One may lament how quickly Hong Kong’s honeymoon with Beijing ended.
After the establishment of the special administrative region in 1997, Beijing acted as a doting mother to the territory.
Communist Party mouthpieces – the People’s Daily and Global Times, in particular – trumpeted that the “long lost child has returned home”, and celebrated the reunification with such slogans as “towards a better future together”.
Fast-forward to almost two decades later, and the trend has obviously reversed.
In Beijing, People’s Daily and Global Times are again taking the lead, but this time to bash Hong Kong as “a place of good-for-nothing layabouts” or “a backwater of little interest to anyone”.
But do these party agitprop operatives know what they’re doing? Have they not heard of Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum that the Chinese could run Hong Kong equally well as the Brits, if not better?
When it comes to cross-border relations, public discourse on the mainland is almost always highly charged with populist and nationalist sentiments.
Thus we need to get back to the basics. The following three questions may help present a full picture:
1. Why do Hong Kong people harbor obstinate perceptions about China and the Communist Party?
This is because of the common phobia about Communism.
Rounds of mass exodus when calamities ravaged China – from the founding of the Communist republic, and Mao Zedong’s rule of white terror in the 1950s and ’60s to ten years of Cultural Revolution – brought masses of refugees to Hong Kong.
Many were the cream of China’s capitalism and intelligentsia who fled tyranny and oppression, filled with haunting memories of the past and certitude of a free future that are almost reminiscent of the Puritans’ migration to New England.
This explains why Hongkongers hold dear their freedoms and idealism; these are values that flow in their blood.
2. Does Hong Kong owe China for its growth story?
The colonizers’ excesses notwithstanding, it was the legal and institutional infrastructure, bedrock of modern governance laid down by the British, that jumpstarted and propelled Hong Kong’s ascent to its eminence since the 1970s.
The “China dividend” did give a crucial lift throughout, but the city’s success never hinged solely on the mainland; the clout of Hong Kong’s business sector was also felt in other regions like Southeast Asia.
For instance, Hong Kong helped train Singapore engineers and doctors and a consortium led by Sir Run Run Shaw and Li Ka-shing splurged over US$2 billion for projects in Singapore when the city state was hit by its first recession in 1985.
In truth, China was more reliant on Hong Kong as its only entrepôt for munitions and strategic supplies during the US-led embargo.
The Hong Kong business sector’s China foray funded and fed into Beijing’s economic liberalization since the 1980s, and even today, US$92.7 billion out of the US$118.6 billion worth of foreign direct investment in China last year were either from or channeled through Hong Kong, according to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
Beijing perhaps should be reminded of its debt of gratitude to Hong Kong when it comes to economic matters.
And, suffice it to say that the city’s status as a global financial center provides an always ready platform for Beijing to pursue a slew of endeavors from fundraising to renminbi internationalization.
3. Are Hongkongers unpatriotic?
Before jumping to any hasty conclusion, one needs to look back at history and set aside the chasm of patriotism and national recognition between the youths on both sides of the border.
The colonial government didn’t put up barriers but rather granted residency to legions of people from north of the border under the “touch base” policy, even though mainland refugees flooded the territory, and Hongkongers embraced these newcomers and shared weal and woe with them.
Donations and relief goods from Hong Kong would always pour in each time China was hit by natural disasters.
In the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Hong Kong committed HK$10 billion to support reconstruction in the province. The city launched 151 government-led projects and 32 NGO projects in the quake-stricken areas, an effort that continues today.
In Beijing’s eyes, Hongkongers may hardly be abjectly obedient, especially when the central authorities try to blur the distinction between the nation and the Communist Party.
But the city has preserved, and is a unique embodiment of, the essences of tradition and heritage that make it distinctively Chinese.
Though waxing and waning in phases, Hong Kong’s bond with China, both in culture and lineage, extends far beyond the span of any single dynasty or political party.
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