Hong Kong’s narrow path going forward in the next 25 years

Hong Kong’s narrow path going forward in the next 25 years

A quarter of a century has lapsed since the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, marking the halfway point of the commitment made by China to preserve the “one country, two systems” policy for at least 50 years.

As the promise has virtually dwindled, especially after the imposition of the national security law two years ago, moderate pro-Beijing heavyweights are seeking a narrow path for the city’s future.

Former Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview that the lingering rivalries between the U.S. and China would enhance the value of Hong Kong, as he believes the territory is still capable of acting as a “connector” between China and the Western world.

“The U.S.-China tension makes Hong Kong more important,” he said, as the issue requires a “lot of political wisdom and creativity,” and the city’s unique position gives Beijing room to maneuver in dealing with the U.S. and the rest of the world.

If Beijing feels an alternative channel through Hong Kong is viable, “I believe that will make the Chinese government even more determined to insist on this one-country-two-system policy,” he said.

But when China finds its own solutions, that is when the real challenge comes, according to Tsang.

“If China is integrating very smoothly with the rest of the world, there may be good reasons for us to fear that Hong Kong will lose its uniqueness in China,” he said.

The notion of Hong Kong acting as a connector is shared by Bernard Charnwut Chan, the top adviser to former Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

For Chan, Hong Kong can act as a connector as well as a testing ground for China.

“I think Hong Kong would continue to serve China. That’s the key,” he said in a separate interview with Nikkei.

Chan, being a third-generation scion of the business empire established by Thai-Chinese business tycoon Chin Sophonpanich and running a financial business himself, understands the mentality of the global business community on the Chinese market.

“I cannot imagine anyone who is going to walk away from a 300-400 million middle class market. People will come back,” he said, as China is “just too big a market that they can afford to ignore.”

On the other hand, the various risks in dealing with China could be unbearable.

“Hong Kong is always a good alternative for them to access to that market,” said Chan, adding that a straightforward and transparent legal system in Hong Kong is the key to the “two-systems” formula going forward.

And it goes the other way as well. “Hong Kong will serve both sides, for the Chinese to access the world or for the world to access China. Hong Kong will always play that role,” he said.

Similar to Tsang, the major worry for Chan is: “Are we still useful? Can we still be relevant? That’s a much bigger issue. If we lose our relevancy, we will be in a big crisis.”

Both Tsang and Chan hold that the “one country, two systems” formula is still intact, but they concede certain things have gone wrong during the first 25 years.

“The practice of one-country-two-systems has proved to be much, much more complicated than anyone, either in Hong Kong or Beijing, expected in the first place,” said Tsang, who was deeply involved in the drafting process of the Basic Law, the local constitution which embodies the spirit of that policy.

Even though he assesses that the system has been a success as a whole, he believes various political crises after the handover have changed relations between Hong Kong and Beijing — including the Occupy Central movement in 2014 and the anti-extradition protests in 2019.

“These happenings were in a way inevitable, but we never expected them to happen,” Tsang said.

For Chan, the major turning point was in 2003. It was not the first major mass protest on July 1 that year, where half-a-million people demonstrated to oppose the national security legislation which was put on the political agenda. Bur rather he contends it was the swift integration with the mainland that took place after the mass protest and the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, which took 299 lives and brought the economy to a nosedive.

That is when Beijing provided the first major economic stimulus package, including opening the gate for mainland tourists to travel to the territory. The substantial influx of tourists brought “unintended consequences,” as Chan puts it, and had a deep impact on the lifestyles of the locals, as there was competition for goods, services and resources. “The mistake we probably made is we didn’t do enough to prepare for the integration,” he said.

“Look back 25 years ago, I think most people would have never thought that we will be integrating with the mainland so soon because we think that they’re so far behind us, right? Today is the other way around,” Chan added.

While the two moderate pro-Beijing heavyweights have their own views, Toru Kurata, a veteran Hong Kong watcher and a professor at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, has a different take. The scholar believes that the city has a more active role to play going forward, especially in finance, as China continues to restrict the free convertibility of its currency while seeking to have access to global capital.

“In order for China to take advantage of both sides, Hong Kong is definitely necessary. No way Hong Kong has become insignificant,” he told Nikkei, as there is no clear timetable for Beijing to liberate its capital account.

In terms of assessing the past 25 years, Kurata acknowledges that there were a series of “unexpected developments” during the period for all three stakeholders — Chinese authorities, Hong Kong citizens and the global community. Even though the “one country, two systems” equation was devised to absolve economic questions on making socialism and capitalism compatible, “political issues turned extremely complex after the handover,” he said.

Kurata emphasizes that issue over democratization, which the pro-Beijing camp usually downplays or disregards entirely, to be crucial.

“The original system did not expect Hong Kong citizens to stand so firm and China to take such a stubborn attitude, leading to a resolute response by the international community,” he said.

Both Tsang and Chan are in support of Beijing on the imposition of the national security law, but Kurata points out that was a watershed moment for Hong Kong.

“The first 23 years before and the two years after NSL are completely different politically,” he said. Even though universal suffrage is clearly stated in the Basic Law, “there is absolutely no prospect of a free election going forward.” (Nikkei Asia)

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