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Hong Kong’s Spirit Dimmed: The Impact of China’s Tightening Grip on a Once Vibrant City

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In the not-so-distant past, Hong Kong stood as a beacon of vibrancy and dynamism, a city that truly never slept. Its bustling streets, illuminated by neon lights, were a testament to its unique blend of East and West, where revelers would spill out of bars into the night, creating a dazzling spectacle. However, the Hong Kong we see today is a shadow of its former self, a city whose spirit is being crushed under the weight of China’s tightening grip. As we navigate the near-empty streets on a Thursday evening, it’s hard to believe that this was once Asia’s nightlife capital.

In 1997, when Britain handed over its prized former colony to China, there was hope that Hong Kong’s “anything goes” spirit would endure. China’s message was clear: despite the change in sovereignty, the city’s autonomy and Western ways would remain intact. But as we are now more than halfway into the promised 50 years of autonomy, that pledge appears increasingly hollow.

Over the years, Hong Kong has witnessed waves of mass protests, from the fight against “patriotic education” legislation in 2012 to the Occupy Central movement in 2014 and pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. In response, China imposed a sweeping National Security Law, curtailing civil liberties and leading to the imprisonment of hundreds of pro-democracy figures. Tens of thousands of residents have left the city, and the once-thriving nightlife is now a mere shadow of its former self.

Gary Ng, an economist with French investment bank Natixis, succinctly points out the evolving challenges: “It’s obvious that it’s worse than before. This is the side effect of Covid, which has changed the way of life.” But is it?

It would be remiss to attribute Hong Kong’s nightlife decline solely to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic undoubtedly took its toll, other factors have contributed to the city’s nightlife woes. The exodus of middle-class Hong Kongers and affluent expats has been steadily increasing, with many seeking refuge in countries such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. Even businesses, particularly in finance and law, have relocated their offices to rival Asian cities like Singapore.

The changing demographics of Hong Kong further compound the problem. More than 70% of work or graduate visas granted since 2022 have gone to mainland Chinese migrants, who have different spending habits from the expats and middle-class locals who once frequented the city’s bars.

However, it’s crucial to view these issues through the lens of eroding freedoms. Hong Kong’s freedoms, including freedom of expression and the press, have been systematically restricted in response to pro-democracy protests. The introduction of the National Security Law has led to the suppression of any criticism of Beijing, and self-censorship has become a reality for many residents. As Benson Wong, one of the hundreds of thousands who have left Hong Kong, aptly puts it, “People may feel like they have to self-censor when having a chat at restaurants or bars because, who knows who may be listening. They may as well stay home for the same chat where they feel safe.”

The recent election of John Lee as Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, a hardline Beijing loyalist responsible for suppressing the 2019 protests, further deepens concerns about the city’s future. Under Lee’s leadership, the expansion of China’s Security Law in Hong Kong is expected to continue, stifling dissent and eroding the city’s liberal spirit.

The international community has voiced its concern over the erosion of Hong Kong’s democratic principles and political pluralism. It’s clear that the city’s decline in nightlife is not just a result of COVID-19 but also a reflection of the broader challenges it faces in preserving its unique identity and freedoms. As we reflect on the once-thriving nightlife of Hong Kong, it becomes evident that the city’s spirit is being extinguished under the weight of China’s authoritarian rule.

Allan Zeman, known as the “Godfather of Lan Kwai Fong,” offers a more optimistic perspective: “They’ll go up to a club, like the California Tower on the roof, and they’ll spend like 400,000 to 550,000 Hong Kong dollars ($51,000 to $70,000) just for drinks.” Zeman believes that Hong Kong’s strong currency and limited incoming flights are temporarily stalling the city’s nightlife comeback.

However, bar owner Becky Lam points to the need for regulatory reform: “But I look at our neighboring cities like Bangkok, Shanghai, and Taipei. These cities have an exciting nightlife as they really make it late-night fun with music, street art, and late-night dining.” Lam highlights the hurdles faced by Hong Kong’s nightlife establishments, including restrictions on outdoor service hours and stringent licensing requirements.

Richard Feldman, who runs the gay bar Petticoat Lane at the California Tower in Lan Kwai Fong, emphasizes the challenges faced by the industry: “It has been very challenging so far and it has not got back to normal by a long shot.” He notes that the number of Western faces in what was once an expat haunt has dwindled significantly.

It has been clear for a while that China wants to have Hong Kong under its thumb. After all it had been historically a bastion of freedom next to the worlds most restrictive authoritarian country, clearly resented for its strength and freedom. And China has won this battle, sapping said strength and freedom and pushing it further and further down. One can see why Taiwan is so fearful of being absorbed by China.

https://www.cnn.com/2023/11/03/economy/hong-kong-nightlife-china-dst-intl-hnk/index.html

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