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December 7 2019
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A pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong is detained by riot police in November. “What we’re seeing,” said a British C.E.O., “is the gradual destruction of a culture.”

The morning I arrived in Hong Kong four weeks ago, a 30-year-old man greeted a local district councillor with a bouquet and a grin. Then, asking if they could pose for a selfie together, he pulled out a knife and buried it just below the politician’s heart. The victim, Junius Ho, one of the most prominent pro-Beijing candidates to be thrashed in last month’s elections, had already seen his office vandalized and his parents’ grave desecrated after he’d been caught on camera laughing and shaking hands with men believed to have violently attacked the city’s ubiquitous pro-democracy demonstrators. When those in favor of greater democracy almost unimaginably swept roughly 80 percent of the 452 seats contested on November 24, including Ho’s, the nonfatal attack promised to be the least of his worries.

Though the weekend of the voting was calm, such “disturbances” (to use Beijing’s preferred euphemism) have been everywhere in Hong Kong for the past half-year. Only three days before the attack on Ho, a man had been seen biting off part of the ear of a pro-democracy politician. And as policemen are deployed to try to contain such violence, break-ins among the luxury homes on top of the Peak, the city’s most exclusive district, have been fast increasing.

After similar uprisings in previous years, tens of thousands of those crying out for more freedom from China’s central government—under the “one country, two systems” policy they’ve been enduring since 1997—have been venting their frustrations in new ways: by attacking subway stations, smearing graffiti across walls, smashing Starbucks outlets run by the family of a woman who spoke out against them. Those from the mainland, in response, have been seen brandishing knives and fleeing back across the border before they can be attacked.

When I flew into the Norman Foster–designed showpiece airport, three seats in every four on my plane were empty and people without boarding passes weren’t even allowed into the arrivals area to greet their loved ones.

A man had been seen biting off part of the ear of a pro-democracy politician.

Yet what was equally striking as I spent many days wandering from the street stalls clogging the city’s arteries to the Cannes-worthy blue coves to the south was how much of the ceaseless enterprise was going about business as usual. As I pushed my way through the jumble of massage parlors, loosened-tie Goldman traders clinging to lissome Asian companions, and Greenpeace activists thrusting iPads toward pedestrians, there were few external signs, other than blocked roads and out-of-order traffic lights, that anything was different from my previous visit, 18 months ago. Yes, there was scaffolding everywhere, even shrouding parts of the world’s longest escalator, rising up from the Central district toward the residential villas of the Mid-Levels. But in restless Hong Kong, this could have been a sign of fresh construction as much as of recent damage.

A protester defaces the Hong Kong emblem after the break-in at the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, July 1, 2019.

Ever since the British handed over the “Crown Colony” to Beijing 22 years ago, everyone has known that the independent-minded hub of international business could not be easily turned into just another Pearl River Delta metropolis. Shenzhen may aspire to be Hong Kong, but Hong Kong has never wished to devolve into Shenzhen. Its street names still invoke Queen Victoria, Albert, and Prince Edward, and the Court of Final Appeal next to Statue Square still looks like an annex of the Foreign Office in Westminster. Hong Kong’s commitment to the bottom line—which is precisely what makes it so valuable to the Communist Party—is by its nature almost impossible to control. When researchers ranked the fastest (which is to say, the least patient) places on the planet, Hong Kong came ahead of both fast-moving Taiwan and South Korea.

For all 36 years I’ve been visiting, in fact, the city’s signature features have been anarchic energy and cacophony; if its rival, Singapore, can look a bit like a sleek (perhaps complacent) Eastern San Francisco, Hong Kong remains a hyperactive New York. Through its congested lanes flow all the world’s peoples. A stand serving Persian fusion cuisine jockeys for customers beside another calling itself Peruvian Chicken Brasserie, with a Japanese Wagyu-burger joint just across the street. On every side explodes a riotous mess of currency-exchange parlors, eyelash-extension salons, dealers in gold, and tiny shacks peddling pho. The street signs may bark, GET IN LANE, but revelers are still stumbling dazedly out of the Buddha Lounge at 8:30 on a Sunday morning.

Hong Kong’s commitment to the bottom line—which is precisely what makes it so valuable to the Communist Party—is by its nature almost impossible to control.

In the glossy and palatial Garden Lounge of the Hong Kong Club, a British hedge-fund manager pointed out to me over a leisurely lunch that there had been relatively few casualties after what at that point had been 22 weeks of confrontation, far fewer than in France, say, with the gilets jaunes. Beijing has yet to come down hard. But for many who have lived here for decades, both expat and local, it’s heartbreaking to see a city known for its devotion to free exchange and convenience take on such a violent edge. “What we’re seeing,” an elegant British C.E.O. told me in the late David Tang’s tropi-colored China Club, “is the gradual destruction of a culture.” The fact that everyone feared this would happen does not begin to take the sting out of things.

How the authorities will respond to the triumphant vote for voting itself remains to be seen. Often, as I crisscrossed the city, I thought of the 156 self-immolations that have convulsed Tibet in recent years as people accustomed to freedom of speech deal with a leadership that believes in absolute control. In Hong Kong, Beijing can no longer so easily write off the unrest like so many gnats buzzing around a mighty dragon. Nor can it overlook the fact that restaurants have begun reporting their lowest revenue since the outbreak of SARS in 2003 and the entire city has slipped into its first technical recession in a decade.

My last night in central Hong Kong, as I gave a talk in the sublimely stylish Asia Society—having driven around blockades and flashing police vans to get there—a peaceful demonstration was held down the street to remember the first possible casualty of the unrest, a 22-year-old student who fell, five days earlier, from a car park where demonstrators had been trying to disrupt a policeman’s wedding. According to the activists, 100,000 people were present to mourn the fallen hero. According to the police, the crowd numbered 7,500. The nearly three million who came out to vote for democracy last month made both figures seem a little beside the point.

Pico Iyer is a columnist for Air Mail

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