Hong Kong and GBA: a two-way street

There are three interesting commentaries on Hong Kong’s outlook in SCMP worth sharing today. The first two are rather gloomy columns. One is by Albert Cheng, a legislator known for anti-establishment views who has been a columnist for the paper for decades. The other is by former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan. They have divergent views of what is to blame for the current situation, yet they are equally pessimistic that the standoff between the elite and the masses can be resolved.

Cheng is more dramatic, as is his style. He reckons 2020 could be the “endgame” for Hong Kong, presumably without Tony Stark to save the city. His argument is that it won’t take much more for Hong Kong to be drained of its essential vitality as people and institutions continue to up stakes and leave. There is a precedent, he points out: 15 years before the handover, just as China’s Reform and Opening era was getting under way, confidence in Hong Kong’s future autonomy under Chinese rule was evaporating. At that time, the woe-betide-us floods were dammed by the Chinese and British governments signing the 1984 Joint Declaration. Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee, Cheng Yu-tong and a few others had their fortunes cemented in that moment, as the city’s property market began its incredible turnaround, the currency stabilized, and a blueprint for the city’s historic bull run of the last three decades was laid out. 

Today, Cheng says, there is no Joint Declaration coming, i.e., there is nothing that can be done this time around to prevent the massive loss of confidence that Hong Kong people feel in their city. The constant meddling of the Liaison Office and the ineffectiveness of the Lam administration are inexorably eroding trust between the governing and the governed, Cheng believes. The only way to turn this crisis around is to grant universal suffrage, he boldly declares.

Kausikan, by contrast, says it is the lack of common sense of the protestors that is ensuring political gridlock will continue indefinitely. He makes a more rational and logical argument than Cheng, based on weightier historical facts and evidence, and correctly points out that it is the city’s buiness tycoons, not its officials, toward whom protesters should really be venting their frustrations. Yet his outlook is similarly bleak: China never has, and never will, allow change in Hong Kong that might jeopardize the country’s stability. Universal suffrage in Hong Kong is simply too big a gamble for Beijing to take at this moment, and the protestors, if anything, are confirming that assumption. The only way to turn this crisis around is for the people of Hong Kong to wake up to reality, he seems to be saying.

There is a third view of the way forward that graced the SCMP’s pages this week, which is worth considering. Among a bunch of boilerplate business pronouncements at recent conferences in the city, one stood out. The Greater Bay Area’s focus should be on emulating Hong Kong, said Xiao Geng, a professor at the Peking University HSBC Business School. “Many hawks [in Beijing] are pushing for a decoupling between the United States and China as the trade dispute intensifies. But the development of China requires integration with the world,” he said. “The Greater Bay should use Hong Kong as a benchmark, effectively developing into a bigger version of the city, so that China could “prove its resolution to the States and other countries about its reform.” 

Now that is some deep thinking. We are pretty sure the professor doesn’t mean to say that Shenzhen should become as rowdy as Hong Kong is. But his point that the Greater Bay Area plan is not only for Hong Kong’s benefit, as business leaders like to state, is worth talking more about. There is much for the mainland side to gain from integration with Hong Kong, and the more that Hong Kong people can see the gap closing between them from the other side in a way that they feel comfortable with, the better it will be for Hong Kong and China.

We happen to believe this is the way change is happening already. The GBA is moving in Hong Kong’s direction, toward greater openness, more transparency, and reaching out toward higher international standards. We see it in the way Qianhai is reforming and experimenting with its courts. We see it in the way Shenzhen is conducting public consultations on its property policies. Integration is a two-way street. There is a long way to go before 2047, and plenty of reason to believe in a stable and prosperous future for Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area.  

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