Tung Chee-hwa: the whole world is trying to ride on China’s economic progress ... why shouldn’t Hong Kong?
First chief executive Tung Chee-hwa is standing by the famous call he made to Hong Kong 20 years ago
After a light lunch on a humid afternoon on October 8, 1997, 60-year-old Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and wife Betty got into their blue Mercedes-Benz and set off for the Legislative Council building at Statue Square, Central.
The former shipping magnate was ready for his historic task: to roll out his maiden policy address as the city’s first post-colonial leader – a year after last governor Chris Patten had delivered his.
Before the 60 members of the provisional legislature, the avuncular Tung declared from the start that he believed “that the people of Hong Kong will rise to the challenge of this brave new era”.
The newly minted leader was only three months into his tenure.
“As China’s economy, culture and spirit develop and as the world continues to progress, Hong Kong can either stand by passively ... or ride the wave of opportunity and go forward, adding new dimensions and vibrancy to our lives,” Tung said at the beginning of a 140-minute speech.
Fast forward 20 years and the 79-year-old has seen leaders in both Hong Kong and Beijing come and go.
Yet he is even more certain of his famous prediction that Hong Kong will do well as it maintains a close partnership with its motherland: the People’s Republic of China.
In an exclusive interview with the Post, Tung urged Hong Kong to continue to seize opportunities offered by Chinese economic growth.
“My point is that the world is now trying to ride on what China is doing. Why should we, Hong Kong, not be riding on this?” he asked.
When Tung, with his past business dealings on the mainland and current role as vice-chairman of China’s top political advisory body, talks about China, others would do well to take heed.
He also believes immigrants from the mainland have contributed to the success of Hong Kong, and said the city needed to be inclusive as it utilised its advantages to adapt to changes in the global market.
His optimism is not without reason. In the past two decades, the mainland has maintained a real gross domestic product growth rate of between 6 per cent and more than 10 per cent each year, with its GDP also multiplying from about US$960 billion in 1997 to more than US$11 trillion last year.
China is now the world’s second-largest economy by nominal GDP, and its government is seen by analysts around the world as ambitious with its most recent eye-catching “Belt and Road Initiative”, a trade and development strategy that spans across dozens of countries in Asia, Europe and Africa.
But an impassioned Tung, with his baritone voice punctuated by grand hand flourishes, pointed to a bigger arc of the history of Chinese economic transformation, recalling a moment when he was a 12-year-old boy.
“In 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was announced at Tiananmen Square, after ... some tricky odd years of civil war with the warlords and also the [conflict between] nationalists and communism. Particularly after eight years of war with the Japanese, the whole country was devastated, people were tired, and there was nothing left in the country,” Tung said.
“And from then until now ... China’s changed completely. They have taken 600 million people out of poverty.”
Tung, the eldest son of late shipping magnate Tung Chao-yung, noted that such a transformation also changed the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong.
He said while the former British colony only had a Chinese population of 600,000 in 1945, it multiplied to 2.3 million in 1951 as families, including his own, fled the conflict on the mainland.
“They brought with them the skills of industry, you know, building factories ... This group of new people, they’re the ones who started the economy growing,” he said.
Tung said another 300,000 people came from the mainland in the 1970s because of China’s opening up and series of economic reform.
“Throughout all this time ... the relationship with China was always very close. In other words, we benefited from each other,” he said.
Since 1997, debate in the city has waxed and waned over whether mainland immigrants have been taking up too much of the city’s public resources.
In 1999, Tung sparked a political storm when he sought an interpretation by Beijing of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, to successfully overturn a ruling by the Court of Final Appeal on right of abode issues.
At the time, he warned the ruling, which granted unqualified right of abode to mainland children born to Hong Kong permanent residents, could spark an influx of 1.67 million people from the mainland. In 2013, the court also ruled that new immigrants did not need to live in the city for at least seven years before applying for social security assistance benefits.
Since then, pan-democrat lawmakers have called on the Hong Kong government to regain control of the one-way permit scheme, which allows up to 150 mainlanders with families in the city to settle here each day.
Tung said that while 50,000 new residents had been entering annually each year for family reunions, “a different crowd” was now arriving.
“In the past 10 years or so, lots of smart people have started to come. Why? Because they see the opportunity,” he said.
Tung urged Hong Kong and its incoming leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, to seize the advantages offered under the “one country, two systems” formula and boost its film and financial industries.
Looking back on the halcyon days of Hong Kong film production in the 1980s and early 90s, he said: “We served in those days, six million in Hong Kong, 23 million in Taiwan, and globally the overseas Chinese.
“Now the Chinese market is 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion people, and the box office is going to be the largest in the world, and where are we? We are sleeping.”
Regarding the financial sector, he said the yuan, the Chinese currency, and commodity businesses would be potential growth points.
But he warned that any win-win outcome would depend on whether the people of Hong Kong could recognise the city’s inseparable status with the mainland.
Despite calls for Hong Kong independence in recent years among some activists, Tung said he remained an optimist.
“There are people who are unhappy. But ... not all of the people are saying, ‘no, this is no good’,” he said.
“There are lots of people who disagree with independence and so on, so forth. So my point as always is I’m very optimistic because China’s success is for everybody to see.”
Additional reporting by Catherine Schuknecht