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Hong Kong’s Independence Trap

LONDON – Nearly 40 years ago, when I visited Moscow for the first time, my initial reaction was surprise. The hotels and restaurants were so poorly run that it seemed shocking that the military could be run competently enough to pose a genuine threat to the Soviet Union’s adversaries. Yet we in the West feared the Red Army – and with good reason.

Hong Kong, my favorite city, sends the opposite message. Its restaurants are run with precision, and it boasts some of the world’s best hotels. Surely any city that can look after visitors so superbly should have nothing to worry about, except, perhaps, how best to use the proceeds of its competence and entrepreneurial genius. But, again, things may not be quite what they seem.

Hong Kong’s success partly reflects a fundamental moderation within the culture, a competency and rationality that enables the city – an autonomous Chinese territory – to thrive in a complex context. But, when I visited Hong Kong last month – my first visit since the momentous but abortive democracy demonstrations of 2014 – people seemed more nervous than they had in some time.

The reason is that a fledgling independence movement is shaking things up in Hong Kong. It started with characteristically moderate calls for greater democracy. But menacing noises from China, together with the Hong Kong government’s failure to attempt a sensible dialogue with its critics about governance concerns or economic challenges, has driven many democracy activists to extremism. This is unwise.