Hong Kong’s slow economic growth and political divisions were beyond Beijing’s expectations, academics say

Beijing academic Qi Pengfei says city’s development not as smooth as thought, but ‘one country, two systems’ principle remains a success

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 8:29am

Hong Kong’s slow economic growth and acute political divisions since the 1997 handover “went beyond Beijing’s expectations”, and state leaders were “anxious” about the city’s diminishing financial role, a scholar and adviser to the central government told the Post.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Qi Pengfei, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank, said Hong Kong’s development had not been “as smooth as we thought”, but the “one country, two systems” principle was still a success.

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“Originally, it was hoped that through the nation’s grand development strategies, Hong Kong would at least keep its economic prowess ... or play a bigger role,” the Renmin University academic said.

But instead, Qi noted that the country’s leaders had been “anxious” about Hong Kong’s diminishing status as an international financial hub – even though it has been ranked by the Heritage Foundation as the freest economy in the world for many years.

Qi’s remarks came days after National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang told Hong Kong delegates to the legislature that the city had to seize opportunities or risk being taken over by fast-growing mainland neighbour Shenzhen in two years.

“Another problem that was not expected is the social division ... In the past, Hong Kong had a ‘mechanism of harmonisation’, and the divide wouldn’t be that bad, but now society has developed rival camps,” he said.

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Speaking in a separate interview with the Post, Tian Feilong, associate law professor at Beihang University in Beijing, also said there were issues that Beijing did not envisage before the 1997 handover.

“At that time, Beijing’s main objective was to ensure the city’s smooth transition [from British to Chinese rule] ... It did not fully expect problems such as national security, education and identity,” he said, referring to Hong Kong residents’ concern over Beijing’s growing influence on the city.

Chief executive contender Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor recently conceded that the backing of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong had been “counterproductive” to her campaign.

In October last year, the city was rocked by controversy as two pro-independence lawmakers pledged allegiance to a “Hong Kong nation” and insulted China when they were being sworn in as legislative councillors.

They were later stripped of their seats by the High Court after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress interpreted the Basic Law on the issue.

But both scholars concluded the “one country, two systems” principle had been a success.

“‘One country, two systems’ has still been largely successful as both [Beijing and Hong Kong] are still willing to follow the rules laid down under it,” Tian said.

Qi also said despite the unexpected problems, it did not mean the principle had reached a dead end or critical moment.

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“‘One country, two systems’ is a new experiment. It is normal and understandable that problems would appear ... and apart from the extreme [notion] of Hong Kong independence, Hong Kong’s problems are not especially acute. They are within what we can tolerate.”

“The principle has generally been a success,” he said, adding that President Xi Jinping had promised that Beijing’s guiding principle on Hong Kong would be followed “without it being bent or distorted”.

Xi first made the comment when he met Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in Beijing in December 2015. Premier Li Keqiang repeated it at the start of the current National People’s Congress session.

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Looking forward, Qi thought two strategies were needed to stimulate the vibrancy of the “one country, two systems” principle and the city itself.

“First is to maintain the city’s political stability, as it is vital for economic development,” he said.

“Second, Hong Kong’s rule of law cannot be challenged significantly, as it is where the city’s advantages lie.”