City Beat

As interest in Hong Kong affairs grows, time is ripe for local think tanks to shine

City’s residents also have to learn how to differentiate between academic views and central government policy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 1:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 7:21pm

Hong Kong’s first post-1997 leader, Tung Chee-hwa, once lamented the differences between the development and role of think tanks in the city and the United States. Whereas American think tanks actively assert influence over policy makers with their thorough research on major issues, Hong Kong still has quite a long way to go, starting with establishing more influential brain trusts.

Tung, who has been a frequent traveller to the US since stepping down in 2005, re-emerged as an advocate and adviser by setting up two major think tanks – one on Sino-US relations and the other on local issues, Our Hong Kong Foundation. But in Tung’s opinion, more are needed.

Of course, guaranteeing funds and poaching heavyweight researchers are challenges any think tank must face – not everyone has Tung’s financial credentials, not to mention his unique social and political connections at home and abroad.

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However, across the border, there is a noticeable phenomenon – “Hong Kong studies”. Mainland academics are becoming more vocal or even critical about the city. Mainland institutions regularly come up with studies comparing Hong Kong’s competitiveness with other cities.

One of them, a Guangdong-based research centre, raised eyebrows a few months ago by suggesting that border control be relaxed to give mainlanders visa-on-arrival access to the city for easier cross-border exchanges. The Guangdong government is reportedly studying the proposal before submitting a plan to Beijing for future consideration.

Meanwhile, mainland scholars are conducting more studies on the city’s political and legal systems with one theme: how the “one country, two systems” policy should continue after its first 20 years in practice.

There are currently two types of research centres on the mainland: those affiliated with prestigious educational institutions like Tsinghua University and Peking University in the north, or the famous Sun Yat-sen University in southern Guangdong; or semi-official ones like the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies under the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, currently headed by Xu Ze, a former deputy director of the office.

For quite a period of time, “Hong Kong studies” were not considered as mainstream as Sino-US or other major geopolitical topics. That was until the first wake-up call in 2003, when half a million people took to the streets to oppose the introduction of national security legislation in the city, and to express grievances against the local government over many other issues after the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic.

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Since then, a number of young mainland scholars have come down to Hong Kong for such studies.

They include Wang Zhenmin, then a law faculty member in Tsinghua, who is now the head of the legal department of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, and Tien Feilong, who spent years studying law at the University of Hong Kong before going back to teach at Beihang University in Beijing as a Basic Law expert, to name just a few.

It is now a “new normal” for mainland academics to express critical views on many sensitive issues, the latest including the “co-location” controversy over having joint immigration and customs facilities at the terminus in Hong Kong for the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou.

Their commentary usually triggers questions as to whether they are speaking for themselves or representing Beijing, or a bit of both.

One thing for sure is that nowadays policymakers in Beijing are ready and willing to take into consideration the views and proposals of various mainland think tanks.

Hongkongers would do well to learn how to differentiate academic views from actual central government policy.

This new trend also serves as a timely reminder to local think tanks of the need for their views to be better understood by the public and by governments in the city as well as up north.