Message from Keith
Sometimes, waiting for The Big Story to break, journalists can miss another story right under their noses.
That was the case 20 years ago, in 1997, when many of us—myself included—thought that Hong Kong's handover to China would be the Asian story of the decade. The real Big Story, I believe, was the Asian financial crisis that started on 2 July 1997, with the devaluation of the Thai baht, and within a few months collapsed currencies, stock markets, property prices, and living standards from Seoul in the north to Jakarta in the south.
The Asian financial crisis and its aftermath were the topic of an analysis piece I wrote for the South China Morning Post that appeared the weekend of the handover’s twentieth anniversary. China’s two-decade rule over Hong Kong has been intensely analysed, debated and dissected from all angles. The financial crisis, its causes and cures still remain somewhat murky.
The financial crisis, arguably, had the most immediate short-term impact on the region. It led to the overthrow of President Suharto in Indonesia, and turned the world’s fourth most populist country into a democracy. It upended Malaysian politics, altered the future of Thailand, and prompted most of the region’s governments to begin stockpiling foreign exchange and improve their regulatory systems. It also caused many in Asia to question whether to rely on the West to help them in the future.
Meanwhile the next chapter for Hong Kong has yet to be written. We have 30 years to go before the next crucial date, when China’s promise to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under a separate political system is set to expire. The warning signs today are ominous. Beijing has already declared that the “joint declaration,” the Sino-British treaty that governed the handover, no longer has any “practical effect".
Will China’s handling of Hong Kong be Asia’s next crisis? Or a conflict on the Korean peninsula? Or a military confrontation over the disputed islands in the South China Sea?
One lesson for journalists is that we all need to be vigilant—not for the Big Story we think is coming, but the one we might least expect.