Hong Kong can best serve China through diplomacy – but first it must make its allegiances clear
Christine Loh says Hong Kong, having lived under competing ideologies for decades, is uniquely placed to serve as a mediator between China and the West
Reassessment of Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland is essential for the special administrative region to redefine its role at a time of seismic shifts in global affairs.
The shifts have much to do with the decision Beijing made some 40 years ago to reform and open up. China was mainly rural, among the poorest countries, technologically backward and disconnected from the world economy. Its fast-paced modernisation has become an important chapter in contemporary studies, as many countries wish to see what they can learn from it.
Hong Kong people remember many of the early reforms, the most significant of which was the setting up of special economic zones, starting with Shenzhen in 1980, the opening up of manufacturing, and China entering the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Other important changes included reforming state-owned enterprises, allowing private ownership, strengthening property rights, liberalising prices, reforming banks and taxes, etc. The 19th party congress last year announced many new reforms to expedite China’s development towards achieving “socialist modernisation” by 2035.
Former premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao complained about how hard it was to get reforms implemented properly. Yet, through continuing experimentation and trial and error, China continues to reshape policies and institutions. It has had to expand institutional capacities, nurture talent within its political and administrative ranks and decentralise authority to achieve greater efficiency. Today, China has the cumulative knowledge to plan all kinds of transitions.
There were, in fact, many arguments among the top leadership over reforms. What was not in dispute, however, was the commanding role of the ruling party. Former politburo member Chen Yun’s “bird in a cage” narrative noted that market reforms must take place under the party’s overall development plan: “The cage is the plan, and it may be large or small. But within the cage, the bird [the economy] is free to fly as it wishes.”
China has not embarked on political reform to change its system. It seeks to strengthen the state through building capability. The ruling party argues that political continuity is vital. Multiparty elections could not guarantee policy continuity to enable China to focus on the vast work needed to pull the country out of poverty and develop gradually but consistently. In the minds of Chinese leaders, the true test must surely be performance and outcome.
China’s transformation since 1978 has changed the world. Its gross domestic product has overtaken that of Germany, France, Japan and Britain, and rivals that of the US. It is no wonder that Western countries feel uncomfortable. The seismic shifts have to do with the challenge its success presents to those who have held sway in world affairs, as China is articulating a different ideological narrative to socioeconomic and political development.
Hong Kong is caught between the two opposing narratives. Liberal democracies are supposed to be morally superior to authoritarian systems, and elections are supposed to be an effective “check” on bad politicians and bad policies.
The latter part of Hong Kong’s colonial experience was one of soft authoritarianism practised with British cultural sensibilities, the sun having already set on the British empire. The first two decades as a special administrative region represented the starting phase of becoming a part of the People’s Republic, at a time when the country was in ascendance. Over the past 10 years, this process has intensified.
Beijing has its own sensibilities. The “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers remains a pivotal memory driving Chinese leaders to achieve national rejuvenation. This remarkable transformation project draws on China’s long, unified history that predates the creation of the Roman empire in 27 BC by almost 200 years.
Within this context, territorial integrity is seen as essential today as it was in the past. Any suggestion of even “academic” exploration of “secession”, “self-determination” and “independence” is verboten.
Hong Kong people have their own sensibilities. They enjoyed personal and commercial freedoms as a colony. That status shielded Hong Kong from civil war and revolution on the mainland. Hong Kong’s manufacturing, trading and financial services created enormous wealth and they proved essential when China begun to embark on its modernisation journey. Hong Kong was both protected and able to capitalise on China’s rise.
In reunification, Hong Kong people wanted a shield against potential political setbacks on the mainland – and in the Hong Kong SAR. It was thought that “a high degree of autonomy”, maintaining the rule of law in the common law tradition, and “elections” would best serve that purpose. In the 1980s, when the transition was negotiated, and the Basic Law drafted, the international assumption was that China’s market reforms would eventually lead to democratic reforms.
This is not on the cards. The evolving Chinese model is seen as a threat to the West at a time when liberal democracies in the US and Europe are not coping well with many intractable internal issues, such as race and immigration, and growing wealth inequalities; plus external threats, such as terrorism and regional conflicts.
How would Hong Kong people react if there were serious conflicts between Western powers and China? Every nation prioritises its own interests, and Chinese nationals in Hong Kong should consider the national interest even if there are arguments over local affairs and Hong Kong-mainland relations. Indeed, Beijing is asking Hongkongers to build a stronger sense of national identity.
Beijing has always been aware that Hong Kong Chinese are different, and we know we have more freedom here. At a time when there are major shifts in world thinking, including the rise of China, Hong Kong can play a very special role. It is one that the city performed throughout the cold war era and during the decades of trade discrimination against both the mainland and Hong Kong. Now is its chance to display this talent once again in support of the national interest.
“One country, two systems” allows Hong Kong to be the place for dialogue to ease global tensions and find solutions. This could be its new role under the “Belt and Road Initiative”. But Hong Kong must seize it.
While diplomacy is the purview of the national government, there is nothing to stop Hong Kong institutions from investing in studies, competence and dialogue on international relations – a subject the British never encouraged. At the same time, Beijing can recruit talented Hong Kong Chinese into its diplomatic and trade services. This would be one way to send a powerful signal to Hong Kong that there is space for the city to contribute to the wider national interest.
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