Hong Kong has a role to play in creating the ‘Chinese dream’ – if it can tread the middle ground

Christine Loh says Hong Kong has had a symbiotic relationship with the mainland for decades. Now, as a part of China with a unique history, the city must reflect on how its role in nation-building can evolve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 9:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 5:31pm

Reassessment is not easy because it requires letting go of long-standing perspectives and, sometimes, emotional investment. The complexity of the issues we confront adds to the difficulty. This is especially true when it comes to Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland.

Older Hong Kong people remember the wave of decolonisation after the second world war. They remember the 1960s, when the city was rocked by the Cultural Revolution on the mainland and violence seeped across the border for a while. It was also a period when the Soviet Union and United States, with very different ideologies and spheres of influence, held sway as the most powerful nations.

From the 1950s, Hong Kong developed a robust manufacturing economy. Growth in the 1960s had much to do with producing labour-intensive consumer goods for export to the West. Hong Kong saw the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher era in the 1970s-1980s positively, as it reduced protectionism and opened markets. 

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China went through many political difficulties up until the end of the Cultural Revolution. It needed Hong Kong to deal with its offshore financial transactions, which helped the city to build its financial services expertise. 

The “open door” policy which China adopted in 1978 was good for Hong Kong. Its manufacturing capabilities expanded manifold from the 1980s as factories could be set up across the border to take advantage of cheaper land and labour. At the same time, Hong Kong’s economy was transformed by the growth of high-value services, much of which supported the expansion of manufacturing and logistics on the mainland.

China’s policies were generally good for Hong Kong although people became anxious about 1997 when Britain had agreed to hand back sovereignty over its last major colony to the People’s Republic. China committed to the “one country, two systems” policy with the promise that Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and be able to organise elections. Hong Kong people want to elect their political leaders in the belief that this would be the best guarantee of their views being properly represented to Beijing, knowing full well that outlook and sentiments differ greatly between the two systems. 

Since the 1980s, China has achieved phenomenal economic development. Today, its status in the world has risen immeasurably. The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. The US became the world’s leading power. Today, the US is seized by the conviction that China is a strategic competitor that needs to be contained. The fact that a large one-party, socialist state that rejects Western values and ideologies could have advanced so far so quickly troubles the long-standing Western narrative that liberal democracies and free markets provide the best solution for developing countries. 

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Chinese leaders have repeatedly declared that free elections in China would produce chaos that would hold the country back. Instead of achieving legitimacy to govern through the ballot box, the ruling party’s legitimacy was gained through performance (backed up today by vision). Indeed, the country’s leadership is promoting a strong state directed by a strong party, with limits to freedoms, as the Chinese solution to the rapid development needed to pull the country out of poverty to become a middle-income society – a goal China will meet by 2020.

There is ... no need to zero in on polarising issues that prevent deliberation, such as the freedom to call for ‘independence’ versus the absolute priority of ‘national security’

Chinese leaders are also the first to acknowledge and list the many challenges the country still faces. The magnitude of the problems is sobering. The 19th party congress last October and the National People’s Congress last month provided plans for the way forward to 2035, when China aims to achieve “socialist modernisation”. By 2050, China could be a fully modernised nation. 

There is no country in the contemporary world that has set such long-term goals and plans, including a major revamp of government structure at the central and local levels to implement policies efficiently, as well as fight corruption and promote accountability. This generation of leaders is attempting to implement policies that are economically sound, socially just, ecologically wise and politically safe. 

The most difficult aspect of the party-state vision relates to human rights. People in Hong Kong had hoped to see a relaxation, but rights activists continue to face harsh treatment. Might there be a time when socialist modernisation can loosen its grip? Can Hong Kong make a positive contribution to the nation’s modernisation?

Hong Kong is eminently qualified to play such a role as the freest part of China. It should have the confidence to navigate challenging, multifaceted tasks where there are contending ideas. This means neither promoting government propaganda nor activists asserting entrenched positions. There is also no need to zero in on polarising issues that prevent deliberation, such as the freedom to call for “independence” versus the absolute priority of “national security”.

There are many issues to consider without getting bogged down from the start. For example, how China might move from where it is to where it could go by 2035 in efficient administration and corruption prevention. How elections could play a role in modernisation is another topic, as is the steady enhancing of press and other freedoms, not simply for freedom’s sake, but to help check official excess and corruption, above all. China’s policies to achieve “ecological civilisation” also have relevance to Hong Kong and the world. 

As a British colony, Hong Kong never got into diplomacy and international and military affairs. The British did not need our involvement. As Chinese nationals, we should now see matters more broadly. The mainland should develop a policy to engage Hong Kong people in nation-building as well as on the international stage. There are two successful examples – Laura Cha Shih May-lung, who served as a senior official at the China Securities Regulatory Commission, and Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, who headed the World Health Organisation. 

President Xi Jinping recognises Hong Kong’s unique strengths. On June 30 last year, he described Hong Kong as a “testing ground for the country’s new opening-up initiatives”. The primary question is: how should Hong Kong prepare itself as an outstanding special administration region ineluctably within a remarkably revitalised China? The aim should be to tackle this task in a robust affirmative manner which serves Hong Kong’s own best interests – and also the best interests of China.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability. This is part of a series looking at what role Hong Kong can play in a revitalised China