Hong Kong must brace itself for the era of geopolitics

October 09, 2023 15:00
Photo: Xinhua

The age of geopolitics is upon us.

From the war in Ukraine to the intensification of Sino-American rivalry, from increasing tensions over the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits to the Indo-Pakistani border, we’re witnessing an era of heightened risk for what Steve Roach terms ‘accidental conflict’. That is, the probability of an unbridled and unmanageable geopolitical clash between competing powers, has rapidly and precipitously increased – as compared with twenty years ago.

Propaganda, counter-propaganda, narratives, and lies have become the norm for international discourse, as regimes opt to engage and communicate largely with domestic audiences, as opposed to one another. Talk of decoupling and rerouting of supply chains has come to dominate the news, with many pundits opining that globalisation is dead. And hence, long live globalisation!

Given these treacherous conditions, then, it is vital that Hong Kong braces itself for the storm, for the tempest in which we are situated. As a SAR, as a city of China’s, but also as a home for 7.5 million denizens on the face of Earth, it falls upon Hong Kong – its political leaders, governmental figures, and private sector – to prepare the city and its population for the challenges ahead. Sure, few could be immune against the challenges and turmoil of geopolitics, yet there is much that can and ought to be done.

The first, is that Hong Kong must vastly improve public literacy rates and cognition of geopolitics. Political, business, civil service leaders, if they have not done so already, must be equipped with the necessary knowledge – derived through not just textbook/formal education, but through informal conversations with those in the know – to navigate the frothy seas ahead. This is especially vital for those who are moving in the circles straddling commerce, private wealth, and finance, where for perhaps too long many, including exceptionally bright leaders in the field, have come to complacently conflate politics with economics, and reduce all macro analysis into sector- and industry-based analysis.

The issue with this, of course, is that there is no way the analysis of particular sectors, industries, or even firms and micro-structures within firms, can reveal to us what is truly the most alarming and determinative forces of this era: the ideologies, the factionalism, the domestically and externally oriented interests that come to shape and steer the decisions by powerful politicians, military figures, and lobby groups. The invisible hand that has long governed the world order does not consist of any singular, individual figure – it instead consists of the confluence of vested, hidden interests, incredibly powerful players operating in the shadows, and, of course, the arbitrary yet always-present element of luck when it comes to popular beliefs and opinions. Hong Kong needs to be ready to engage, adapt, and build up resilience against such challenges.

The second, is that our city must look beyond our conventional partners and associates. It is fair to say that there is simply no way for our city to disentangle our ties completely when it comes to the proverbial West. The US, the UK, and European nations will remain highly potent and germane players on the world stage, and Hong Kong in part draws its uniqueness and worth from its ability to keep at least one foot through the Chinese door for firms from these countries, as well as render Chinese companies more palatable to their tastes.

Yet we should also wrestle with, and embrace, the fact that this is no longer a world dominated by the conventionally hegemonic, neo-colonialist Anglo-European order. This is a world where countries who have long craved standing and autonomy, now possess the agency to act, to speak up, and to disagree with powerful blocs in the background. The question is, do we seize upon the window to bridge, to connect, and to enhance; or are we content with being consigned to the dustbins of historical and strategic irrelevance, as our workforce continually loses out to more astute, more savvy, and more clued-in competitors and counterparts abroad? Understanding geopolitics is pivotal to sustaining and enhancing corporate and business interests, too – this is precisely why many leading banks and insurance companies around the world are hiring geopolitical analysts of their own.

This brings me onto a further point. Whether it be public authorities and agencies, or statutory bodies, it is crucial that we have in place openings and vacancies that are tasked with the express task of looking into geopolitical risks – where they arise, how they arise, and in what ways we ought to contain these risks to prevent fundamental spillover. To the extent that public relations and optics matter to non-profits and power brokers operating in this part of the world, what is plausibly even more important is the extent to which they can savvily avoid getting dragged into the quagmire of infighting and toxic divides across competing political blocs.

Businesses have every incentive to please all sides. Yet politicians often have no choice but to choose sides. It is the tension between these two sets of modus operandi, that gives rise to the need for a class of individuals who can masterfully juggle between and negotiate a modus vivendi across different political camps and players. Hong Kong, as a relatively unfettered, liberal, and broadly progressive city on Chinese soil, must step up on the front of serving as a cradle and as a nurturing ground for geopolitical experts and talents at large.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Assistant Professor, HKU