Why Hong Kong’s global message lacks credibility

October 08, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

To tackle its worsening global image, the HK government hired PR firm Consulum last year to develop a communication strategy to address the “current perceptions of Hong Kong's key global stakeholders”. Yet a year later when the campaign concluded with a claim that the city has a “secure and dynamic environment for business” , it was branded a “waste of money” by Legco lawmakers for “stating the obvious” . Indeed, HK government’s appeals have increasingly fallen on deaf ears in Western governments. Why is this the case? And what can be done? Political upheavals in the city in the last two years obviously played a central role, but is not just the upheaval, but how it was perceived in the West that matters.

Specifically, the lack of credibility in the HK government message is due to group identity distinction. Social psychology states that humans have a powerful sense of belonging to a group. Members of a group favour the values shared in their own group (the in-group) and highlight differences against an outside group (the out-group). This often leads to rejection of the values and credibility of that out-group.

In our case, Western countries view HK as an out-group and no longer a member of the Western liberal order, hence the HK government’s messages is seen as lacking in credibility. For example, the Biden Administration has framed US-China competition as one between “authoritarianism vs liberal democracies” . Thus Hong Kong is now viewed as belonging to the “authoritarian” camp (the out-group) opposing the Western liberal states (the in-group).

Likewise, the “Report on Hong Kong’s Business Environment” states that Washington use the city “as a pawn to suppress China’s development” . Washington is thus framed as a “hostile out-group” while Hong Kong (the in-group) is positioned as diametrically opposing America.

One can question whether the in-group vs out-group dynamic can be applied to large and complex entities such as nation-states. But liberal states do have values and norms that is generally shared among its citizens (i.e. right to vote, right to stand in elections etc.), a clear attribute of an in-group.

Similarly, while recent media attention focused on Western internal divisions, especially Europe’s hesitation to follow America in adopting a tougher China policy, this should not be exaggerated. Brussels’s differences with Washington over China is one of approach, not a fundamental difference over China as a competitor. If Europe is forced to choose between them, Brussels will align with America, as they share common liberal values.

Then what can be done for HK to convince the West? First, the government must follow-up its statements with action. It is inadequate to simply say HK retains large degree of economic and political freedoms, such values must be seen as being implemented in reality. The government needs to be able to point to concrete examples where such values are practiced in the city, and ensure these examples will be credible in the West and not be dismissed as propaganda.

Second, the government must be aware commercial interests is no longer the dominating influence on Sino-Western relations as before. (The Biden Administration for instance has rejected US business lobbying to lift all China tariffs.) Therefore, its’ insufficient to promote HK purely on business terms. Instead, HK needs to identify values and norms that resonate with Western audiences beyond profit-driven motives. HK for example should become a much more proactive actor in solving shared global challenges such as climate change or spread of new pandemics, to demonstrate its contribution to solving global problems with innovative ideas.

Finally, the government needs a different approach to respond to criticism from Washington. Rather than just refuting US allegations as malicious (which only serves to harden in-group vs out-group differences), the government should invite its Western detractors to engage in a dialogue of frank exchange of what it means to be authoritarian or liberal democracy. To be clear, this is not “inviting foreign interference”, but a demonstration of the city’s commitment to open-minded discussion. In engaging in such dialogue, the government can seize the initiative and avoid a passive reactionary posture. This will not be an easy process. However, if the government still values the city as a conduit between the World and the Mainland, it should use this as an opportunity to narrow the increasing gulf between China and the West.

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Research Fellow, Centre for China-US Relations and Hong Kong, Hong Kong Policy Research Institute