Hong Kong’s tragedy is that its political consciousness began to awaken precisely at the time when its leverage with China was at its lowest ebb.
Where once China needed Hong Kong as an entrepôt, legal centre, financial centre, talent centre, and education centre, now the situation is reversed. Hong Kong is dependent on China—without Chinese deals Hong Kong’s law firms, investment banks, and private equity players would swiftly relocate elsewhere; without Chinese tourists Hong Kong’s hotels and shopping emporia would shudder and shutter; without Chinese-linked opportunities Hong Kong’s young people would face under- or unemployment.
Hong Kong went through 150 years of relatively benign colonial rule by Britain without London ever creating true democratic consciousness or institutions and without Hong Kong ever truly demanding more of a say in its administration. Hong Kong’s business elites vied for British favour and awards, from business monopolies to the sovereign’s bestowed knighthoods.
China surely counted on the change of suzerain leading to a simple change of focus from London to Beijing—and, frankly, in the case of many in the business and political elite that’s exactly what happened.
But for the many thousands of young people especially who expected more democracy, who are demanding more of a say in their future, who are developing a sense of Hong Kongness as distinct from Chineseness, there is nothing but disappointment in the air.
With Hong Kong being but a 7.5 million–strong irritation or embarrassment in a wider polity of 1.3 billion people, however, no one could reasonably expect the tail to shake the dragon.
Hong Kong should focus on what is vital for securing that which has always made it unique and special.
First: define the terms. The requirement that judges and the Hong Kong Chief Executive should love China and love Hong Kong must be defined as simple, transparent patriotism and nothing more. In other words, it must not be confused with loving the Communist Party, or having to favour the Party or Party controlled companies in any court case or government decision. It should be only as natural as the President of the United States, for example, reciting and believing in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” making no further claims upon conscience or belief.
Second: protect freedom of speech. University governing councils must respect and defend the right of students and faculty to explore all areas of inquiry. Media must refrain from self-censorship and must be called to account when they waver and rewarded when they stand true to principle. Businesses must not use economic sanctions to punish media’s journalistic activities or commentary and must, instead, recognize that free expression and inquiry ultimately improve the business environment through transparency.
Third: preserve the independent judiciary. Police, prosecutors, and judges must never allow themselves to be politicised and must stand absolutely firm as bastions of the community’s principled conscience.
Finally, Hong Kong people should come to terms with their distinctness within a dependence on China, with the equality of interchange and discussion that implies. Ultimately, Hong Kong’s having a future that is more palatable and positive for the young people of today depends more on China evolving than on any other factor.
This article was originally published as part of a discussion on ChinaFile.com, an online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. David Schlesinger is the founder and Managing Director of Tripod Advisors, a media and China consulting service based in Hong Kong. He is the former global Editor-in-Chief of Reuters and the former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China.