Hong Kong’s recovery: Greatest threat is parochialism

April 27, 2023 09:36
Photo: RTHK

In January, the Finance Secretary Paul Chan went to Davos as part of an effort to encourage the world to join the government in its “embrace of a new start” for Hong Kong and to sell its numerous inherent strengths. Combined with efforts that coincided with the full opening-up of Hong Kong and recent visits to the Philippines, Vietnam, the UAE and Saudi Arabia by the Chief Executive, it was a much needed and timely reaffirmation of the government’s acute awareness of Hong Kong’s current optics problem and the need to forge new relationships.

These efforts have been greatly welcomed by most, including many of the city’s international residents and businesses who demonstrated their confidence in the future of Hong Kong by choosing to stay despite the turbulence of the last few years. However, much of this will be ineffective if the city - government, businesses, citizens, and media all included- remain oblivious to a lurking danger: that of creeping parochialism in critical areas which legitimize Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s World City.

The trip by the Chief Executive to the Middle East and especially to the UAE is telling. In many ways it was an acknowledgement that there is much to learn from others, including a small nation. The Chief Executive was quoted as saying that a reason for going to the UAE was because of its vision and blueprints for the future. It was tacit acknowledgement that HK needs to learn about visioning because it has yet to clearly define one for the future. It has hardly diversified its economy for the last thirty years and in many ways has neglected its lower income groups in its business-as-usual approach to remaining the financial center of Asia and gateway to China. On the other hand, the UAE, although rich in tangible assets in the form of oil, recognized over a decade ago that not changing course and moving away from an over-reliance on oil would be irresponsible and ultimately financially short-sighted. Thus, it has embarked on a major transformation.

Much of the UAE’s grand vision has been driven by leaders who have escaped parochialism and yet who are also committed to preserving their traditions and culture. Not an easy task for a small oil-rich nation. In Hong Kong however, various forms of parochialism have taken root in the post-handover years. Government officials and others - in their desire to demonstrate patriotism- felt a need, albeit understandably, to reject all vestiges of colonialism and went “local”, whilst simultaneously wanting to retain the benefits of packaging the city as “global”. This translated into embracing a slogan about HK being Asia’s World City. Some of these responses, post the handover was to be expected and is understandable, but the critical mistake was not to anchor it to a clear vision for the future. The evidence for this lack of vision became clear as the years passed with the disenfranchisement of the youth, the hollowing out of the economy and the worsening housing crisis. There was insufficient appreciation of the forces that were reshaping the world, the impact of the rise of China and in turn the impact on Hong Kong and its society. This absence of vision was rooted in a form of parochialism that is readily overlooked because it seeks to comfortably rest on the city’s laurels thereby unwittingly relying on and perpetuating the status quo, and thus suffocating the growth of new approaches and ideas.

Parochialism in the Post-1997 Era

After all, from a societal transformation viewpoint, a more appropriate slogan for Hong Kong after 1997 may have been “China’s World City”. This in turn could have been the basis for captivating and inspiring the minds of an entire generation with a best of both worlds approach. The decolonization of Hong Kong should have involved more education on the dangers of naïve parochialism to curtail its growth. But this lesson has not been learned. Instead, many of the post-1997 generation, as made abundantly clear during the protests, did not even view themselves as citizens of China; some proudly referred to themselves as non-Chinese. They openly sought to demonstrate an allegiance to the former colonial master and the USA, whilst simultaneously acting in an extremely parochial manner, even embracing a strong Cantonese chauvinism.

This was a result of policymakers being blind to the needs of decolonization and allowing parochialism to thrive even in policy circles. This was not helped by the fact that policymakers struggled to detect or address the major challenges facing the city, from housing to income inequality, and instead sought refuge in a global branding exercise that sustains a business-as-usual approach. A dysfunctional political system inherited from the departing colonial government did not help either.

With hindsight, it has become very clear that so many the of young minds of the 1997 generation were terrified about the future, sentiments which were unfortunately amplified by an education system that did not help them understand what the return to the sovereign meant - including the enormous benefits. They were thus confused about their identity and did not have a grasp of where the city sat given the context of a modern and rising China nested within a rapidly changing world. This is what post-handover parochialism within policy making circles produced, and it was the result of two interesting phenomena.

The first is a misplaced understanding of what independence and a return to the sovereign meant and what self-determination entails. This translated into a reactionary “go local” policy in tandem with a desire to please the sovereign at all costs, thereby not representing public demands and concerns. The second was the fear – or more kindly put, the inability - amongst those put into positions of authority to share their new-found powers with others, to seek diverse inputs to reimagine the city and be more inclusive. This local elite was out of touch with the need for a radical change and deaf to the concerns of the next generation and worked instead to maintain the status quo and appease the sovereign. This meant closing the doors to bold ideas – from housing to education reform and electronic road pricing to the diversification of the economy – and sidelining anyone not from elite circles or having non-mainstream ideas.

Although the history of the UAE is different to that of Hong Kong, its desire for change was accompanied by a great openness to ideas from all over the world. This was particularly so in the implementation of its vision for the future, which came from leaders who thought big and bold and were constantly in search of ideas to strive for a best of both worlds approach. They sought to attract the best minds to the nation.

By contrast, in post-1997 HK, critically needed policies got entangled in a war of attrition between political appointees, civil servants, and the legislature. This was a struggle between elites even if some claimed to be representing the people. There was within this struggle an accompanying and unfortunate tendency to use language to exclude people who could not speak Cantonese from being part of the key conversations. It was one feature of the “going local” approach and a very convenient one at that to exclude others as the elites fought a parochial war to establish their vision of the future.

It is important to understand that this critique is in no way suggesting a return to a colonial era approach where English was the language of the government and used to isolate the vast majority of local people. But if Hong Kong seeks to retain the claim of being Asia’s World City and position itself as such, then it cannot be parochial on the issue of language. It must therefore ensure that the English language is part and parcel of the city’s culture – a bit like Singapore – because whether one likes it or not, it is the world’s language for now. Post-1997 and in this new era of globalization, the city needs to retain a best of both worlds approach.

The result of this parochialism has been a dearth of bold new ideas for over two decades, a stagnation of critical thinking across the board, an over reliance on the same old echo-chambers of local elites and vested interests, many ironically with international networks. This ultimately led to the weakening over time of an essential and robust intellectual eco-system that any world-class city needs especially with regards to finding solutions to the numerous public policy challenges facing the city. Not everything to do with recovery and reinventing the city is about business and there aren’t business solutions to every challenge. The creation of this sort of non-progressive and even anti-intellectual environment is often also rooted in the insecurity and intellectual fragility of the ruling elite class.

Modern HK Needs to Move Beyond Traditional Development Ideas

Fast forward and current government’s efforts about the recovery are still dominated by ideas focused on looking at the economy from the traditional lens. No one will deny that the economy is an important issue but as most in HK also know, this tends to be where the great majority of government effort is focused on. This is due to the archaic belief that if you get the economy to hum, money pours into HK – being the global financial hub and gateway to China - and all the city’s problems will evaporate as it returns to the heady years of being the freest economy in the world.

This is a reminder that so much of the approach about restoring Hong Kong is still about clinging on to what made the city a global success in the past. There is not enough reinvention. So as the UAE diversifies away from an overreliance on oil, HK on the other hand seeks a return to the only thing it believes it is good at, being a financial hub. Whilst there is much talk about technology and attracting talent, the thrust is still linked to being a financial hub. But Hong Kong cannot be just that and this must be well understood and explicitly explained so that citizens and international stakeholders are clear that the city has a new vision and is not planning to “return to business as usual” (BAU). After all, to reverse the acute brain drain facing the city requires policies that are much more sophisticated than building the economy around the traditional pillars which have exacerbated inequalities. The world has changed, China has changed, and HK must change.

Let us consider this in a bit more detail.

Firstly, and from a broader political perspective, it is unclear if China wants Hong Kong to just return to BAU and for the recovery to be about taking us back to where we were twenty years ago without tackling the significant socioeconomic issues which were the root cause of much of the unrest. Alignment on this has yet to be found. With China’s emphasis on high quality development, its priorities for HK are more likely to be as follows: a place where building social harmony is a priority, where disparities are widely reduced, an economy which is more diverse and integrated with the GBA and being China’s world city in the true sense. But it is unclear if there is a blueprint within the Hong Kong government or if it is part of any new vision of the HK government and a strategic focus. So where do we start?

Perhaps by understanding that HK must pay more attention to the intangible aspects that make the city so vibrant, which would then allow for its core strengths to be leveraged whilst at the same time sowing the seeds for constant transformation. This two-pronged approach is critical now. Without that, it will be stuck in the past. This requires policymakers to understand what it takes to build the soft culture that stimulates policy ideation within the society at large. This requires policy support to build the intangible infrastructure to help the city overflow with ideas from a wide array of platforms and actors ranging from business to civil society and academia. This must be encouraged by the government and, in some instances even supported by it, as this requires investments in an ecosystem that can churn out good ideas. It also requires engaging with the world and getting ideas from international contributors – something the UAE is very good at actively doing.

This is not about creating one or two engagement platforms that serve a cosmetic function, or a campaign filled with elites and celebrities. Nor is it about setting up numerous committees still operating under frameworks established by the colonial administration, which remain largely unchanged, save for the discourse now being largely conducted in Cantonese.
The absence of such a vibrant ecosystem means there is little thought within the society being given to reimagining the future of Hong Kong beyond economic recovery and meeting traditional metrics of growth. There is a need to stimulate questions about what the future entails and align it with the high-quality development approach of China. After all, China has even made common prosperity a corner stone of its development strategy. If anything, this is just as important for HK, though one suspects most policymakers in HK think it is not applicable here and only to poor countries and regions. They couldn’t be further from the truth.

Related article:

Hong Kong’s recovery: New Parochialism and ways to tackle it

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Founder & CEO of Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT)