A lesson for Hong Kong from the Big Apple – conflict is inevitable, just move forward

Both cities are melting pots, both are vibrant and dynamic, and both show that although passions may boil over, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 7:54pm

“I’m not complaining about Hong Kong’s traffic jams any more,” I jokingly told the New York taxi driver as we became stuck in a Manhattan snarl on the way back to my hotel after a meeting on Friday.

The cabbie, who immigrated to the US 19 years ago from Bulgaria, started to ask me about Hong Kong, and was surprised when I told him the cost of living here was probably as high as in the Big Apple.

“New York is the only place I can live in,” he said, telling me how much he loved his city.

I know where he’s coming from – New York has always been one of my favourite cities, and I was reminded why again during my trip there and to Washington DC for business on a visit organised by the Better Hong Kong Foundation.

Although I found the traffic to be terrible, there was no denying the dynamism and draw of the city.

New York always reminds me of Hong Kong in many ways – both are melting pots, and both are vibrant, efficient and tenacious, to name a few shared strengths. At the same time, of course, the two are also very different, Hong Kong being distinct with its unique “one country, two systems” governing model.

This being the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, “one country, two systems” was an unavoidable topic during our meetings in the US with key China-watchers, business leaders, researchers from think tanks, NGOs and former diplomats.

To my pleasant surprise, most of the people we spoke to had some kind of Hong Kong connection, whether they had once worked or lived here, or still travelled frequently to our city.

As the Chinese saying goes, “bad news has wings”, and they all knew and asked about Hong Kong’s high-profile problems – the missing booksellers saga; the strict framework set by China’s top legislature for how much democracy Hong Kong can have; Beijing’s controversial interpretation of the city’s mini-constitution to penalise opposition lawmakers for making a farce of their oaths of office; and the emerging calls for Hong Kong independence.

While these are legitimate concerns, the answer as to whether “one country, two systems” is working can be quite telling.

The past 20 years have been a painful learning process for both Beijing and Hong Kong in terms of implementing this model designed by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

What struck me during my US trip was the underlying faith and confidence the people we spoke to had in the system

Hongkongers are learning how to be their city’s own masters under the “Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong” principle. Simultaneously, people’s aspirations for greater democracy keep growing. But that also throws up the question of how to go about it: confrontation or constructive engagement with Beijing?

On the other side, Beijing is also learning and adjusting its policies towards Hong Kong. The latest clarification came directly from President Xi Jinping during his recent visit to the city, when he drew a “red line” that should not be crossed by independence advocates. But on a significant reconciliatory note, he also called on everyone to “seek common ground while allowing for major differences”.

This, in a nutshell, is Hong Kong: a city that will continue to be passionately vocal, both politically and socially, as awareness and aspirations increase.

What struck me during my US trip was the underlying faith and confidence the people we spoke to had in the system, the fundamentals that form the bedrock of America. Sure, they were concerned about the political animosity gripping their country and the uncertainties about their new government, but it was all about getting a grip and moving forward.

It should be the same for Hong Kong. Conflicts and clashes will go on, but so must life and progress. What is important is not to lose sight of the bigger picture, whatever the current frustrations, and have faith in “one country, two systems” as the ultimate solution.