SCMP Debate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am


Today the SCMP Debate begins a weekly series as part of our build-up to the 15th anniversary, on July 1, of the establishment of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. In our first instalment leading public figures who took part in the handover - the transition from colonialism to Chinese sovereignty - have been asked to share their views on the challenges that this city has met since then, and those that it has yet to overcome.

Q1. Fifteen years after the handover, has 'one country' overshadowed 'two systems'? Has Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy been undermined?

Q2. Has Hong Kong become too reliant on the mainland in the light of cross-border economic integration? How can Hong Kong develop its economic ties with the mainland in a mutually beneficial way?

Q3. What is it that makes Hong Kong unique? Is there a danger it will become just another Chinese city?

David Akers-Jones

President of the Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong and former chief secretary

A1 It is now 15 years since the handover, when we became once more an integral part of the China. Before 1997 we had had 15 years to prepare for the return - in all a total of 30 years. As the day of return approached for some there was increasing anxiety. Some left Hong Kong, imagining the tramp of soldiers' feet and the loss of freedom. Those who knew better continued with their investment in our economy, and the moving of our industry into the Pearl River Delta and beyond.

In a sense we have always been part of China, but a borrowed place in which, during the years of British administration, a system of governance had been steadily imported, not deliberately, but simply because, being British, it was the only way of doing things. Indeed, it was Queen Victoria and her advisers who very early in our history reminded the British merchants to behave themselves, of the need for fair play and instructed them that there should be no special favours, that all land should be sold by auction.

There were those who thought these systems, buttressed by law and justice, administered independently of government executives, would be abolished at the handover, along with our freedom of speech, religion and so forth, and freedom to continue to run Hong Kong in a way to which all our several million people were familiar with and respected. This has not happened and that which holds everything together - the law, fairly, impartially and independently administered - has been the precious guardian of our autonomy. Now, 15 years after the return, it remains so and is fiercely defended.

A2 Hong Kong has always, to a greater or lesser extent, depended on the mainland. In recent years the nature of this dependence has changed just as the rice fields 30 years ago across the boundary from Hong Kong have made way for the factories and flats of high-rise homes. It is not just a question of whether we are more or less dependent on the mainland any more than it is a question of whether Guangzhou should be more or less dependent on Guangdong. We are what we are!

We can resist change and ignore opportunity or we can adapt and modify our approach to the mainland to our best advantage. We must make judicious investments to benefit our core interests of trade, manufacturing and tourism, just as we have moved from low-rise industrial estates to ready-made high rise in a science park. We must open our minds to innovation and new technology, to listen with open ears to new ideas, and when we don't know the answer seek the best advice from where we can find it. When we do not have the skills and home-grown talent then we must attract it to our shores. In the past few years, buoyed up by the easy money to be made from property development, we have been insufficiently generous in our support for research, development and investment, not just in our own institutes of education but to reach for the benefits to be gained from sending our young people overseas for higher studies

A3 In all the world there is no place quite like Hong Kong where seven million of China's 1.3 billion people live under a governance and management that is different from the rest of the country. I have travelled far and wide in the mainland and all the cities I have visited are different, but now having spent more than 50 years in Hong Kong always, after my travels, I am glad to be back again, and as I look down from the plane as we descend I see the mountains, the harbour and the green forests, and think again and again: 'There is no place quite like this.'

We will never become just another China city. We are all different, but Hong Kong has its special flavour and if you walk a few yards from the broad streets and tall buildings of Central you will find another distinctly Chinese city. Interestingly enough, the other evening as we were in Western, I was reminded of the narrow streets of that other great city, London, and Leadenhall Street where I signed on as a sailor nearly 70 years ago. Always I have had this sense of being part of this great city and annoyed with those who hinder or who do not share the vision of doing all we can to build this great city of China and the world.

Bernard Chan

A Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress and former Exco member

A1Integration between Hong Kong and the mainland has been far different to what many people expected before 1997. Politically, we can see that the 'two systems' remain separate. Rule of law, freedom of speech and the press and overall tolerance are alive and well in Hong Kong, and the public and our media remain very sensitive to any perceived threat to our freedoms. Instead, the integration has been economic and social. The flow is two-way, but the main impact is visible in the form of the mainland's integration into Hong Kong.

Following the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, in 2003, we have seen the influx of mainland tourists, stock market listings, university students, expectant mothers, property buyers and so on. The 'one country' is seen in practice in such areas as cross-border travel, shopping, marriage, study and business.

To businesses, the continuation of 'two systems' is seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand we value rule of law in business and free trade with the world. On the other, some local businessmen would love to enjoy the access to mainland markets that we would have if we were politically and economically more part of the 'one country'. Of course, the 'one country, two systems' formula is not simply designed to benefit Hong Kong, but to serve the interests of the country as a whole.

As with any change, there have been winners and losers. Integration has benefited many individuals and businesses, but it has made life harder for some. In particular, it has made it more important for us to address the gap between rich and poor.

A2 The fact is that we cannot really control how reliant we are on the mainland economy. Hong Kong will make the best living it can, and if opportunities come from the mainland, we will take them. We have profited from doing that over the past 15 years - look at all the overseas companies that have set up regional headquarters here to be close to the Chinese market. Common sense suggests that this will continue, but if opportunities come from elsewhere in the future, we must be flexible enough to take advantage of them in the same way.

It is essential, therefore, that the government continues to provide the best business environment it can, without trying to push investors in one direction or another. Hong Kong's economic strength will continue to rely on its competitiveness. We should not look for 'gifts' or artificial advantages for Hong Kong companies on the mainland. Such favours would just weaken us economically, and would probably provoke resentment across the border.

If we are to develop genuinely beneficial business ties with the mainland, we should exploit our advantages, and not - for example - worry about what Shanghai is doing. Our legal and regulatory system, emphasis on quality, and our ties with Southeast Asia and the rest of the world are examples of our unique strengths.

A3 Mainlanders are attracted to Hong Kong because of our uniqueness: low and simple taxes, our legal system, global ties, product quality and safety and even prestige. A good example is the number of mainland students at our universities: they want to come and live here. For various cultural and political reasons, no mainland city is likely to match this in the foreseeable future, and no one imagines that Hong Kong will adopt mainland legal and other systems in the coming decades. Hong Kong most definitely is not 'just another Chinese city'.

It makes more sense to compare our city to London and New York. In many ways we do very well: our government keeps our fiscal and regulatory systems and physical infrastructure in very good shape. We have a critical mass in many areas, such as financial services, law and accounting, which other cities in China and Asia mostly do not have.

We cannot be complacent, however. I have always felt that if anything goes wrong for Hong Kong it will be our own fault, and one area where we are falling behind is quality of life. It may be politically difficult to sort out our problems in housing, health care, pollution and planning, but we will underperform if we do not do better in these fields. This has been the most disappointing feature of Hong Kong since 1997.

Lau Nai-keung

A member of the Basic Law Committee

A1 Of course, the 'two systems' have been overshadowed by 'one country', as this was meant to be, but that has in no way undermined the special administrative region's high degree of autonomy. 'One country' and 'two systems' are not parallel concepts at the same level. This is the one and only possible interpretation, but the dissidents have chosen to twist the concept around to suit their own political purpose. A lie told so many times over the past 15 years has now been taken as the gospel truth in many quarters.

Then let us come to 'high degree of autonomy'. How high is high? Our dissidents want it sky-high, meaning total autonomy, or de facto independence, and anything short of that is a violation of 'high degree of autonomy'. They have tried time and again to test the limits, and when they are rapped on the knuckles they call it 'undermining'.

Let us take some real-life examples such as a matured federal system like the United States. Each state does not have its own court of final appeal, cannot enact its national security laws, and federal agents and soldiers can enter the state without first asking for permission. Compared with a state in the US, the Hong Kong SAR does enjoy a much higher degree of autonomy. Again, many choose to find comfort in listening to the chanting of lies, by claiming otherwise.

A2 Since when has Hong Kong not relied on the mainland? In its 160 years of history, the answer is never. Remember the old colonial saying, 'Hong Kong is just a barren rock with nothing on it.' Without some of our mainland compatriots getting addicted to smoking opium, it might still be a barren rock. Even today, we are reliant on the mainland for our supply of fresh water. In fact, I cannot imagine Hong Kong being as prosperous as it is today if it were an isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

For that matter, is Dongguan too reliant on Shenzhen, or vice versa? In the greater Pearl River Delta Region, all the nine cities plus the two special administrative regions are interdependent but, apart from Hong Kong, none of these has ever made a fuss about mutual reliance. Rather, many would regard this as natural, or even beneficial and opt for a closer degree of integration.

The second question borders on the absurd, suggesting that Hong Kong is now not developing its economic ties with the mainland in a mutually beneficial way and that some reversal is needed. Nothing could be further from the truth as the central government regularly dishes out goodies to Hong Kong, which is reaping the benefit. This is a win-win situation - in other words, mutually beneficial.

A3 Hong Kong, like any other major city around the world, is unique as everyone can discern such uniqueness at first sight and would never mistake Hong Kong for, say, Shanghai.

Just look around. Hong Kong is in every way a Chinese city as it cannot be any otherwise with over 95 per cent of its population Chinese. Whether it will become 'just another Chinese' city is a pseudo-issue. Pose the same question in any third-tier city on the mainland, say Wuwei in Gansu, and people there will baulk, insisting theirs is never just another Chinese city. One wonders why Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan city with a per capita income maybe more than 30 times higher than Wuwei, should feel so vulnerable.

Being so self-conscious about its own idiosyncrasies is indeed unique to Hong Kong, perhaps a symptom of its lack of self-confidence. Such a psychological ailment is nothing to be proud of and should not be encouraged. So please stop gazing at your own navel all the time.

If we have to search for Hong Kong's identity and uniqueness, maybe Hong Kong has already lost its uniqueness, or maybe it did not have any uniqueness in the first place. In that case, the first thing to do would be to take steps to build and enhance it instead of whining about it.

Martin Lee Chu-ming

Former chairman of the Democratic Party

A1 There can be no doubt that 'one country' has now completely overshadowed 'two systems', and that Hong Kong has lost its 'high degree of autonomy'. And by July 1, 'Hong Kong people' will definitely not be 'ruling Hong Kong'. For by then, Hong Kong will be effectively ruled over by the central government liaison office through its puppet, C. Y. Leung, the chief executive-elect, who is generally believed to be an underground Communist Party member (although he has vigorously denied it).

When Deng Xiaoping first announced his policy of 'one country, two systems', I said then that his grandiose plan could only work if there was democracy in Hong Kong. For I believed then, as I believe now, that Hong Kong people would never be able to rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy unless they be given the right to choose their own chief executive as well as all members of the legislature. After Beijing's repeated postponement of democracy in Hong Kong, it is doubtful whether Beijing will honour its last promise (given in December 2007) that we will elect our chief executive in 2017 and the entire legislature in 2020 through genuine democratic elections. Thus, Deng's big promise given to the people of Hong Kong and the international community is in clear danger of being turned into a big lie by his successors.

A2 When Deng made the promise of 'one country, two systems', he was looking at a Hong Kong under British rule which was both prosperous and stable; where people enjoyed freedom under the rule of law; and where corruption was well under control. I believe that he wanted to lead China forward by using Hong Kong as a model, and that he made the promise of '50 years, no change' because he reckoned that the mainland would probably take 50 years to catch up with Hong Kong. Deng's plan could only work if Hong Kong were to continue going forward after the handover under its own existing separate system, and not be pulled back by the much larger mainland system.

But after only 15 years, many people already think that Hong Kong's prosperity is entirely dependent on the mainland. This is the result of a policy introduced by our first chief executive, C.H. Tung, who took every opportunity to emphasise, and even exaggerate, the importance of the mainland's economic benefits to Hong Kong, without even mentioning that, but for the huge investments coming consistently from Hong Kong throughout the past two decades, China's modernisation programmes would not have succeeded to such an extent. In 2011, Hong Kong still accounted for US$77 billion, or 66.38 per cent of foreign direct investments in China. It is, therefore, clear that the economic ties between the 'two systems' have brought about substantial benefits to both systems, and not only to Hong Kong, as has been suggested.

A3 Now that Beijing is practising capitalism under the guise of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics', there is not much difference between Hong Kong and the major cities on the mainland except for the rule of law, which underpins freedoms, and which still exists in Hong Kong, though not on the mainland. We must ensure that the rule of law is maintained in Hong Kong. But Beijing leaders have openly urged our judiciary to co-operate with the government. Our judges must not do that. Otherwise, the rule of law will become the rule by law, as on the mainland.

With the introduction of patriotic education to brainwash our future generations, the expected legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the continued expansion of police power, the tightening of controls of the press and public demonstrations, and the threatened erosion of our core values which underpin civil society, it appears that the top priority of Beijing leaders is the maintenance of stability through the exercise of full control over the whole of China, including Hong Kong, at the expense of turning Hong Kong into just another Chinese city.

My message to the Chinese leaders is that they must immediately return to Deng's blueprint for Hong Kong, as enshrined in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, and leave it to us, the people of Hong Kong, to work out our own future. For this will benefit both Hong Kong and China as envisioned by Deng.

Christine Loh Kung-wai

Chief executive of Civic Exchange

A1 No one will deny there is tension between 'one country' and 'two systems'. This is inevitable when the two systems are so different; and there is also the issue of size - the mainland system is the much larger one, so the assumption is the smaller Hong Kong system would inevitably have to give way.

This is why it is important to look at the situation broadly because things will continue to evolve.

A pessimist may focus on the long time it is taking for Hong Kong to achieve universal suffrage, the attempt to ensure election of Henry Tang Ying-yen as chief executive (which failed) and the interventionist role of the liaison office.

But that disregards the case for optimism. Problems are widely reported and discussed by the community. Recent examples also show how the most senior officials have had to apologise for their mistakes, the richest people are not above the law, and NGOs remain very good watchdogs of the wider public interest.

Today, Hong Kong remains an energetic community, and Hong Kong people are more aware than ever of the need to assert 'Hong Kong values' that underpin our liberal and tolerate way of life. Yes, we are anxious that our values can be eroded but the public does not appear to be complacent.

On the issue of relative size - Hong Kong is not just a physical space; it also represents the idea of a free and efficient society governed by the rule of law, which is why it punches way above its weight.

A2 Hong Kong and the mainland have always had a special economic relationship. Hong Kong's economic purpose is to provide the world-class services which the mainland cannot provide for itself. Before 1978 and China's adoption of the 'open door' policy, Hong Kong transformed cheap goods and raw materials into exports for world markets, which earned hard currency for the mainland. Hong Kong provided the international banking and half the FDI the mainland needed from 1978 to 2010. In serving the mainland's needs, Hong Kong has also gathered a vast clientele around the rest of the world for all kinds of profitable activities.

Size matters in this context. The mainland requires and will continue to need a huge amount of services, and Hong Kong is the most convenient place to provide them. In many ways, this is easy business for Hong Kong. Thus, the notion of Hong Kong becoming 'too reliant' is inappropriate.

As long as Hong Kong's level of services remains high and innovative, we have nothing to fear. Moreover, Hong Kong's privately-owned businesses are still highly entrepreneurial and nimble. Many of them have expanded on the mainland and overseas through their own efforts. Our anxiety that we may lose the edge means we do not take things for granted - which is positive.

These businesses have been mutually beneficial. Hong Kong, of course, wants to do better by being able to provide services on the mainland, which is the purpose of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa). The new administration may wish to review the progress of various Hong Kong-mainland negotiations relating to economic integration, and publish full details of the discussions so the public is better informed about the benefits.

Problems arise when officials and 'political businessmen' seek mainland endorsement by pushing certain projects, including some giant infrastructure developments, such as the Zhuhai bridge, which are not always economically justified.

A3 Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin or Beijing - everyone can recognise they are so very different from each other. Among Chinese (and even international) cities, Hong Kong offers a way of life that is uniquely attractive because of our liberal lifestyle. Other Chinese cities often use Hong Kong as a benchmark to beat. It is tough being in the lead because others want to chase you.

There are, of course, improvements that must be made, such as cleaning up the environment, creating a cityscape that enhances health and well-being of residents, providing a diversity of high-quality experiences ranging from education, health care and justice (in the legal sense) to culture and sport, while maintaining the high efficiency and productivity that is a Hong Kong hallmark.

Hong Kong people are quick, adaptive and practical if given the conditions to exercise their good sense. The frustration is our leaders have not provided the right competitive conditions, such as setting tight standards and ambitious targets. People worry that Hong Kong will be overtaken by cities which set out to beat us. Hong Kong people are ready to act but they have been disappointed by leaders who still seem to only be able to talk in terms of making underwhelming increments rather than setting and achieving high-reaching goals.


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