Love and understanding between Hong Kong and mainland takes time

Winston Mok says despite reunification, Hong Kong's emotional bonds with the mainland will take time to develop, and patience and understanding are needed on both sides

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 1:35am

Seventeen years after reclaiming sovereignty, Beijing has yet to win the hearts and minds of the people of Hong Kong - in that, Chen Zuoer was spot on. As a global city with a per capita gross domestic product similar to its former "master", and now a part of the world's second-largest economy, Hong Kong grapples with complexities that cannot simply be explained away as a case of post-colonialism.

Nor is the dichotomy of the two economic systems necessarily the key issue here. When asked before 1997 by foreign friends what would happen to Hong Kong after 50 years, I quipped that the mainland may learn the practices of socialism from Hong Kong, for we exceed the mainland in many aspects of social welfare, such as education, health care and public housing.

Hongkongers are sometimes perceived, not always fairly, as being insufficiently "patriotic". Practical and cosmopolitan, many may not have a strong appreciation of China's history and culture. The influx of mainland tourists, while good for some sectors of the economy, has caused friction rather than brought compatriots closer together. While the mainland is making progress on the rule of law, it is quite different from Hong Kong in terms of media freedom and human rights.

In other words, Hongkongers may not fully identify with China at three levels: past, people and political system.

The first issue can be addressed with time. More mainland TV channels, showing documentaries, news and drama, could be made available in Hong Kong - perhaps with restrictions on adverts to lessen resistance from local broadcasters. A museum of Chinese civilisation could be built here, perhaps with top exhibits from the mainland and Taiwan. Greater emphasis could be placed on Chinese culture in education, while more student trips to the mainland should be encouraged.

The second issue may need some work. Wealthier mainland tourists have "graduated" from Hong Kong and are now going to Europe and other more expensive destinations. Some "entry level" mainland tourists may not be viewed as the most civilised. Perhaps applicants for Hong Kong entry permits could be given etiquette manuals or even be asked to take a test. More shopping malls can be built near the border and special duty-free shopping zones could be set up in the Pearl River Delta, to provide a "virtual" Hong Kong experience.

More visits by Hongkongers to the mainland will give them a better sense of the full spectrum of mainlanders. China has no shortage of talented students; for example, in Beijing, students from the top local schools outshine their international school counterparts in English essay contests. And many are eager to learn. In less developed areas, those with rudimentary English join summer camps to improve their command of the language. With more face-to-face exchanges, Hongkongers can gain a deeper understanding beyond the stereotypes, and gradually develop greater respect and compassion for their fellow countrymen.

The third issue is perhaps the most difficult. China's political development will, realistically, be a long and uncertain process. The official verdict on some historical events, such as the June 4 incident, is fundamentally different from the views of most Hongkongers. There does not appear to be any quick fix except patience on both sides.

As seen by the many university buildings, sports halls and schools named after Hong Kong philanthropists, the city does not lack patriots. Hongkongers have also donated generously in aid of disaster relief efforts in mainland China. The annual June 4 commemoration, in its own way, may be seen as a patriotic act.

As outlined in its white paper, Beijing wants to make sure that whoever leads Hong Kong is "patriotic". But action and reaction on both sides recently may lead Hong Kong into a downward spiral. Instead of sticks, carrots may be more effective in advancing Beijing's agenda.

The 2017 chief executive election should be seen in its broader historical context. It will be an important milestone of political development, not only for Hong Kong but for China as a whole. The story of modern Hong Kong began in 1840 with China's humiliation, so it is gratifying that today it has provided great impetus to China's economic development.

Hong Kong can serve as an example of political reform for other Chinese cities. Political changes here may demonstrate that democracy is good, or show it is risky. No less tragic than the loss of lives, the events of the summer of 1989 pushed back the economic, social and political development of China for decades. In the aftermath, reformers were sidelined and hardliners entrenched, resulting in greater corruption over time - the opposite of what the students had intended.

China missed a window of opportunity for political reforms a quarter of a century ago. Hong Kong has been given an unprecedented opportunity for greater, though perhaps not perfect, democracy - in a country with complex political challenges. Patience and compromise are not the marks of weakness but statesmanship.

There is no need to repeat the mistakes made as a consequence of actions by idealistic and patriotic students in 1989.

Winston Mok is a private investor, a former private equity investor and McKinsey consultant. An MIT alumnus, he studied under three Nobel laureates in economics