, decided to arrange a protest against a plan in March to reclaim land and create garbage-processing plants, he noticed some big differences. He said, “Even though it may seem similar on the outside, looking closer you can tell that this isn’t the same.”

In the past, people in Hong Kong used to march for their rights and for important local issues happening. However, Cyrus Chan, one of the protest organizers was told by police that only 100 people would be allowed to participate. Moreover, protesters were also given a warning not to wear entirely black clothes like they did during 2019 protests. Lastly, they had to discuss their slogans with authorities beforehand.

Chan said that even with permission given to march, it was still incredibly nerve-wracking. He kept checking all sorts of news reports and social media for a whole week to make sure nothing had changed. On the day itself, everyone at the march were asked to bring numbered badges and follow along with the barrier around them.

Despite the protest, Chan pointed out it wasn’t a time to relax yet. On April 2, the security minister spoke about how some people had compared the numbered tags given to them by the government to dog leashes or even the armbands Nazis used for Jewish people – which is considered very offensive in many places. Before this, Chan had said something similar on a radio show as well.

Chan said: “Those who claim our city will go back to how it was before are not telling the truth. Everyone knows that won’t happen.”

A while ago, someone who was the leader of a now-disbanded pro-democracy group wanted to march on Labor Day, but had to stop those plans. The reason? It isn’t allowed according to the National Security Law.

Leung, their taxi driver friend, thinks a certain part of Hong Kong can’t be saved. But people still need to keep going with their lives and not worry about politics too much. He believes that living in a simple way is best for most people.

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