Xi Jinping's vision of change may be challenge for Hong Kong

Future might bring mainland that needs city less economically, and is more assertive politically

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 6:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 6:36am

The curtain has fallen on the long-awaited third plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, yet many of its messages and signals have yet to be digested. Specifically, what does this meeting mean to Hong Kong?

History is the best mirror of the present and the future, as one Chinese saying goes. So let's look back at China's recent history, starting 35 years ago when Deng Xiaoping returned to power. The third plenum of the 11th Communist Party Congress - convened in late 1978 - decided the Mao era of "class struggle" was over. China started a brand new era of opening up to the outside world.

The open-door policy, accidently or inevitably, presented a golden opportunity for Hong Kong, as the mainland at that time literally knew nothing about a free-market economy or the capitalist system. Hong Kong, under British rule but with its dominant Chinese population, became the bridge connecting China with the West.

Many Hong Kong investors also made their first - sometimes of many - barrels of gold by investing in the mainland.

Time went by and today China is the world's second-largest economy.

On the other hand, 16 years after Hong Kong's handover to Beijing, it now seems Hong Kong is relying more heavily on the mainland for its future well being.

So when this third plenum of the 18th party congress, with a new generation of Chinese leadership headed by Xi Jinping , claims the country is now starting out on "comprehensive and deeper reforms", does it mean another golden chance or a greater challenge for Hong Kong? Or a mixture of both?

How "comprehensive and deep" will the current reforms be? Maybe no one, not even Xi, can be very sure at this stage. But one thing is sure: after 35 years, political reform is expected to be on the agenda.

However, political reform carries a different meaning for the Communist Party than it does for many Hongkongers. We expect it to mean constitutional change, such as reforming the electoral system. The party sees political reform more as the building of law-based, service-oriented and transparent government.

Many Hongkongers had high hopes for political reform on the mainland and would like to see more democracy. But under "one country, two systems", Beijing is very conscious that the "well water" of Hong Kong may spoil the "river water" up north. Beijing insists it has its own agenda and its own pace towards democracy with Chinese characteristics.

So where does Hong Kong sit in the "deepened" reform blueprint set by Xi?

Economically, it will be harder for Hongkongers to make a big fortune on the mainland than it was 35 years ago, given the changing economic status of the two sides, and the fact the mainland now has its own talent and experience. We need to prepare for more challenges, although opportunities should still be there.

Politically, the Xi leadership is determined to establish a strong image. The setting up of a National Security Committee raised some eyebrows in the city, with worries it would target Occupy Central and the pan-democrats. Those fears may be too Hong Kong-centric, but the move does show that the Xi leadership is determined to counter destabilising forces - domestic, foreign or from Hong Kong - that might undermine national security.

In this regard, Xi wants to be seen as being as tough as Deng, who during China's negotiations with the British on the future of Hong Kong in the 1980s never compromised on issues of principle. This could serve as a reference for a Hong Kong expecting more political controversies in the run-up to universal suffrage in 2017.

Having said all this, Hong Kong still has the edge over the mainland in many areas, like the rule of law and various freedoms. But regardless of the differences, we share something in common: enhancing understanding between the two sides is mutually beneficial.