The Western world is agonizing about Hong Kong. After Beijing imposed a national security law, hundreds were arrested for unlawful assembly. Outspoken publisher Jimmy Lai is awaiting trial after his newsroom was raided. A boatload of young activists, fleeing to Taiwan, was intercepted by China. Shop walls that once displayed protest notes now shows only blank notes, symbolizing opinions held but not expressed. Britain has offered a path to citizenship for up to three million Hong Kongers. The US Congress passed a bipartisan law imposing sanctions on officials and entities said to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. A wave of Hong Kong people is said to be scrambling to find ways to emigrate.
But recent history offers a whiff of reassurance. This is not the first time that Hong Kong people have panicked about decisions made in Beijing. In fact, it’s the third time in forty years.
Starting in 1982, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher flew to Beijing to begin talks on the British colony’s post-1997 future, local people were unnerved. Many had lost their homes and businesses in mainland China when the Communists took over, and others had fled starvation or persecution in following decades. They feared a loss of their freedom to prosper. Those with means scrambled to buy condos in little-known American cities or obtain passports from lesser-known Central American countries. The stock market plunged, and real estate prices dropped. About 20,000 people a year left Hong Kong for good.
But once the Sino-British agreement over Hong Kong’s future was signed in 1984, things calmed down. Beijing welcomed their business expertise. Clever Hong Kong businessmen opened factories across the border in Guangdong, setting China on a path to become an export powerhouse. The little guys led the way—tiny local companies that had teamed up with American and European importers to make toys and clothing and Christmas-tree ornaments across the border. Some emigrants returned, with foreign passports as security. The business opportunities were too good to miss.
Things were great—until they weren’t. Beijing’s bloody suppression of peaceful protests in June 1989 sparked an even bigger wave of alarm in Hong Kong. More than 62,000 people fled from the colony in 1990—about 1 percent of the population. The outflow of people—and money—continued through the early 1990s. Hundreds of thousands emigrated to cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, and Melbourne.
Those who left in 1990, shocked and certain that the Deng era of reform and growth was over, were wrong. Deng restarted the reforms in 1992 and set off a surge of fast-paced economic growth stronger than any seen before, raising living standards, eliminating poverty, and spawning a crop of billionaires. Big players from Hong Kong thrived, developing shopping malls and hotels across China. Even after the handover in 1997, Hong Kong boomed, with money flowing across the border into its stock market and real estate.
Today, as Hong Kong rushes into another season of dread, it’s worth remembering these dramatic cycles from the past. Last year’s street protests and disruptions set off another surge of emigration: 50,000 left in the last two quarters of 2019. The national security law, imposed by Beijing on July 1, has justifiably raised fears, especially among those who have been most outspoken against China’s excesses. Once again, emigration advisers are fielding a groundswell of queries about how to obtain a foreign passport.
It would be foolish to offer reassurance that everything will be okay in Hong Kong. Today’s fears are real and well-founded. But recent history gives us some perspective. Smart Hong Kong businesspeople have found opportunities during times of panic; that’s how Li Ka-shing rose from a plastic-flower maker to a real estate magnate, buying properties at a discount after the riots in 1967. Today, as in the past, many mainland Chinese are eager to move to Hong Kong, and some are buying properties sold by frightened people who are leaving. China’s government invested $20 billion to build a sea bridge connecting Hong Kong to Macau, part of its Greater Bay Area development. Hong Kong’s investment bankers are buzzing over the upcoming Ant Group share offering, possibly the biggest in history. Capitalism may continue to thrive, even as civil liberties are eroded.
Predictions about China’s future often prove wrong. After this typhoon blows over, it seems likely that Hong Kong will prosper once again.
—Dori Jones Yang was BusinessWeek’s Hong Kong bureau chief from 1982 to 1990 and recently penned a memoir of those years, When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening.