Hong Kong in China: Rethinking the Hong Kong-Mainland Relationship (Part 3)
Photo Credit: South China Morning Post
By Christine Loh and Richard Cullen

Hong Kong in China: Rethinking the Hong Kong-Mainland Relationship (Part 3)

Jan. 07, 2019  |     |  0 comments


Can Hong Kong envisage a progressive future within China? We recently published a short book, with Abbreviated Press in Hong Kong, entitled, No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story, to address this question. We are grateful to the IPP Review for enabling us to publish this extended discussion: Hong Kong in China – with the generous agreement of Abbreviated Press. (Sections within Hong Kong in China repeat text and arguments found in No Third Party.)

Part 1 of Hong Kong in China provided a general introduction of the historical background of Hong Kong seen from British and Chinese perspectives over the last two centuries. It also explained the constitutional and legal structure of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty and considers how this regime has operated when placed under stress. Part 2 of Hong Kong in China sets out Hong Kong’s economic fundamentals and also reviewed the geo-political stresses affecting the Hong Kong-mainland relationship.

Part 3 investigates how Hong Kong can get unstuck and – building on this – how Hong Kong can construct its new narrative – the story of Hong Kong in China.

VIII. Getting “Unstuck”

The previous British Hong Kong story was a good one but is now dated. Today, earlier assumptions need to be examined and reviewed carefully. Nostalgia cannot help Hong Kong deal with the current, swiftly changing world. As Hong Kong orients itself towards the future, it needs to reinvigorate its collective consciousness. Deep down Hong Kong people know this. They must find the courage to admit to a new reality in its relations with the People’s Republic and find the voice to weave a new strategy and story that make sense.

To put it simply and bluntly – Hong Kong must first and foremost accept the People’s Republic for what it is today and work towards national betterment. To ‘accept’ does not mean total approval of every aspect of the nation but it does require acknowledgement that the mainland is what it is, and recognise that as the starting point rather than wish it to be something else or to refute it. To advance Hong Kong’s cause as a progressive, well-governed society and a liveable city, Hong Kong does not need to challenge Beijing’s authority. This ought to be the starting point of creating a new story.

Hong Kong is most useful to itself and the nation when it can demonstrate the highest competence in specific pursuits within both the public and private spheres. The danger Hong Kong faces is that the old arbitrage has disappeared and if it does not recreate itself to make the most of the exceptional opportunities it enjoys as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) within China, it will get squeezed out by much harder working neighbours both on the mainland and in Asia. This is not a time to be complacent and even less for feeling superior to others.

Hong Kong should take stock of its many constitutional, economic, social and political assets to see how each of them can help in configuring a new story fit to guide Hong Kong with fresh clarity and purpose. There are many stakeholders who have parts to play.

Being inside China

A major part of the problem is Hong Kong has yet to reconcile itself fully to being at home, within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There are many reasons for this and it is not our intention to discuss them here in any detail. However, we can say, very broadly, that the reasons are tied to family history, personal experiences and values, as well as fear and anxiety about the loss of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Collective reconciliation is required. To secure this, however, reconciliation has to take place on an individual basis. This is a key issue for Hong Kong people to reflect upon over time and in detail. It is particularly important for the younger generations since some of them appear to have the greatest difficulty with reconciling that Hong Kong is a part of China and that they are Chinese nationals. We should be clear, too, that there is not a single, all-encompassing younger generation in Hong Kong uniformly beset by reconciliation malaise, notwithstanding continuing implicit and explicit suggestions to the contrary. As with older generations, there is a spectrum of views ranging from an easy feeling of about being part of China to rejecting the mainland.

Hong Kong people are extremely privileged in enjoying freedoms unavailable on the mainland. It is understandable that Hong Kong people have the greatest difficulty with human rights issues with respect to the mainland. Greater freedom for all is a legitimate aspiration but Hong Kong needs to give careful consideration to how it might be pursued over time.

Hong Kong should think strategically about how it can position itself as a part of China. It should also look positively at Hong Kong’s remarkable, extensive connections to the rest of the world, though it should not try to use these to ‘internationalise’ Hong Kong against the mainland (especially bearing in mind the backdrop of intensified geopolitical change now underway). A primary goal is to make Hong Kong itself better in ways that can also assist in the betterment of the nation and at the same time provide useful services as the rest of Asia advances.

People respect innovation and excellence. They are particularly attracted to places which can apply themselves collectively over the longer term to generate positive social and economic outcomes. This is what Hong Kong should focus upon. It should work towards transforming itself into the 'best in class' as widely as possible. The talent to do this is available – and public and private wealth exists to get things done.

Hong Kong should be clear-headed about why it remains irreplaceable to the mainland: it’s free operating environment and vital rule of law; its ability to conduct ‘external affairs’ under the Basic Law (a privilege no mainland Chinese city has); its deep pool of financial resources and professional talent; its cluster of highly-ranked universities; its vast network of global connections that it should continue to expand; and the political importance for Beijing that the ‘one country, two systems’ project is successful. Hong Kong is lucky to be the poster-child for the success of a major national policy but it should not take this for granted in light of the advances mainland cities are making.

Respect for the nation

During the colonial era, the British did not overtly press the symbols of British rule on Hong Kong people. Thus, children in school did not normally have to learn to sing God Save The King / Queen. Declarations of British sovereignty were evident but they were subtle. In part, this was because the British understood that there was increasingly, in the background, a 'borrowed time' aspect to their dominion over Hong Kong.

The March of the Volunteers is China’s national anthem and it is played on formal occasions and taught at school. The anthem has an interesting and compelling history grounded in resistance to oppression. Showing disrespect for it in Hong Kong helped drive adoption of the new National Anthem Law in 2017. The HKSAR government is currently drafting a local law that will essentially apply the national law in Hong Kong.

The most upsetting experience happened at the start of certain cross-border and international football matches played in Hong Kong when the national anthem was played. While the display of extreme disrespect was only by a small number of Hong Kong football fans, it did cause great embarrassment to the nation and to Hong Kong. The fans exploited Hong Kong’s freedoms for a momentary thrill that led to a major consequence.

The national authorities have their constituencies on the mainland who would not tolerate Hong Kong’s continuing advantage-taking of its liberties to throw insults at the nation. It is unnecessary and unwise to showcase Hong Kong’s freedoms and values by using antagonistic political gestures to challenge the mainland. Testing Beijing’s limit of tolerance under the excuse of ‘freedom of expression’ is bad strategy for the HKSAR.

Pause for thought

An unspoken aspect of the old British Hong Kong story is tied to a sense that Hong Kong should have become a full, liberal democratic society with universal suffrage during the British era. By 1984, however, it was clear that this could not happen. The settlement of the question of Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of that year meant it had to reunite with China and the system there was and remains illiberal and non-democratic. A lot has been invested in the thinking that Hong Kong could only defend itself against the mainland system if there were direct elections. Without having the chief executive and all legislators directly elected in the HKSAR, there is a sense that the story could not be completed. Thus, for many, achieving progress towards an electoral system like those in liberal democracies became the pivotal indicator of the success, or nose-dive, of Hong Kong’s post-1997 transition.

Is Hong Kong open to not using the achievement of universal suffrage as the key bellwether of its own worth? This does not mean Hong Kong should not pursue electoral reform. Hong Kong’s electoral system can be improved – for example by incremental reform of the elections for functional constituencies – but there is a case for Hong Kong to pause to consider how it could best pursue greater democracy.

Several observations can be drawn directly from Hong Kong’s political experience before and since 1997:

1.  The British were always careful not to provoke China by allowing Hong Kong to be used as a base to affect mainland politics, which would also not serve Britain’s own interest.

2.  Democracy was not necessary in British Hong Kong for economic advancement, development of the rule of law or the enjoyment of many civil liberties. What was needed for these aspects to flourish were sound policies and an effective governance structure. The British ruled Hong Kong successfully for over 150 years using an adaptive system of authoritarian legality.

3.  Beijing has shown willingness to compromise, for example with electoral reform for the Legislative Council elections in 2012, but it wants assurance that Hong Kong will not use its liberties to create a base for ‘anti-Beijing-anti-China’ activism, which is particularly pertinent at a time of shifting geopolitics.

4.  An ‘all or nothing’ approach should not be repeated. Hong Kong made a very serious error in rejecting Beijing’s offer in 2014-2015 allowing candidates approved by a nomination committee or electoral college to compete in a direct election to choose the chief executive in 2017.

5.  Hong Kong officials are willing to re-open political reform discussion if the political atmosphere becomes conducive to constructive dialogue and compromise.

6.  Part and parcel of moving forward in electoral reform may well include dealing with Article 23 of the Basic Law which stipulates that the HKSAR, itself, must enact a revised set of national security laws to replace the national security laws used by the British in Hong Kong (which continue to apply).

In pursuing greater democracy, Hong Kong needs to start with the current electoral system. One way forward is to look for improvements in functional elections – both for how members of the current Election Committee are chosen to select the chief executive and how functional constituencies elections are run to elect legislators. A priority is to investigate how Hong Kong might revive fruitful discussion on the rejected 2014-2015 model for direct election of the chief executive. As for Article 23, Hong Kong can start by reviewing the detail of the previous failed attempts in 1996 and 2003 to pass Article 23 laws. Today there is need for a primary focus on securing a reasonable balance between the liberties Hong Kong treasures and the concerns Beijing has over national unity and territorial integrity. It took the United States around 50 years to sort out the present balance between national security laws and freedom of expression guarantees in the Bill of Rights. Hong Kong would not want to take that long but the American experience provides an example that time is needed for complex issues to be settled.

External affairs

Hong Kong has a very special arrangement under ‘one country, two systems’ that allows the HKSAR to conduct ‘external affairs’. The Basic Law spells out the privileges:

1.   HKSAR representatives can participate in diplomatic negotiations that affect Hong Kong as part of the Chinese delegation. It can also participate in certain international bodies and events using the name ‘Hong Kong, China’ where China and the relevant organisation allows it to do so.

2.   Under the name ‘Hong Kong, China’, the HKSAR can maintain and even expand relations and enter into agreements with foreign states, regions and international organisations in many fields, including economic, trade, financial and monetary, shipping, communications, tourism, cultural and sports.

3.   The HKSAR is free to engage with many kinds of international and regional bodies and gatherings not limited to states.

4.   The HKSAR issues its own passport. The HKSAR passport allows for visa free entry into over 160 countries and jurisdictions, many more than holders of the PRC passport (mainland passport holders have visa free entry around 70 countries and jurisdictions).

5.   The HKSAR can establish official or semi-official economic and trade missions in foreign countries. It has a large network of economic and trade offices, inward investment units, plus trade development and tourism promotion bodies.

The question for the HKSAR government is whether it has made full use of these great privileges, provided by the Basic Law, to maintain and expand the HKSAR’s influence around the world. One way to approach this would be for the HKSAR authorities to imagine that they did not have these privileges in external affairs – and then to rethink what they might do given that they do have them in the context of what Hong Kong needs to do today.

The overseas offices are part of the sum of the physical assets of the HKSAR and officials who have worked overseas are its human assets. No doubt each office works hard to promote Hong Kong. What they lack is a new narrative about Hong Kong in China that fits convincingly with the current realities so that specific areas of trade, commerce and other pursuits can be framed appropriately.

National affairs

There was great concern in the early years of the HKSAR that the mainland and Hong Kong systems should remain ‘separate’ and be seen to be separate so that there would be no perception of mainland interference in the day-to-day affairs of the HKSAR. When the HKSAR authorities needed to connect with mainland governmental bodies, the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong would give assistance.

There can be a fine line between connecting and ‘interfering’ but there is a clear need for deeper understanding between HKSAR officials and mainland officials on a very wide range of aspects of how ‘one country’ works and ‘two systems’ functions. Learning on both sides is continuing to take place. This should be encouraged and widened. Hong Kong officials should have no fear of mainland ‘interference’ if they are clear about how to conduct such relationships. Dialogue and cooperation with mainland authorities fundamentally involves specialist interaction. An unambiguous professional attitude should be adopted. The need for enhanced communication is clear. There is no need for Hong Kong legislators and the media – who play a ‘watchdog’ role – to assume increasing communication between HKSAR and mainland officials would lead to ‘interference’.

The HKSAR’s political assets on the mainland include the 16 representative offices; and Hong Kong members of the national, provincial and city people’s congresses, as well as political consultative conferences. It does not follow that the Hong Kong delegates on these bodies must be seen chiefly as pro-Beijing ‘lackeys’. They are part of the mainland political system and they can help to extend Hong Kong’s influence on the mainland. With a new Hong Kong story, which accepts Chinese sovereignty fully, it will help them to play a more positive role.

Mainland officials are restricted in their travel outside the mainland, which also applies to travelling to Hong Kong. This impedes better mutual understanding. While the authorities on both sides will be careful about easing this restriction as far as the HKSAR is concerned, there is a case to be made for judicious relaxation – starting, for example, with easier travel for mainland officials who are invited by universities to travel to Hong Kong for academic exchanges on mainland-HKSAR related studies and projects.

Blaming the HKSAR administration

A pivotal aspect of the conventional Hong Kong narrative, grounded in the expectations and aspirations of the late British Hong Kong era, is that, without 'full democracy', the HKSAR administration could not be trusted to defend Hong Kong’s way of life in dealing with Beijing. It was and is argued that this is so because the head of government – the chief executive – is essentially a person who has the trust of Beijing and is chosen by a small election committee in which the majority of members are 'pro-Beijing'. Since it is not easy to directly challenge the central authorities, one way of showing displeasure is to attack the HKSAR administration for being unelected, undemocratic and a Beijing stooge.

Challenging the HKSAR administration – indeed, any administration – is easy. There are so many day-to-day issues to disparage. There are longstanding questions that have been neglected; and there are cases of maladministration that can be attacked.

Moreover, there are sensitive cases relating to ‘one country, two systems’ that are easy to condemn, such as how schools might teach contemporary Chinese history. In colonial Hong Kong, the British avoided controversy by teaching little if any contemporary Chinese history at school.

Another aspect should not be controversial – the teaching of Putonghua at school. Hong Kong’s longstanding policy is to be bi-literate (Chinese and English) and trilingual (Cantonese, Putonghua and English). This is practical. Hong Kong people must navigate their lives locally in Hong Kong, using Cantonese (the dominant spoken dialect) and English to interact outside of Chinese-speaking Hong Kong – and beyond. It follows, inescapably, that being able to communicate well in Putonghua with the mainland is vital for Hong Kong.

Indeed, not only should Hong Kong people speak Putonghua well, young people should look at Asia and get to know it well, including by learning other Asian languages.

Dealing with frustration

There is much anger and anxiety in many societies around the world, including Hong Kong, because of a growing, widely experienced sense of economic insecurity. Absolute poverty and hardship continue to explain some of why this is so, but the dominant driver of this deep unease arises from the stark evidence of inequality of income and wealth (i.e. the relative ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’). Thus, younger generations feel they are priced out of housing and things they assumed their education would assure them of, when in fact salary levels have remained too low for them to catch-up. The information revolution has enabled them to be entertained at very low cost and, at the same time, to have access to vast pools of information, stay connected to others who are of like mind, and self-organise to voice their aspirations and discontents. There is a deep groundswell of anti-government and anti-establishment feeling because the elites are seen to be in control and not letting go of their interests and privileges, and governments are perceived as unwilling to resolve longstanding, sometimes stifling disparities.

For Hong Kong to offer all of the younger generation real hope that a fairer society is possible requires broad collective effort. Neutral political space must be created for policy dialogue. The opposition in Hong Kong must find a way to work with the HKSAR government so that day-to-day solutions can be found to difficult policy problems. Without being able to find solutions and implement them, Hong Kong has less to show of its capabilities and will be priced out. Filibustering and antics in the legislative chamber have become tiresome. If those facing one another across the political divide can find common ground to work through practical problems, the mood of Hong Kong people will lift measurably.

‘Modesty’ as a strategy

Hong Kong people used to feel superior not only to mainlanders but also other people in Asia because they were more prosperous and seemingly more advanced economically. The pace of change is such that Hong Kong people should recognise that they have much to learn from the mainland and the rest of Asia. There are many aspects of life where others have valuable experience that Hong Kong can draw on. A strategy of modesty would work well at this time.

Hong Kong still has many areas in which it excels of course but it needs to advance. It is time for Hong Kong people, especially across the younger generation, to truly adopt a broad outlook. Their pride in ‘local’ culture is a great source of sustenance but it should not be used as an excuse to cause riotous disruption and violence, as was done in 2016 with the so-called ‘Fish Ball Revolution’.

Make Hong Kong exciting again

Hong Kong’s special characteristics can continue to be put to good use advancing the development of core capacities in the mainland (and in Asia, more widely) in areas such as legal training, law drafting, corruption prevention, securities regulation, public health management, environmental legislation, slopes and flood control, country parks management, quality assurance, policing and disciplinary services, as well as in other public sector areas that are vital to good governance.

Hong Kong’s significant private sector experience in managing hospitals, energy provision, banking and finance, organising logistics, managing rail services, the airport and maritime affairs, and managing hospitality, food and beverage businesses also represent vital skill sets that are useful to others.

Hong Kong reputation as a very good place to run conferences and exhibitions is clear, but there is room (and a need) for the HKSAR to consider hosting gatherings beyond its standard fare. It could make use of its ability to conduct external affairs to bid for international gatherings of all kinds, big or small, to be held in Hong Kong; and to galvanise the commercial, academic, professional and philanthropic sectors to play a part to stimulate cross-and-trans-disciplinary collaboration. Hong Kong can be the place where such events generate measurable added-value by fostering serious, engaged discussions which are not constrained.

A new narrative will arise. It cannot be told only through government or political-speak by the establishment or opposition. The private sector, especially those who are globally engaged, are just as relevant and can provide a part of the vision. The HKSAR’s new, post-reunification, story must evolve away from a defensive tale anchored to a default, paramount focus on the 'loss of autonomy and freedoms'. We can rely on ample external contention that Hong Kong is 'just another Chinese city'. Hong Kong people, including the opposition, should not, however, add to this often slogan-reliant analysis. There is no need to throw doubt on the HKSAR’s own ability to define its own attractive future. In any event, many Chinese cities are doing exciting things – and so can Hong Kong. The story must be one that is confident about Hong Kong’s role as a part of China and Asia.

IX. Constructing a New Story

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act 1)

The most important question now facing Hong Kong is: how can it best prepare itself for the next 20 years – and well beyond – as a part of China. It is Hong Kong itself which is primarily responsible for constructing its own affirmative story as it looks to the future. Nobody from outside can construct that story for Hong Kong. Above all, Hong Kong needs to avoid being trapped within a story which relies on a narrow framework and contends that the good times are over.

The new Hong Kong story needs to take shape through the contributions of many people and stakeholders. The government requires a post-British Hong Kong narrative that draws on but is not confined by the past. It has to be distinct and point to a relevant and compelling future.

A new narrative could reduce political tension within Hong Kong so that the ‘pro-establishment’ and ‘opposition’ camps can focus on solving local problems. Joint problem-solving achievements provide a positive experience for all involved. They also provide excellent foundations for deepening self-confidence, building increased respect nationally and regaining positive attention internationally.

The private sector, especially the philanthropy sector, can contribute greatly to the on-going story telling of Hong Kong through supporting important projects that increase knowledge and capacities. This will support Hong Kong’s reinvigoration within and its engagement regionally and globally.

The HKSAR authorities need to shape a story that is appropriate for the government sector, which can be consistently articulated locally, nationally and internationally – with emphases relevant to the audience.

The new story should be explicit that the HKSAR has evolved from British Hong Kong to what it now is: as a ‘second system’ under the Chinese Constitution and governed by the Basic Law. It must explain that Hong Kong is a part of the People’s Republic and loyal to the nation. The HKSAR has many features that are more progressive than pre-1997 days. It is worth reflecting on these in some detail.

1.   Hong Kong now participates in regional and national affairs as an SAR within a large, increasingly significant country. July 1, 1997 was clearly a major turning point in Hong Kong’s remarkable history. It was definitely not the high point prior to the onset of decline.

2.   Being a part of China is still a relatively new experience for the HKSAR. After two decades, Hong Kong has a better understanding of how Hong Kong-mainland relations can operate in a positive way. The following are relevant:

*  Hong Kong (and Macao) are now a part of China’s five-year and longer-term planning;

*  Hong Kong (and Macao) especially can work closely with Shenzhen and Guangdong to create the metropolis of the Greater Bay Area, which has the potential to be one of the best areas in the nation in terms of liveability and innovation. Moreover, Hong Kong has a clear interest in collaborating with Macao and Guangdong to promote South China in all its splendour: it is a significant and important part of the national economy and it is woven to the region’s Chinese history and culture.

*  Hong Kong (and Macao) can also define how to contribute to China’s ‘going-out’ policy, currently embodied in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the impact of shifting geopolitics becomes more acute, China will have to continue to work hard on its external relations.

*  China’s long path to modernisation, while full of challenges for the nation, is also fundamental for the country’s rejuvenation, to which Hong Kong and its people can contribute.

3.   The HKSAR’s two key goals vis-à-vis the nation are: to ensure that ‘one country, two systems’ continues to work well; and to contribute to national betterment.

4.   ‘One country, two systems’ is working. Hong Kong has struggled through many issues that Hong Kong people knew would be a challenge post-1997, especially when the ‘two systems’ clashed. In each case, insights were gained. There will be other challenges and Hong Kong is equipped to deal with them.

5.   Hong Kong can see the progress which China has made on its path to rejuvenation and the many ways it can contribute to national betterment: the key is to be able to solve practical problems on the ground in the HKSAR that can become a showcase for the mainland and other cities around the world. In this endeavour, Hong Kong institutions should aim to be among the ‘best in class’ in the world.

6.   Hong Kong can make better use of its ability and assets to promote the HKSAR on the mainland. The HKSAR’s offices on the mainland help to promote mutual understanding of how Hong Kong functions to mainland organisations. Hong Kong needs to have top level examples to showcase, as well as to help to build people-to-people exchanges.

7.   Hong Kong can build on its ability to conduct external affairs to connect to as many major international organisations and relevant activities as possible. Through them, Hong Kong can provide more opportunities for the government and private sectors (both commercial and non-profit) to contribute to world affairs. Government departments and officials should consider taking the widest possible approach in extending the external affairs role of the HKSAR (within the authority conferred by the Basic Law). They should involve the private sector; and also recruit interns to work in its Economic and Trade Offices around the world to give young Hong Kong people a taste of international affairs.

8.   While committed to pursuing democratic reform within the framework set out in the Basic Law, democratic values can in fact be practised daily in government institutions through extensive consultation, engagement and dialogue. The way the HKSAR authorities perform such practices can be much improved through involving a wider range of stakeholders and better processes designed to involve people in deliberation and discussion – a skill that is often missing in standard government advisory bodies and consultations.

9.   There are great changes unfolding in world affairs. Hong Kong now has a role to play which did not exist before 1997. It can, again acting with the authority granted by the Basic Law, act as a positive contributor to a range of pivotal geo-political discussions on, for example, trade, maritime and aviation affairs, climate change, illegal trade in endangered species, and international taxation.

10. In attending to various local policies, the HKSAR government carries the final responsibility to promote what is in the widest public interest in Hong Kong. In this pursuit, there will be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Longstanding vested interests may regularly have to be tackled – and where required, curbed. The community will need to consider the difficult challenges that must be addressed, and be willing to engage in serious study, research and dialogue about needed changes of policy direction.

11. The HKSAR government already recognises it needs additional skills beyond those it had as a colony in order to play a role in national affairs, external relations, policy-making, and contemporary methods in consultation, engagement and dialogue. These can be attended to through:

*  The setting-up of a local civil service academy – which is being planned by the current administration – and encouraging departments to set-up their own professional and skills training to continuously upgrade the capabilities and capacities of government officers across the administration;

*  Promoting the most capable younger officials to run district work in Hong Kong so as to build relations with local communities and manage the city, as well as to represent Hong Kong in external relations;

*  Enabling the Policy and Innovation Coordination Office to develop the capabilities in a range of engagement skills so that it could apply them in assisting internal deliberation within the administration to improve cross-departmental and cross-disciplinary dialogue to solve problems and advance policies;

*  Enabling more public sector officials to attend national academies of administration, as well as working with the national authorities to ease restrictions for mainland officials to be able to travel to Hong Kong to attend events that relates to national affairs, diplomacy and military affairs of which there is little local expertise but which Hong Kong needs to learn about; and

*  Inviting the philanthropic sector in Hong Kong – which is well-endowed – to assist in providing funds to help build capabilities within Hong Kong to bridge knowledge and experience gaps in all fields. Philanthropy can help fund research and studies by universities and think tanks, including conferences, seminars, workshops, exhibitions, competitions, events and projects that are relevant to filling gaps in Hong Kong people’s experience on a very broad basis, as well as to assist young Hong Kong people to attend international events and experience working on the mainland and overseas.

12. The HKSAR can now discuss with Beijing the possibility of opening-up the national foreign service and military service for Chinese nationals from Hong Kong. Hong Kong could also explore how younger talent can intern or work within international bodies, including the United Nations and its agencies (such as the World Health Organisation, the World Meteorological Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation) as well as the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the World Trade Organisation, etc.

Relieving political tension

If the central principles set out above are accepted by Hong Kong society (because there is broad common ground), the HKSAR will be less bogged-down in the quagmire of political division arising from Hong Kong-mainland relations. There will be more time to focus on solving practical problems, in which all stakeholders have an interest.

The political ‘establishment’ and ‘opposition’ do have much in common. Their greatest difference is over Hong Kong-mainland relations – and if this tension could be eased, they can spend time finding and agreeing on solutions rather than boxing continuously over that relationship.

The establishment camp would not feel regularly obligated to amplify the views of Beijing, often in response to local provocations challenging national unity and territorial integrity either implicitly or explicitly. The opposition camp would be spared the need to perform tiring and tiresome dramatics in the Legislative Council because its politicians feel they have no alternative but to be outrageous to grab attention.

Hong Kong – A many splendoured thing

As already noted, Hong Kong (and Macao) are important parts of the story of South China that also includes Guangdong. Together they form the historical and cultural roots of the region. South China is different from other regions in China’s vast nation. Common cultural heritage icons include Cantonese cuisine, opera and the dialect itself. The many splendoured thing which is South China should be a clear priority for study where Hong Kong could be a pivot of research. The fruits of studying Hong Kong itself, in depth, can be developed as a vital HKSAR asset.

Beyond its Chinese heritage, Hong Kong has benefited from significant contributions from non-Chinese cultures, including from those from South Asia, South East Asia and the West. Beyond ethnicities, there is significant religious diversity in Hong Kong, which has also added to the HKSAR’s splendour.

It should not be overlooked that Hong Kong’s commercial history includes many industries, trades and skills of historical importance not only to the HKSAR but to Chinese contemporary history – such as the banking and financial sector, the maritime sector, and the manufacturing and logistics sector – all of which remain vibrant and internationally outstanding.

The stories of all these aspects are vital ingredients in order to make the best sense of the collective experience of the people of Hong Kong. Appreciating these stories well also provides a starting point for future innovation. The best foundation for building deep understanding is to maintain robust archives. As the Hong Kong government tidies its own archives through hopefully legislating a comprehensive archive law – which the mainland has and Hong Kong lacks – many other people and philanthropists in the private non-profit and commercial sector can play irreplaceable roles in creating their own company and industry archives. They can also fund Hong Kong studies in these under-invested assets.

It goes without saying that the philanthropic sector could fund the arts, culture, heritage and subjects that the government sector cannot fully support year-to-year using public funds. The development and participation in sports, including wu shu, is another area worthy of more philanthropic support. Indeed, Hong Kong has an important role in the history of Chinese martial arts.

The enormous wealth of the establishment elites should also be deployed to promote science and technology because without capacity-building among young Hong Kong people in these areas, they will have difficulty in advancing in computing, artificial intelligence and robotics, for example. The establishment should support the environment and environmental research, which is also a vital growth area of knowledge and employment for the future.

All who can help Hong Kong be at the cutting edge of new knowledge, new ideas and new jobs should be called to action. Hong Kong’s greatest risk lies in letting the old British Hong Kong idea constrain its vision of the present and future, and at the same time talking down its own opportunities because of challenges that the mainland faces in its own path to development and modernisation.

Hong Kong in China

We said at the outset of this final chapter that the most important question now facing Hong Kong is: how can it best prepare itself for the next 20 years – and well beyond – as a part of China?

We should make it clear that we do not have any sort of complete answer. What we have argued in this series of articles, however, is that Hong Kong clearly has the wherewithal to create its own practical and effective answer, working constructively with Beijing, over time. For close to 180 years, modern Hong Kong has played exceptionally well with whatever cards it has been dealt. Many key elements in this latest ‘game’ are new and challenging but the fresh cards Hong Kong holds are very good and the additional opportunities are at least remarkable and often conceivably outstanding.

First, it is useful to review the principal challenges.

Hong Kong is now, permanently, a part of the People’s Republic. China has created a successful one-party state. Although the ruling party is a wide-church (with around 90 million members) and desires to reach out in the world (especially since the reform era began 40 years ago) China is still a one-party state that does not tolerate organized alternative political voices on the mainland: Western-style, liberal pluralistic politics are prohibited. To accommodate semi-democratic, pluralistic Hong Kong within such a framework, the core concept of one country, two systems has been applied. The HKSAR has been given its own mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

The British ran Hong Kong using a remarkably successful, increasingly consultative form of authoritarian legality. At the close of the British era, a system change, agreed to by Beijing, was introduced to allow the direct election of a minority of Legislative Council members. The Basic Law highlighted the possibility that this level of democratic participation could be expanded after 1997 with the ultimate aim being the election by universal suffrage of the Chief Executive (article 45 of the Basic Law) and the Legislative Council (article 68 of the Basic Law). Both these articles stress that the principle of 'gradual and orderly progress' should apply to post-1997 political reforms.

The achievement of universal suffrage in the HKSAR was, for many, a bellwether of the success of the one country, two systems formula. This made Hong Kong a hostage to fortune to a significant degree: as long as the quest for full universal suffrage was not achieved, the opposition viewed other forms of constructive engagement with the mainland with default suspicion. Such opportunities were regularly spurned because of this overriding perspective.

Meaningful political reform, to enhance democratic participation in the 2012 Legislative Council elections, was nevertheless agreed between some of the opposition group and Beijing. However, those who ‘compromised’, were afterwards vilified for ‘selling-out’. Later, as explained in Part 2, pressure from the Occupy Central Movement demonstrations helped ensure that the Beijing proposed political reform package in 2014 was vetoed in the Legislative Council by the pan-democrat opposition in 2015. This proposal could and should have been accepted. Voting it down was a grave error. Hong Kong was prevented from choosing its chief executive in 2017 from an approved list in a direct election. Debate on further reform within such an election was stopped. The HKSAR was, thus, unable to step-up to a contained but still more democratized election system. Moreover, China was denied a key opportunity to conduct (in the HKSAR) for the first time since 1949, a controlled experiment in political reform at an elevated executive level involving competing candidates and universal suffrage.

Apart from these embedded electoral reform anxieties, Hong Kong has experienced increased debate and internal disputation (discussed in Part 1) over what legitimate limits can be applied to the freedoms of expression and assembly guaranteed in Chapter 3 of the Basic Law. In the majority of these more recent cases, the tension is between maintaining free expression rights while still protecting national security.

National security here does not mean the security of the HKSAR or even the Hong Kong view of what maintaining the national security of China might be. This discussion relates to China’s view of what the national security of China means. The national authorities’ perception is shaped not just by internal but external pressures. Trade conflicts and hard-ball diplomacy between the United States and China for well over a year are growing in intensity. Many leading American commentators within government and without have become quite explicit about the need to check and restrain the rise of China and they have sought to persuade or even strong-arm allies and associates to join a containment strategy. As it happens, a great deal of its action has been justified as necessary to protect ‘American national security’.

An example of rising tension could be seen from the arrest by Canada in December 2018, at the request of the United States, of the chief financial officer of a prominent Chinese transnational corporation (Huawei). While it is not known yet what the charge will be, some commentators have described the arrest as a form of legalized hostage-taking aimed at strengthening American bargaining power in the US-China trade war:

Quite transparently, the US action … really seems to be part of … [a] … broader attempt to undermine [China’s] economy by imposing tariffs, closing Western markets to Chinese high-technology exports and blocking Chinese purchases of US and European technology companies. One can say, without exaggeration, that this is part of an economic war on China – and a reckless one at that.

The subsequent detention in China (on claimed national security grounds) of two Canadians working there was a response-in-kind. Confirming, to a degree, this rather medieval approach to international negotiating, the American president said, recently, that he would intervene in the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer if it helped secure a trade deal with China.

At a time when the tension in Sino-US relations is greater than at any period since the Mao-era, Hong Kong’s opposition must be careful to ensure its gripes with Beijing and the HKSAR government cannot be used by foreign powers as yet another reason to attack China. In the old conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, they assaulted one another ideologically, politically, militarily and economically for around forty years. Hopefully, this will not happen between the United States and China – and in any event, Hong Kong would not wish to be squeezed in between.

Chapter VI (in Part 2) notes modern Hong Kong has always relied on its relationship with China both for its raison d’etre and for its remarkable success and stability over time. Although that colonial era is over, the HKSAR remains fundamentally reliant on the mainland for stability, prosperity and success.

In 1997, the mainland economy was around five times the size of the Hong Kong economy measured by GDP. Within less than 20 years, the mainland economy was more than 33 times larger than the HKSAR economy. The mainland continues to grow at a significantly higher rate than Hong Kong. These GDP figures can give no better than a broad indication, of course. But they do that quite emphatically. The story is not just of a continual extraordinary growth in potential opportunities for Hong Kong but a confirmation of how the mainland has been fundamental in maintaining economic prosperity and economic stability in the HKSAR.

While the extraordinary rise of China seems, today, to have left the United States experiencing bewilderment and anxiety, that same rise has unarguably done much good for Hong Kong. It is true that income disparities have widened. But it is also true that Hong Kong public finances are in more robust shape than ever. Service provision across sectors such as housing, education, transport and communications infrastructure, environmental protection plus health and aged care could all be better. But all have been steadily improved and are often measurably better than in many Western developed countries.

Without firmly grounded prosperity it is hard to build and sustain social and political steadiness. Economically underpinned stability appears to be as strongly valued in the HKSAR as it was during the British Hong Kong era. A random survey of over 3,000 Hong Kong residents conducted by Hong Kong University in 2015 revealed that close to 60% felt maintaining social order was more important than protecting individual freedoms.

Despite the tension in the Hong Kong-mainland relationship and the daily headlines about friction, solid foundations exist on which to base quieter interactions and exchanges to ease the strain. There are many levels of close connection between Hong Kong and the mainland, which should be used for dialogue to work through and manage problems.

What this series of articles affirms can be briefly stated. First, Hong Kong owes much to the old British Hong Kong story. Next, that story can inform, but should not constrain, the development of the new Hong Kong story. Third, Hong Kong is a singular place. It became the ‘many splendoured’ setting for a famous movie in 1955, and it is not becoming ‘just another mainland city’.

Apart from maintaining its marvellous distinctiveness, Hong Kong retains an innate capacity to create its own practical and effective new story, over time. This will require a clever weaving of the potpourri of colours and sensibilities that is Hong Kong set within the historical and cultural matrix of South China. Moving beyond the kitsch in tourism advertising, the many splendoured thing materialises from a deep foundation of understanding, in which Hong Kong must continuously invest. New perspectives, which need to pivot on a constructive vision of the present and future, must be activated by Hong Kong itself.

The steady integration of Hong Kong within China is happening and is inevitable. It can and should be a good experience both for the HKSAR and the mainland. Hong Kong needs to think collectively, constructively and very hard to shape this process of integration so that it protects Hong Kong’s special identity and manifestly contributes to the betterment of China.


We owe thanks to a range of people who have advised and commented on this work. These include, Professor Albert Chen and Professor Fu, Hualing from The University of Hong Kong and Professor Harry Glasbeek, Emeritus Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto, Canada. The authors, alone, are responsible for all that is argued in this series and for any errors and omissions.

References (Part 3)

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (1990) (enacted by the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China)

Black, Christopher, “Canada takes a Hostage: Free Meng Wanzhou”, New Eastern Outlook, 8 December, 2018, available at: https://journal-neo.org/2018/12/08/canada-takes-a-hostage-free-meng-wanzhou/.

Cullen, Richard, “Hong Kong, The Chinese National Anthem and the Basic Law” IPP Review, 9 March, 2018, available at: https://ippreview.com/index.php/Index/author/id/148.html.

Cullen, Richard and Campbell, David, “Understanding Authoritarian Legality in Hong Kong: What can Dicey and Rawls tell us?” in (Chen and Fu (editors)) Authoritarian Legality in Asia: Formation, Development and Transition (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019) (forthcoming).

Han, Suyin, A Many-Splendoured Thing (Jonathan Cape. London, 1952) (Later made into an Oscar-winning film also set in Hong Kong: Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing – see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Is_a_Many-Splendored_Thing_(film).)

Hughes, Richard, Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and its Many Faces” (2nd ed.) (Andre Deutsch, London, 1976).

The Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong (1984).

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O’Toole, Fintan, “How Brexit Broke Up Britain” New York Review of Books, 13 November, 2018, available at: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/11/13/how-brexit-broke-up-britain/.

Reuters, “Donald Trump says he would intervene in the arrest of Huawei CFO, Sabrina Meng, Wanzhou if it helped secure trade deal with China”, South China Morning Post, 12 December, 2018, available at: https://beta.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2177540/donald-trump-says-would-intervene-arrest-huawei-cfo-sabrina.

Sachs, Jeffrey D., “The U.S. not China is the real threat to international rule of law”, The Globe and Mail, 10 December, 2018, available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-us-not-china-is-the-real-threat-to-international-rule-of-law/.

Tai, Benny, “Challenges to rule of law in semi-authoritarian Hong Kong” Manuscript on file with Richard Cullen.

Tiezzi, Shannon, “How to Rewrite the Hong Kong Story: An Interview with Christine Loh and Richard Cullen on Their New Book”, The Diplomat, 10 November , 2018, available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/how-to-rewrite-the-hong-kong-story/.

Vaswani, Karishma, “Huawei arrest of Meng Wanzhou: A 'hostage' in a new US-China tech war”, BBC News, 6 December, 2018, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46468088.

Zhang, Phoebe, “Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig detained in China after arrest of Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou in Canada”, 11 December, 2018, available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2177515/former-canadian-diplomat-michael-kovrig-detained-china.

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