Hong Kong, a city that still exudes movie magic, must get to grips with the political reality
Zhengxu Wang says Hongkongers may disagree with Beijing’s intolerance over any hint of independence advocacy, but they must accept it is a fact of life. Trust must be built up, and Hong Kong should embrace integration with the mainland
In early June, I spent a week in Hong Kong, meeting colleagues, speaking at academic seminars, and wandering around the streets and enjoying the city’s wonderful diversity of cuisine. The streets and restaurants evoked the Hong Kong movies of my adolescence and college years. In fact, this happens every time I visit Hong Kong – every part of the city seems to remind me of a movie scene.
Of course, my most recent visit also coincided with the city’s preparations for the 20th anniversary of the handover. All this could not but spur reflection. How do we makes sense of Hong Kong’s past, present and future?
Watch: Hong Kong’s 20 years in four minutes
Indeed, Hong Kong exerted enormous influence on Chinese culture in the 1980s and 1990s, so much so that a whole generation of mainlanders grew up fully immersed in Hong Kong movies and pop music. In those years, Hong Kong represented the frontier of contemporary pop culture. Movie characters played by Andy Lau Tak-wah, Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai were well known to many Chinese. Until today, Alan Tam Wing-lun and Jacky Cheung Hok-yau remain my favourite singers.
Elements of Hong Kong pop culture even appear in mainland films. Actor-director Xu Zheng ( 徐崢) went so far as to make a film on Hong Kong. In Lost in Hong Kong , he paid tribute to his college-era cultural heroes, such as director Wong Jing.
Watch: Lost in Hong Kong trailer
Perceived as a rich place with high standards of living, Hong Kong was a dream place for emigrating mainlanders. The college sweetheart of the male lead in Xu’s Lost In Hong Kong was an example. In real life, Asia’s pop queen Faye Wong and actor-singer Leon Lai Ming took a similar path; both lived in Beijing before their family moved them to Hong Kong.
Other aspects of Hong Kong’s influence on the mainland are well documented, and need not be repeated here: the inflow of capital, technology and business know-how, for example. This was a golden age in terms of Hong Kong-mainland relations.
Today, Hong Kong has lost its unique cultural position. Hong Kong actors and actresses now learn Putonghua and work hard to secure contracts in mainland productions.
In 1997, Hong Kong could still boast of being an international finance centre, unique within China, and Beijing was willing to expend much effort to support Hong Kong when the Asian financial crisis hit. Today, the Hong Kong economy is facing multiple challenges, social inequality is worsening, and politics is polarised.
Still, Beijing and the rest of the mainland should understand that China has an enormous interest in ensuring a prosperous and vibrant Hong Kong. To do that, Hong Kong’s autonomy, the integrity of its political and legal systems, and its very unique cultural identity should be protected.
With a population of over seven million, Hong Kong is larger than many countries in the world, such as Finland. Though a mere city, it has more world’s top-100 universities than France does (although, 20 years later, neighbouring Shenzhen may well leapfrog even Hong Kong in this respect). So Hong Kong’s way of life deserves protection.
The tougher challenges, however, will fall on Hong Kong. It is up to its people to define their ambitions, aspirations and identity.
And Beijing will need to be assured that independence and the outright defiance of Beijing is out of the picture. Any efforts to promote democracy will invite serious scrutiny from Beijing, and at times heavy-handed responses, if they are associated with any attempt to unsettle China’s sovereignty or challenge China’s political institutions.
Hong Kong can disagree with Beijing’s oversensitivity, but it’s a fact of life. It is up to Hong Kong’s political, cultural and intellectual elite to foster understanding and build up trust between Beijing and the Hong Kong people.
That Hong Kong is a part of China is in the constitution, and that constitutional framework, which exists on paper, must become a reality accepted by all. Hong Kong’s political divide must not be set along the lines of pro-China vs anti-China. Just as China has embraced and accommodated Hong Kong, Hong Kong too must embrace and integrate with the mainland.
There are many opportunities to do so, not least in the more pragmatic areas of trade and business. The city’s policy analysts and business people have spoken a lot about the tremendous growth potential of the renminbi market, the cross-border stock market links, the Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area development plan.
Even the UK government is working closely with China in an effort to harness the opportunities of economic vibrancy, so why not Hong Kong?
The Pearl of the Orient has weathered much. Since the 19th century, it has been at the centre of some of the great upheavals of history – colonialism, the opium trade, Japanese imperialism, the communist movement in Asia, the cold war, and now a shifting global order as China grows in economic and geopolitical power, and cultural vibrancy.
Hong Kong surely won’t miss this latest round of grand historical change.
Zhengxu Wang is professor of politics at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University, and a former acting director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK