Hong Kong needs to de-emphasize national security

January 10, 2024 09:24
Photo: Reuters

Eighteen months ago, President Xi Jinping was in Hong Kong to preside at the inaugural ceremony of a new Chief Executive, John Lee, and his team. Mr. Lee had spent nearly his entire career in police and security work. The Chinese leader in his speech exhorted the new administration to move the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – to use the city’s proper title – to “break new ground and achieve another leap forward” in the administration’s five years.

That year, 2022, marked 25 years since Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China. Over most of that quarter century, Xi said, Hong Kong's economy had thrived, its status as an international financial, shipping, and trading center had been maintained and its innovative science and technology industries had been booming.

The central government, President Xi said, “fully supports Hong Kong in its effort to maintain its distinctive status, to improve its presence as an international financial, shipping, and trading center, to keep its business environment free, open, and regulated, and to maintain the common law, so as to expand and facilitate its exchanges with the world.”

Since then, the Lee administration has been hard at work trying to cement Hong Kong’s role as an international hub. But it’s not easy.

To make up for losses in the West since China imposed its National Security Law on Hong Kong in 2020, the city has been trying to cast its net wider, including countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. But the fruits thus far are limited.

Last month, Lee was in Beijing to deliver his annual report to the Chinese leadership.
According to Xinhua, the official news agency, Xi again pressed Hong Kong on its international hubbing roles.

But for Hong Kong to resume its international roles, the city itself has to be seen as international. To replace people who have left the city, the Lee administration sought talent from overseas, but the vast majority of those interested in making a home in Hong Kong were Chinese from the mainland.

Rebuilding Hong Kong’s international image is more than difficult if the government is simultaneously conducting a harsh program on national security.

Already, the message has spread that Hong Kong is no different from the mainland.

In the midst of all this negative publicity, it seems unlikely that Hong Kong will make much headway in terms of re-establishing itself as an international financial, maritime and trade hub. But Hong Kong, following China’s lead, is giving priority to national security over economic development.

But where Hong Kong is concerned, it seems like the pragmatic thing to do would be to ease up a bit on the campaign on national security so that more progress can be made on the development front.

Hong Kong is, after all, meant to be different from the mainland, which is why it is called a special administrative region. “Special” regions are meant to do special things, which other cities and provinces cannot do.

Last month, the rating agency Moody’s affirmed Hong Kong’s Aa3 rating, but changed its sovereign credit rating outlook from stable to negative, a day after a similar downgrade of China’s own outlook. Moody’s said the move reflected Hong Kong’s tight linkage of credit profiles with the mainland and the potential spillovers from mainland developments.

Hong Kong issued an indignant rebuttal, defending not only itself but mainland China as well. “Hong Kong's deepening and expanding economic and financial ties with the Mainland should not be a rating constraint,” the statement said. “On the contrary, these ties are a source of strength for Hong Kong's long-term development."

But Hong Kong should realize that it needs to be a global city with multiple international ties and not be seen to be only tied to China.

Although Xi wants Hong Kong to once again be an international hub, nothing seems to have been done to lower the political temperature. It goes without saying that publicity about national security cases does not attract foreign investors.

It makes sense, therefore, for Hong Kong to emphasize its economic role and not to play up every development where national security is concerned.

If “one country, two systems” means anything, surely it means that the two systems are different. One country is a given, but the Hong Kong system is by definition different from that on the mainland.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.