Hong Kong’s Chinese and Western influences must coexist if ‘one country, two systems’ is to work
- Regina Ip says Hong Kong’s old balance of Chinese cultural traditions and Western values, like the rule of law, is coming apart due to anti-China zealots
On the eve of Hong Kong’s reunification with China in 1997, the slogan “Tomorrow will be better” was writ large on placards hoisted on prominent buildings across the city. Many were hopeful that, free of the shackles of colonialism, Hong Kong would reach new heights as a highly treasured special administrative region of China.
Twenty years later, Hong Kong lags in innovation but remains one of the world’s leading financial centres. Hong Kong has set world records in home prices, and is one of the developed economies with the highest Gini coefficients.
It has also become a deeply divided society wrestling with an undercurrent of anxiety, as manifested in the highly polarising debate currently raging on reclamation.
Some blame the rising schisms on the wealth gap, the lack of upward mobility for young people, and the global wave of anti-immigration mania. Few are aware that an ideological war has been quietly tearing Hong Kong apart in the past few decades.
In the colonial era, when Hong Kong was a far more harmonious enclave, Hong Kong’s society was informed by three sources of values: the Confucian values of filial piety, respect for education and hard work, order and self-discipline, as in Singapore; the values of western Christianity – the belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the concomitant values of love, hope and faith; and the values of Western civilisation, characterised by the concept of the centrality of the rule of law, representative bodies, individualism and freedom.
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For most of the time in the colonial era, the British governed the local community with Confucian values, encouraging thrift, hard work, self-help and the family as the cornerstone of society. Religious groups and charitable organisations spearheaded education. Rule of law was treasured more for the protection of property rights and the certainty it provided to business than for the protection of individual rights and freedoms.
An ideological revolution quietly got under way in the run-up to 1997, when the departing British administration rushed through democratic reform to provide a check on executive power and, by extension, Beijing’s ability to exert control. In the last decade before the handover, the British administration raced against the clock to legislate on the bill of rights, protection of personal data privacy and equal opportunity, and against discrimination according to race, sex, family status and disability.
It also rolled back legislation which gave the police robust powers to protect state security.
Hong Kong can be justly proud of the high reputation of its most senior judges – the distinguished overseas jurists who firmly anchor Hong Kong in the common law system. However, post 1997, the Court of Final Appeal has taken on the extrajudicial role of safeguarding not only the independence of the judiciary, but also the core values of Western civilisation – freedom and human rights. As Robert Tang Ching, recently retired judge of the Court of Final Appeal, stressed in his valedictory speech, “Common law can be used oppressively. It is protean power, unless adequately controlled by the proper application of human rights law, that can be misused”.
Judicial independence, democratic elections, strong protection of freedom and human rights are indeed distinguishing characteristics of our society, which set us apart from the rest of China and connect us with the Western world; supposedly the institutional advantages which render Hong Kong uniquely valuable to China. Yet they might become too much of a good thing if such Western values are promoted as universal “core values” to counter and displace China’s cultural and ideological influence.
That has indeed been happening in the 21 years since reunification. Hong Kong’s “high level of autonomy” provided in the Basic Law, by definition a qualified level of autonomy, has been interpreted in some quarters as complete autonomy or self-government; the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s power of interpretation of the Basic Law has been fought tooth and claw as interference with judicial independence; democratic development advocated as a means to achieve “democratic self-determination”; free press and free elections touted as overriding national cohesion; China decried as a “totalitarian” state, worse than “authoritarian”; and Hong Kong described as critically placed “at the forefront of China’s authoritarian influences”.
Following the footsteps of academics who masterminded “Occupy Central” – a demagogic movement to pressure Beijing into making more democratic concessions – younger ones are emerging who have spawned youth groups spreading myths about Hong Kong’s self-governance.
To cap it all, the crusaders of Western civilisation have found in Andy Chan Ho-tin, the local student-founder of the “Hong Kong National Party”, the consummate proxy for proselytising their anti-China ideology. Deliberately referring to Beijing as “Peking”, a term used by the West in the imperialist era, Chan’s speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club conjured a vision of China as an oppressive, uncivil dictatorship and “a threat to all free people”.
All those who truly care about Hong Kong’s well-being must recognise that the sustainability of our separate systems hinges on peaceful coexistence with our sovereign power. As then governor Sir David Wilson urged in 1989, when Hong Kong was filled with passionate intensity about the June 4 events, Hong Kong must not become the battleground for other people’s warfare. No benefit accrues to Hong Kong people from pushing the envelope. Freedoms are important, but they risk rocking the boat if pushed to the extreme.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party