Hong Kong needs to rely less on the mainland and more on world democracies

Martin Murphy says over-reliance on the mainland is hurting the city in more ways than just economically. With foreign partners, it can be more autonomous and bounce back

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 2:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 2:39pm

China's recent beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation of the yuan is a reminder that "Asia's world city" has yet to live up to its name. Its over-reliance on the mainland is becoming a perilous venture. Having grown fat and lazy on mainland tourism and entrepot services, some of Hong Kong's pillar economic sectors are now facing the double whammy of both a slowing Chinese economy and a cheaper yuan.

While Beijing likes to talk grandly of Hong Kong's role in its five-year plans, the reality is that Hong Kong's welfare is an afterthought in Chinese economic policymaking. Recent examples show the ripple effects of Hong Kong's invisibility. With almost 40 per cent of the city's retail sales coming from mainland visitors, the yuan's devaluation not only cut sharply into the retail sector, one of the city's biggest employers, but also the commercial property market. Shares of several big developers tumbled after Beijing's currency announcement. Other sectors are sure to experience similar reverberations.

But the economy is just one arena in which Hong Kong would benefit from less "mainlandisation". In a number of areas, Hong Kong could do a much better job raising its international stature and advancing the interests of its citizens and business sector. To reach its full potential as a more autonomous player, however, will need its democratic partners to step up to help the city get its groove back.

A formal dialogue between the Legislative Council and other democratic legislatures could provide early warning signals of potentially troublesome legislation

With Hong Kong's prospects for genuine universal suffrage and democracy now on permanent hold, it's understandable that foreign countries would lose what little passing interest they had in its future. But if democratic nations want to make a difference in Hong Kong's future, they will need to adopt more concrete strategies to support the city's aspirations. This means devising policies with the specific aim of helping Hong Kong promote its autonomy, rule of law and unique way of life. Deepening their own engagement with Hong Kong officials, institutions and civil society across a broad spectrum of mutual interests is the best way to do that.

A number of key areas come to mind. Law enforcement is a prime candidate for deeper engagement between Hong Kong and democratic nations. While there's already good international and bilateral cooperation in traditional police work, the same cannot be said about such global threats as proliferation, lax export controls and terrorism, including terrorist and criminal organisations' use of Hong Kong as a platform for cybercrime and money laundering. A formal dialogue on non-proliferation issues, for example, would go a long way in ensuring Hong Kong gets the tools to fully cooperate with international organisations on global threats.

Regular interaction between legislators is common among democratic nations. A formal dialogue between the Legislative Council and other democratic legislatures could provide early warning signals of potentially troublesome legislation. The dialogue should focus on not only economic issues, but also other areas such as visas and immigration.

Hong Kong's private sector can be another important driver in reorienting the city's democratic direction. Together with government officials, the Hong Kong business community could help establish a private-public-sector forum to engage senior officials in democratic nations.

Beyond these issues lies an ocean of other challenges, from the environment and education to youth dissatisfaction, that are ripe for Hong Kong and its democratic partners to forge new partnerships.

With 32 years left under "one-country, two-systems," Hong Kong is in danger of being set adrift. It is in many ways like other democracies round the world. A higher, more strategic level of engagement with other like-minded societies is one of the best ways to preserve its core values and "two systems" in the absence of universal suffrage.

But with the city in a major funk, its democratic partners need to step out of the shadows and strengthen the ties that bind democratic societies.

Born in Hong Kong, Martin Murphy is a former US diplomat and was head of the Economic-Political Section at the US Consulate in Hong Kong from 2009 to 2012