Boris Johnson is being more dictatorial than China’s Communist Party


HONG Kong has 7.4 million inhabitants, compared to Scotland’s 5.5m. The 7.4m are crowded into 400 square miles of land area, against our 30,000 square miles. The Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated territories in the world. Historically, Scotland also had overcrowded cities amid wider industrial areas, most now bulldozed, but there were always the endless spaces of mountain and moor beyond.

However we look at it, then, it must come across as pretty astonishing that Scotland by yesterday had 1857 deaths from coronavirus out of more than 13,000 cases, whereas Hong Kong has had four deaths out of 1048 cases. We tend to think of the virus as a disease of congested urban environments, yet its distribution is obviously more complex than that.

It is all the more striking that Hong Kong lies only 500 miles from Wuhan, where the pandemic began. True, the SAR closed its border with China in February, although since both form integral parts of the People’s Republic it is hardly possible to halt all human contact.

The Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou conurbation up the lower Pearl River might be considered a single economic unit, 80 miles from end to end. Travelling across by train, as I have done, you cannot tell when you pass from China proper to the richer and luckier SAR.

Because coronavirus has meanwhile gone on to exact a heavy death toll in far more distant lands – 30,000 out of 200,000 cases in the UK and 80,000 out of 1.3 million cases in the US – we may wonder how, that close to its place of origin, Hong Kong has suffered so little. It is a city I love. I first went there while it was still under UK rule. It was a great place then and, perhaps paradoxically, it has flourished even more since China took it over on the principle of “one country, two systems”. To mention a couple of random examples, it boasts the largest number of skyscrapers of any urban area in the world, while the life expectancy of its residents is among the highest (Hong Kong 83, Glasgow 73).

The key to all this is that Hong Kong offers what China needs in terms of a service economy so as to supplement the production of material goods that is taken as the basis of a Marxist state. Along with that there are low taxes and open borders.

The Hong Kong dollar is globally the eighth-most-traded currency. No other city houses a larger concentration of the wealthy, or tolerates a wider gap with the incomes of its poorest. Yet, to mention one more of its oddities, 90% of its people use public transport because the system takes them everywhere. When I was there I couldn’t do this; I am too fat to fit into the tiny Chinese seats.

It seems no exaggeration to claim that 20 years of the SAR have given birth to a Hong Kong culture. The object of greatest local pride would be the cuisine, an obsession that has won global acclaim. There is a special volume of the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong that awards 89 stars. This includes eight three-star restaurants (Scotland has 10, with one two-star restaurant). I like to dream of the suckling pig or the crispy eel I once tucked into at Lung King Heen.

Hong Kong University, founded in 1911, teaching in English, rapidly rising up the academic league tables, is a true meeting place of East and West. For example, the late James Mirrlees, Scotland’s other recent Nobel Prize-winner in economics, held a post there. Peter Mathieson, the present principal of Edinburgh University, was before that principal of HKU. He made himself unpopular with his students, who reckoned he was too pro-Chinese.

Perhaps the outlook of its students and other young people is the most significant aspect of this emerging culture. They may have grown up under the Chinese tradition of tyranny, originally imperial and now Communist, but out of it they have formulated a demand that the rights of the people as read by the people should be respected too.

THEY were the ones making the news as they protested against an extradition treaty between China and Hong Kong before the coronavirus crisis. It was a fight they won against Beijing’s puppet chief executive, Carrie Lam.

I have gone into all this just to show that, whatever the reasons for Hong Kong’s success against coronavirus, isolation can hardly give a complete account of it. Friends of mine still living out there have given me a number of other reasons, for which I thank them.

The first is that the ever-pragmatic Chinese find no trouble with the notion that while they all live in one country, there may be among its regions more than one policy on border control. Citizens of the SAR can cross over to the mainland when they want to, while people coming the opposite way will be stopped.

It stands in contrast to the UK situation, where the Government in London views with horror the idea of letting Scotland impose its own entry conditions. It is a political, rather than medical, judgment. In this respect, it makes Boris Johnson more dictatorial than the Communist Party of China.

Back in 2003, Hong Kong was hit by Sars, an earlier mutant form of coronavirus. Over the past 17 years, the territory has monitored all travellers arriving at its airport and other entry points to check if they have too high a temperature. Those who trigger an alert are taken aside and instructed on how to react in case their condition worsens.

While there is no lockdown in Hong Kong, almost everybody has worn face masks since the beginning of the latest outbreak, and has followed a sort of self-policed social distancing. Conformity is an age-old mechanism in oriental society, with deviants facing pressure from family and friends. Today, they find another useful application for it.

Schools have been closed since the Chinese New Year at the end of January, while restaurants and shops have remained open throughout. Offices have been mostly shut, those of the government completely. But since April 7, private companies have been allowed to re-open at their own discretion.

Altogether we can say that, in these extraordinary times, daily life in Hong Kong has remained closer to normal than daily life in the UK. It has been a product partly of previous experience, partly of greater flexibility, partly of attention to detail. Ideology hardly enters into it.

You might think Communist China and capitalist Hong Kong could not be further apart in their outlook on life, and that the lockdown might be made to follow the principles at stake. Yet the difficulties between the Unionist UK and devolved Scotland are actually greater.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave us his televised address on Sunday night, it was hard to tell what exactly he wanted to change. Further announcements are to be made during the week, yet still the impression is of a government fluttering along on a wing and a prayer – and always with an eye just as much to the popular as to the necessary.

This has not generated success in the fight against coronavirus. Let us hope that one of these days there will be a reckoning for Boris and his Tory tricksters.

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