Allan Zeman says national security law offers new beginning to Hong Kong

Having made his name over the past 50 years in Hong Kong as a prominent businessman and entrepreneurial icon, Allan Zeman has encountered a question on quite a few occasions: “Is this the end of Hong Kong?”

The question was raised when Hong Kong returned to the motherland in 1997, then again during the Asian financial crisis in the same year and 1998, thereafter amid the global financial crisis about 10 years later.

Most recently, he has been asked the same question after the enactment and enforcement of the law on safeguarding national security in Hong Kong.

“Some people were very nervous, saying ‘the death of Hong Kong,’ but I look at it totally differently,” Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group, told Xinhua in a recent interview.

“In order to solve the problem that was happening in Hong Kong, we needed a national security law,” Zeman said.

The law was adopted by China’s top legislature and promulgated in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on June 30 after a year of violence and unrest, during which rioters stormed the legislative building, trashed metro stations, banks and stores, and assaulted innocent people.

“Last year in Hong Kong was very difficult because of the months of violent protests,” Zeman said. “The life of the people was really getting very difficult. Businesses were being hurt.”

He hoped the national security law will take violence off the street and restore stability in Hong Kong.

The 72-year-old business magnate has seen Hong Kong go through difficult times and retain the vitality and the freedom enjoyed by its residents over the past decades.

Taking Hong Kong’s return to the motherland in 1997 as an example, Zeman said a lot of people emigrated elsewhere only to return to Hong Kong several years later, as “the freedom is still here … and they can earn a good living in Hong Kong.”

As the national security law took effect, “Hong Kong is not losing freedom and people will still have the freedom that they want,” he said. “I don’t feel any different after the national security law came in. My life has not changed. It’s only gotten better.”

Born in Germany and raised in Canada, Zeman came to Hong Kong at the age of 19 and has spent most of his life here. He described moving to Hong Kong and seeing the whole new culture as like “landing on the moon.”

“I loved the energy in Hong Kong where everybody had a can-do spirit,” he said, calling Hong Kong a land of opportunity as people “could have a dream at night and then wake up tomorrow morning and make it a reality.”

Zeman’s rise to success began with the opening of a trading office in Hong Kong where he strived and succeeded in the apparel and fashion industry.

He then opened the California Restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, a small block on Hong Kong island, in the 1980s, and gradually developed the area into the most popular entertainment district in Hong Kong. Even nowadays Lan Kwai Fong is still regarded as a symbol of Hong Kong’s nightlife installments.

With a deep affection for Hong Kong, Zeman and his family chose to stay here after Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and renounced his Canadian nationality to become a Chinese citizen in 2008. “This is my home. My wife is here. My kids grew up here,” he said.

While Hong Kong is in the middle of a difficult recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest and looming U.S. sanctions, Zeman believed “the future of Hong Kong is very strong.”

The national security law will offer Hong Kong a new beginning and a steady Chinese mainland economy will provide Hong Kong with sustainable growth momentum, he said.

Hong Kong is the gateway between the East and the West and boasts unique advantages spanning from its financial services and low tax base to its independent judiciary, Zeman said, adding that Hong Kong will always survive and thrive.

Traveling frequently between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, Zeman has witnessed the dramatic changes of the mainland over the past decades.

He recalled having to pre-book a phone call from Changsha in central Hunan Province to Hong Kong two days in advance in the late 1970s and playing ping pong under candlelight in a hotel in Changsha as there was no power after 6:00 p.m. at night.

However, such scenes now only exist in his memory. Not only has the mainland economy become the second largest in the world, but people are living far better lives. For example, Shenzhen, a city in southern Guangdong Province neighboring Hong Kong, has emerged as China’s Silicon Valley, he pointed out.

“Many Hong Kong people have never been to the mainland and have not seen the miracle,” Zeman said.

Looking ahead, Zeman believed the future for Hong Kong lies in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, which, with its enormous markets and numerous business opportunities, will offer Hong Kong a broader space to develop.

Hong Kong is only going to get better, Zeman said. “I feel very strongly and I have nothing to fear.”