17 September 2019
NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang (second from left) tells Hong Kong delegates the territory should not politicize economic issues. Photo: CNSA
NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang (second from left) tells Hong Kong delegates the territory should not politicize economic issues. Photo: CNSA

Who is to blame for politicizing HK economic issues?

Hong Kong, under Beijing rule since 1997, has been facing a wide range of difficulties in its efforts to regain its economic growth momentum.

Why has Hong Kong been unable to bring back the golden years of the 1980s and 1990s when it experienced rapid economic growth, transforming itself from a mid-tier city in the region into an international financial center?

Some of the leaders in Beijing blame the malaise on Hong Kong people who politicize economic problems.

On the sidelines of the meeting of the National People’s Congress on Sunday, NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang, who also served as officer-in-charge of Hong Kong affairs, told Hong Kong delegates that “Hong Kong had gained its status through economic achievements, and not by being a place associated with politics”.

While Hong Kong is facing an economic downturn, people should not try to turn it into a political issue, Zhang said.

Instead, Hong Kong people should unite in resolving the economic issue, he said.

While he didn’t say who should be responsible for the problem, it’s quite clear that he is pointing his finger at the political opposition in Hong Kong.

It seems that Beijing would like to distance itself from a series of white elephants that were designed for the furtherance of Beijing policies in the territory.

If it wasn’t Beijing’s policy to further integrate the city into mainland China, Hong Kong wouldn’t pour billions of dollars into the high-speed rail link connecting Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as well as the bridge connecting the city to Macau and Zhuhai.

These projects became sources of conflict in the Hong Kong community when the government applied for funding requests in the Legislative Council for their construction.

In the case of the cross-harbor rail link, for example, the entire project is in danger of being suspended because funding for its construction will be used up this month and lawmakers are blocking the government’s request for additional funding.

Failure to get the legislature’s green light would be a nightmare for the Hong Kong government. It would become the first project commissioned by Beijing that failed in the hands of Hong Kong.

It is the Hong Kong government led by Leung Chun-ying that should bear the full responsibility for politicizing economic issues in all aspects.

Back in January, Leung mentioned China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy more than 40 times in his policy address in an apparent bid to show his loyalty to the central authorities and push for Hong Kong to play a key role in implementing the Beijing plan.

However, in Premier Li Keqiang’s government work report, China’s focus has shifted to the adoption of expansionary fiscal policies to support economic growth.

That means Leung could have been wrong in reading Beijing leaders’ minds.

The further integration of Hong Kong into China is definitely a part of Beijing’s political agenda as the central govenment aims to build closer ties with the former British colony to facilitate its effective governance of the territory.

Such integration is forcing Hong Kong to depend on China, rather than find its own way to accelerate growth, and limiting the scope of Hong Kong’s economy as well.

In the 13th Five-Year Plan announced in November last year, China pledged to support Hong Kong in its efforts to strengthen its international financial, shipping and trading centers. In the 12th Five-Year Plan, Beijing urged Hong Kong to explore the opportunities of becoming an offshore renminbi center and an international asset management hub.

All these policies designed by Beijing for Hong Kong are meant to be a part of China’s grand design for the city’s integration into the mainland, but is it the best for Hong Kong’s economic development?

During the British rule, Hong Kong’s economy was built by its own policies and driven by market forces, rather than dictated by a government document.

That’s precisely the reason why Hong Kong experienced vibrant growth in the 1980s and 1990s with both large corporations and small businesses, and even street vendors achieving success in an environment driven by market forces and the people’s enterprising spirit.

But after 1997, Hong Kong economy no longer depended on the industry, skills and talents of Hong Kong people. They have become mere cogs and wheels in China’s grand design as a world power.

Hong Kong government officials have become mere implementors of the latest directives from the north, focusing on their political correctness rather than tapping the enormous creativity and indefatigable spirit of Hong Kong people.

In fact, “One Belt, One Road” is just the latest example of Beijing’s habit of thinking for Hong Kong and imposing its wishes on our city.

Others included the exploration of the great northwestern part of China and the formation of the Pearl River Delta economic zone to boost southern China’s economy.

However, all these earlier plans faded away as later government documents point to new policies and directives.

The core problem of Hong Kong’s economy is the absence of wealth redistribution. Most of the profits from business activities are controlled by a small number of business tycoons, especially Chinese enterprises which expanded into various sectors of the city’s economy.

In the meantime, the Hong Kong government would rather spend billions of dollars to fund controversial infrastructure projects to link up the territory with the mainland, but refuses to boost welfare spending to benefit local people.

Such political decisions work against the interests of Hong Kong people.

It would be great for Hong Kong to contribute its expertise to support China growth, but such economic collaboration should be based on market forces rather than political considerations.

Any political edict coming from the north to set the direction of the city’s economic development will only turn out to be a burden for Hong Kong people.

Beijing should give Hong Kong a free hand to draw up its own roadmap, rather than set its direction which is more likely to bring the economy to stagnation and ruin.

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EJ Insight writer