[SCMP Column] Get on with Running This City

June 26, 2017

Andrew Burns, Britain’s first consul general to Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, spoke to a business audience in the days before he retired in 2000. Erudite and amusing in equal measure, he asked himself what he would say in summary about Hong Kong’s future: “If given just one word, I would say “Worry”. But if I were given two words, I would say: “Don’t worry”.

Still today, as we look at Hong Kong’s future with 20 years of “One Country Two systems” under our belt, that seems good advice.

So many millions of words have been written in recent weeks about what has happened to Hong Kong since 1997, what its situation is today, and what its future is likely to be up to 2047, that I have some reservations about adding more. But as someone who – like Frank Ching in the SCMP last Saturday – has been wrestling to understand China and its intentions towards Hong Kong since 1982, the pull is irresistible. Let me add just a few perhaps-distinct points.

First, as the community prepares for Xi Jinping to fly in to lead celebrations on Hong Kong’s 20th Anniversary under Chinese sovereignty, it is important to emphasise that the transformation of Hong Kong that we have seen in recent years began not in 1997 with China’s resumption of sovereignty, but in 1978, with the emergence of Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese leadership’s decision to reengage with the world economy.

So in certain respects, we are celebrating the wrong anniversary. The time frame of relevance began not in 1997, and includes the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Even today, the fingerprints we need to take most careful note of are those of Deng, and the “One Country Two Systems” vision he used to define Hong Kong’s future role as part of an opening China.

The concept of “One Country Two Systems” has often been described as one of Deng’s unique inspirations. But in truth, the concept was hardly new. The principle had been used (but never formally articulated) since 1950 to define Hong Kong’s relationship with its colonial masters in Britain. Historians have often jested that after Britain’s reforming labour Party swept to power in 1950, putting in place the foundations of the UK’s welfare state, Hong Kong became Britain’s Conservative party “in exile”, retaining policies that they would have retained in the UK, had they clung onto power.

The big difference after 1997 and the formal commitment to “One Country Two Systems” was that up to 1997, Hong Kong was seen as a distant, anachronistic and inconsequential outpost of the crumbling British empire. As successive British governments gave priority to building closer links with Europe, eventually joining the European Union, Hong Kong was out of sight and out of mind, of no material importance to Britain or its economy. When China committed to “One Country Two Systems” in 1997, its perspective was wholly different. Hong Kong accounted for around 18 per cent of China’s GDP. As China began the challenging process of reengaging with the outside world after decades of autarky, Hong Kong was of pivotal importance.

Recognise this, and several important consequences cascade: Hong Kong’s continued success was seen as very important. And the globally-recognised and trusted legal and business institutions embedded in Hong Kong were recognised as essential. Hong Kong’s continued success was not just a matter of persuading a sceptical world that China would stand by commitments enshrined in the internationally-binding Joint Declaration. It was critical if China’s efforts to reengage with the world economy were to succeed. Twenty years later, Hong Kong may today only account for around 2 per cent of China’s GDP, but its distinct role as an intermediator with the global economy remains indispensable.

This in part explains why in 1997, the international media and many globally respected academics were so totally wrong in predicting the early “Death of Hong Kong”. And it explains why they continue to get it wrong today. Despite journalists’ dire predictions, Beijing and the PLA have shown remarkable and persistent restraint in meddling in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has gone through a very tough couple of decades since the 1997 handover, but this has little if anything to do with the transfer of power. Much more it is to do with the Asian Financial crash of 1998, the dot.com crash in 2000, SARS in 2003, and the global financial crisis of 2008 – and the perverse impacts on property and share prices of the low interest rate universe in place since then.

Democratic development was always going to be tough – not because of Beijing, but because in the 1980s neither Britain nor China had – for their own distinct reasons – any interest in the development of party politics in Hong Kong. Those who thought they were being smart building foundations for “executive-led government” – have blighted political development, and carry equal responsibility for the disfunctional political system Hong Kong wrestles with today.

A couple of thoughts of my own from 1997 still have relevance today: first, that after 13 years of transition from the 1984 Joint Declaration, Hong Kong’s administration emerged from a period of “20-20 foresight” where all successes were measured in terms of preparation for the handover to a period when Hong Kong rejoined the world with “a normal uncertain future”. Hong Kong’s leaders have found it hard to get to grips with such a period dominated by mundane livelihood issues.

Second, I pondered that Hong Kong’s best possible future was that China should succeed, but not too well. In many ways this has proven true. China has succeeded too well from Hong Kong’s point of view, and confidence in the value of the distinct Hong Kong model has ebbed.

Looking to the future, Hong Kong’s youngsters have every reason to be anxious about their futures, but this has little to do with which sovereign has power over us. Our society, and our roles in the world, are changing rapidly, and in directions that few of us can clearly predict. Sovereignty can never occur, but still retains a “pied piper” appeal to some. Closer linkages with the Mainland, and in particular with the Pearl River Delta, are inevitable, and should be embraced rather than resisted. A political system built around a “mission to block” must urgently get to grips with pressing livelihood issues ranging from health and ageing to education reform.

These are Carrie Lam’s immediate challenges, and they are formidable. I suspect Xi Jinping’s main message to her this week will be: we remain committed to letting Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong – but please just get on with it.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are extirely his own.  
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