Politics and economy in Hong Kong can move forward hand in hand

Hong Kong has many advantages that will help maintain its edge in the pursuit of democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 5:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 5:26am

Can politics and the economy be separated or are they inevitably intertwined?

The premier's annual media conference at the recent National People's Congress sessions disappointed Hongkongers and local reporters, as Premier Li Keqiang did not touch on the city's hotly debated ideas for constitutional reform - nor, of course, did the reporter from a pro-establishment Hong Kong daily who was picked to ask a question. Li focused instead on how the city should and could enhance its competiveness amid growing challenges from the mainland and the region.

This is seen as deliberate: as the premier and an economics expert, Li is in charge of the country's overall reform and development, not Hong Kong affairs, which a task force led by NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang takes care of. Zhang has laid down Beijing's fundamental principles on how to elect Hong Kong's future leader.

It is also the collective view of the central leadership that it is not constructive for Hong Kong to engage in too many political debates. That may well explain why Shanghai is the destination of an invitation to all 70 Hong Kong lawmakers, though the main theme of the trip is political reform. Pan-democrats know all too well that Beijing's choice of venue has been carefully designed. Shanghai is the mainland's best showcase of economic and financial development - literally, a major competitor of Hong Kong.

The talk is that the new Shanghai free trade zone may be on the itinerary.

"Free trade zone" has become a trendy term on the mainland ever since Shanghai launched one last year. During the NPC sessions, delegates from more than 20 provinces reportedly took the opportunity during discussions with top leaders to raise the same request for having their own free trade zones back home, which meant asking for favourable policies from the central government.

But discussions with Hong Kong delegates were invariably oriented towards politics, with ways to boost economic co-operation with the mainland apparently not on the agenda. Such a contrast is said to have caught the attention of officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

The central government's concerns are understandable, but to many Hongkongers, universal suffrage is the talk of the town right now, not to mention it is Beijing's firm stance on nomination that has intensified the debate.

Beijing may be aiming to achieve a dual goal in Shanghai: to discuss the thorny issue of 2017 universal suffrage, and to impress the lawmakers so that hopefully at least some will agree not to let politics drag down the development of economic and livelihood issues in Hong Kong.

It is doubtful if this can be achieved, as pan-democrats who eventually make the trip would certainly not like to be seen as "sightseeing" instead of bargaining on electoral reform. How can Shanghai impress our always-critical lawmakers, especially pan-democrats who insist on as much time as possible for political talks instead of going out for leisure?

Nevertheless, Hong Kong has an edge in many areas - such as the rule of law, free flow of information and high standards of professional services. It is a matter of how our politicians and the community can take democracy forward while maintaining competitiveness. The two are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive.