Understanding China

May 24, 2021 08:34
Photo: Reuters/Facebook

A few weeks ago, the Democratic Party established – a historic first – a committee that is designated as facilitating the party’s understanding of Hong Kong’s relationship with the Mainland. This is a pivotal step that ought to be celebrated – not because of its ostensible “political correctness”; in fact, ‘tis precisely because by all metrics, it isn’t politically correct.

It isn’t politically correct these days for members of the opposition to “get to know” China. The epistemic arrogance embedded in certain circles would have the Establishment claim and frame understanding of China as a privilege exclusive to solely those aligned with the pro-Beijing bloc – after all, ‘tis part and parcel of an Establishment politico’s career to claim/feign/allege that they are incredibly clued in about Beijing (except, they’re not!).

The hubris and ideological puritanism in other quarters, including zealots who castigate anyone who seeks to advance a more balanced understanding of Hong Kong’s relationship with its own country, render the Democratic Party’s move an equally politically unpalatable move. For a decade, Hong Kong’s moderate democrats had been caught between a rock and a hard place – the rock of official reprobation, and the hard place of public flagellation.

Yet understanding China – understanding Beijing – is of paramount importance to any practitioner of politics in this city. Those who resort to the unidimensional, facetious portrayals of the party may have found themselves surprised – if not caught entirely off-guard – by the swift, stern, and trenchant actions undertaken by Beijing in the city, over the past three years; the writing, however, had always been on the wall. There was no way Beijing would have let off the hook those who spearheaded a movement it deemed to be insurgent, seditious, and innately violent. We may make of it what we will – but the reaction to the action was in no way out of character.

For a country that had withstood the treacherous times of the Great Leap Forward (with millions of lives crushed and wasted away under bureaucratic mismanagement and mendacious practices), the ebbs and flows of the reform and opening-up era, and, of course, decades fraught with extreme turbulence and widespread poverty, Hong Kong’s contentious politics – for a lack of a better word – had always been mere “peanuts” for those in the mainland. As noble and moving the rhetoric of many might have been, the resistance was doomed from the get-go.

Does this therefore imply that the answer must rest with sycophancy, toing the official line, and dancing the “loyalty dance”, as the proverbial saying goes? Alternatively, must we therefore accept being consigned to the fate of becoming a second-tier Chinese city? Those who know me too well would know that I have no such vision for Hong Kong – yet it is one thing for me to have a vision, and another for us, as a collective, to put it into practice.

Hong Kong must be reformed – fixed – for the better. Step one to reforming Hong Kong behoves Hongkongers to understand the Mainland, in ways that extend beyond emotive, inflammatory rhetoric that parallels the words of Sinophobes and Sinosceptics (hawks) around the world; and that is nevertheless also not to be found in the platitudes and empty generalisations proffered by our Establishment bloc.

Firstly, we need to understand where Beijing’s ‘baselines’ lie – and adapt accordingly. The more we push and agitate and strive for a thwarting of these fundamental, core interests, the likelier it is that the grip tightens. The more we engage with Beijing through antagonistic and oppositional terms, the easier it is for hawks within the system to portray Hong Kong as an unsalvageable fortress of oppositional insubordination. We’ve seen this over the past decade – the rise of localism and extremist rhetoric, the surge in violence, and the ascendant anti-mainland xenophobia did not, in any meaningful shape or form, result in further liberalisation on the ground here in the city. We reaped what we sowed – or, more precisely, all of us reaped what some, not all, had sown.

Secondly, we need to identify and make strategic use of where Beijing and the Mainland needs us the most – we, on the contrary to popular belief amongst some, are no longer indispensable to Beijing when it comes to our financial institutions or human capital. Financial centers such as Shanghai and Shenzhen – whilst still lacking in areas of rule of law and infrastructural security/overarching transparency of governance – have been rapidly catching up when it comes to devising approximations of Hong Kong’s legal system and improved augmentation of our financial infrastructure. Our true edge lies with the quality of life Hong Kong offers to many who work and invest in the Mainland – yet uniquely enjoy the vibrance, pluralism, and openness that render Hong Kong a unique spot on Chinese soil. Strip away these virtues, and we’d be barely left with anything that juts out. It is certainly not in Beijing’s interests for Hong Kong to be assimilated and molded into something that exactly resembles the Mainland – nor is that what most informed officials within the system want. It falls upon bureaucrats and establishment politicians in this city, then, to realise and embrace this: a more culturally unique and distinctive Hong Kong must serve not only its own denizens, but also the rest of its country.

Finally, Hongkongers must recognise that we have been drawn into a new Cold War – or, rather, a para-war. It would be ludicrous to take the side of those who view China as an existential enemy: this would neither be in the interest of the world, nor Hongkongers, whose civil, political, and economic liberties have already suffered heavy blows under the protracted and escalating tensions between the US and China. The harder and firmer the West pushes on Hong Kong, the less likely it is for Beijing to open itself up to room for concessions and compromise – this is something that both the West and ‘pro-democracy’ Hongkongers alike must reckon with, and embrace in their advocacy.

Understanding China is of paramount importance. Alas and unfortunately, the quality of Chinese education in our schools leaves much to be desired. More on that later.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU