Does Hong Kong still have a place?

December 23, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

It’s been a rather grim 2020.

For the world, for China, and for Hong Kong in particular.

Long-standing issues surrounding governance, socioeconomic inequalities, and the city’s uneasy relationship with its own state – stemming from both identitarian and value divergences – have come to a head over the past 20 months.

Many have asked me if I believe there’s still a viable path out and forward for Hong Kong – if the city is dying, or dead. Others have emphasised that the ‘short-term volatility’ and ‘uncertainty’ are but shocks and natural costs as the city adjusts to a new normal – a normal of ‘stability’ and ‘order’. Yet irrespective of where one stands, one fact is unmissable: the Hong Kong that we’d lived in prior to 2020, for better or for worse, is no longer with us. These are unprecedented times, and Hong Kong has embarked on a journey into the unknown – where it emerges, how it emerges, that’s a question upon which its future, and China’s future at large, turns.

With all that said, Hong Kong does have a role to play – its fortes and strengths are what Beijing and Hongkongers alike must seize upon, in chartering a new course in the city’s fate.

Hong Kong would only become precipitously important under the nascent Cold War – with ideologically driven, hegemonically propelled populism from one side of the Pacific, and historically entrenched, zealous over-defensiveness from the other. Hong Kong remains the primary nexus where mainland Chinese companies could seek IPO and consolidate its liquidity, stocks, and legal infrastructure, especially given the increasing volume of sanctions and bans by the Federal Government in the US over Chinese corporations’ listing and capital raising. Concurrently, despite the setback to the city’s economic fortunes under the politically convenient Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act, Hong Kong remains the prime go-to springboard for American firms seeking to enter into the Chinese market. This much is unlikely to change, at least in the short to medium term.

Yet such strengths are by no means guaranteed. Hong Kong is confronted by an existential risk – the risk that it would become the sacrificial lamb under the structural decoupling and vested-interest-driven posturing from both sides. Beijing views Hong Kong as a hotbed of insurgency and instability; the US deems Hong Kong as ‘no longer’ the Hong Kong of which it had once held a firm grip over the zeitgeist and political pulse – through covert and overt political activities.

With that said, we ought not neglect the alternative modes through which the city could contribute towards the balancing and mediation of US-China relations. Many Hongkongers – particularly those who have been through a West-centered, Western-in-kind education – are well aware of the cultural nuances and values that have made the West ‘work’ – whether it be its assiduous devotion to negative liberties, the wary albeit structural promotion of positive liberties, and the crafty reimagination of the state-citizen relationship through the lens of a carefully navigated and negotiated hypothetical contract. Yet concurrently, these are folks who comprehend how politics works – if only, of course, they’d understood how politics worked in the Chinese context. Then there are the select few, who are well-versed in the vernacular and symbols, the principles and values of East and West, who could and should play the pivotal role in bridging the cultural and systemic gap. It is no mean task – seeking to mediate the struggles between Behemoths, but through civic and mass-mobilising dialogue, open-minded civil society exchanges, and artful public-private partnerships (e.g. the nascent impact investment industry), the ‘go-betweeners’ in Hong Kong can and indeed should step up to a bigger role as civilisations clash and are at loggerheads with one another. Hong Kong remains the freest plot of land under Chinese sovereignty – there is much that we can and should do, if only the powers that be recognised that liberalisation is not akin to relenting control. If anything, moderate liberalisation paves the way for greater political stability.

This ties me onto the final point. In an ideal world, HK should play a critical role as an exemplar, as a paragon exhibiting “democracy with Chinese characteristics” – in demonstrating that a political model fusing the best of electoral democracy and technocratic meritocracy, can and ought to work.

Democracy may appear to be as dead as Einstein, but I am adamant that we ought not give up on hoping. Universal suffrage, political reforms are the only path towards genuinely ameliorating the pent-up frustrations that undergird Hong Kong today. If Hong Kong is to have a role in the 2020s in relation to its country, it is to operate as a well-managed, liberalising political experiment, as one that neither impinges upon Chinese sovereignty at large, nor renders Hong Kong just like any other mainland Chinese city. Over the past decade, our city’s progress towards democracy has been derailed by a smorgasbord of factors – chiefly, the fatal mix of obsequious sycophancy, and futile, self-destructive nihilism.

Does Hong Kong still have a place?

…is a misleading question. Hong Kong’s not going anywhere – at least, in corporeal terms. A vast majority of the city’s population, despite all the fanfare and bluster, would not desert the city. There may well be changes to how the city is governed, though its common law jurisdiction and functions as the primary site for offshore RMB exchange and a valuable capital hub (e.g. IPOs, capital consolidation) would remain largely intact. A new Cold War may be brewing, but liquidity and investment are yet pouring in from all corners of the world – for a split-second, you could be forgiven for thinking that the city has emerged entirely unscathed from last year’s events.

Yet we all know that that isn’t the case here.

I remain cautiously optimistic. Hong Kong still has a part to play. As a place for all, it belongs to both mainland Chinese and Hongkongers, but also the world at large (on that note, I shudder at the passions with which some zealots have impetuously jumped to branding “belonging to the world” as “politically incorrect”).

Hong Kong’s future, and its country’s future, go hand in hand. To decouple one from the other reflects a delusion of grandeur, with lethal consequences. “One Country, Two Systems” was written – or at least, it seems as such – with the world in mind: Hong Kong would remain an open, laissez-faire, and liberal gateway to the world for China. Perhaps the laissez-faire bit hasn’t served the city’s denizens all that well, but the openness and liberalism of the city are assets not just for its own citizens, but the rest of China’s too.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

HKEJ contributor