Hong Kong must tell a more candid and balanced China story

April 12, 2024 22:47

There exists a curious bifurcation in international discourse on China today.

On one hand, there are those who prevaricate between either of the following narratives – firstly that China has purportedly peaked, that its structural and institutional weaknesses render economic growth unlikely; that long-standing issues of corruption, an imbalanced economy, sluggish productivity gains, as well as bureaucratic ossification and ideological entrenchment, would collectively exert an irresistible drag on the country’s economic performance; secondly, that China is ostensibly an unmanageable threat.

Matt Pottinger and Mike Gallagher’s recent Foreign Affairs piece – as unhinged as their prescriptions may be – clearly reflects the zeitgeist in certain swathes of the DC crowd: they are adamant that strategic competition is the ‘wrong’ approach to China, and that the correct ‘American strategy’ must be one of all-out containment. At what costs, with what effects, and with what end goals in sight? These do not appear to be questions with which they are particularly concerned.

On the other hand, there are folks who are unequivocally adulating and affirmative of China’s trajectory. They hold the view that the country is fundamentally flawless, and that any and all criticism of the state – and by extension, its people – must not be tolerated. The jingoistic presupposition is that there is a distinctive China success story. That the success story is not more widely known and understood, is apparently the result of smearing and besmirchment by actors with ulterior motives, as opposed to substantive defects and shortcomings in the system. There is a deeply embedded antagonism towards foreign cultures and ideals, complemented with the nationalistic view that China deserves to ‘return’ to the centre of the world stage, which it had historically occupied.

This view is not unfounded – the modern China story has been one of poverty alleviation en masse at a scale unseen and unprecedented in the world’s history, economic development and unleashing of labour productivity at speeds that could only be dreamt of in more fractured, less concerted, and anti-meritocratic states. The century of humiliation and colonialism experienced by China certainly constitutes valid grounds on which the country’s denizens may feel resentful towards foreign powers, specifically those who seek to impose their vision and values on a culture and people of which they have little to no knowledge.

Yet such hubristic, simplistic narratives are also dangerous. They give rise to the uncritical, unthinking tendency on the part of some to attack any and all critics of the country as deviants, as disloyal, and as ostensibly embedded with ulterior motives – including constructive critics who do want the very best for China.

To a large extent, it is understandable that Beijing is keen on ensuring broad alignment in and amongst narratives adopted in the mainland. For reasons of national solidarity, political unity, and social pride – all elements that are conducive towards the government’s continued performance legitimacy and ability to deliver – China has every right to adopt formal discourses that are more sanguine, more hopeful, and more optimistic in their portrayal of the facts on the ground. After all, this is something that all governments do – Biden would emphasise and play up his achievements, in the run-up to the upcoming election; Jokowi is triumphalist and unapologetic in touting and highlighting his own achievements, which have garnered him considerable support from the country’s burgeoning middle class.

Yet the balance between positivity of coverage and credibility of argument must always be carefully struck and maintained. Hong Kong has a key role to play here. As the most international, progressive, and dynamic Chinese city, Hong Kong could afford to articulate a China story that is distinct and different from the one that is told on the mainland, especially by avid, ardent netizens – one that is more grounded in balance and nuance, and driven by a desire to inform, to push back against essentialist characterisations, and to celebrate the diversity of experiences contained within China.

It is for this reason that we must encourage our academics, diplomats, and civil society actors to highlight different, divergent, and plural aspects of the modern China story. From the country’s successes in the renewable transition and sustainability transformation, to the incredible calibre and creativity of its urban youth; from the advent of pioneering technologies and start-up innovation in rural areas and under-developed inland provinces, to the richness of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is much that should be championed and celebrated.

Hong Kong must seek to be a source and nexus of dissemination of such information. This is for the precise fact that we are a bilingual city – the only Chinese city where English and Chinese alike are official languages; but also given the free flow of information and accessibility to international media. Our civil society could afford to play up and emphasise the value in the ‘Two Systems’, with our private sector serving as de facto ambassadors articulating the different sides to the same China story. Softer, less austere and staid rhetoric, could well penetrate audiences that remain elusive to the official discourse promulgated by the state. This is something that we can, and must do.

Assistant Professor, HKU