About 10 years ago, the difference in lifestyle and system between Hong Kong and the rest of China could be seen in 20 minutes, the time it took thousands of commuters to travel from Shenzhen to the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and vice versa each day. It was a trip between two worlds.
In Hong Kong, all was bright and shining, policemen stern but friendly, passengers queued up and cars lined up neatly along yellow lines on the asphalt.
In Shenzhen, all was drab and grey, despite the similar facilities. Policemen were too slack or too uptight, rigid like poles or fat from lack of exercise and too many “gratitude” meals. Nobody formed queues and cars were packed in muddled jams, held back only by iron barriers splitting the road.
Yet the very same people travelled back and forth between the two sides of this one China. Here was all the disparity between these two worlds: Beijing was trying to lead all of China to become like Hong Kong, while the sheer gravity of 1.4 billion people dragged Hong Kong to Shenzhen.
Ten years after the 1997 handover to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong’s legacy of being a bridge for foreign investment into China was still lingering. Now that investments flow directly to Beijing or Shanghai, skipping Hong Kong, and financing is flowing out of China far more than into it, the situation at the two train stations on the commuter line has changed.
A growing sense of betrayal is festering on both ends. In short, mainlanders feel Hong Kong received and receives so many benefits from Beijing, and it repays the favour with resentment.
Hongkongers believe the favour is no favour, but dues owed to the city that incidentally largely end up in the pockets of a few monopolistic tycoons, and that mainlanders treat Hong Kong with a sense of superiority and a lack of respect, save the usual tycoons, who suck up to Beijing with no ideals or sentiment, just in it for the money.
There is a lot of room for structural adjustment and improvement in communication to reconcile these two perceptions. Yet perhaps more importantly, there is the lack of a sense of Hong Kong’s destiny.
If the SAR is no longer the conduit for foreign investment into China, and it is suspected of simply being the place to launder ill-gotten gains from the mainland, then its destiny is sealed – especially since the present Xi administration has shown no patience for the old corrupt practices.
It is also clear that even Hong Kong’s renowned financial services remain in the SAR at Beijing’s grace and could be easily shipped to Shanghai or to Singapore if political winds were to change.
Perhaps it is the disappearance of that sense of destiny that buoyed the protests of some young people shouting for independence, as if independence could bring back the hopes and opportunities tied to Hong Kong when it was a bridge for foreigners to China’s mysterious markets.
In fact the independence of Hong Kong would just sever many bridges from the mainland and doom the SAR to economic collapse or irrelevance.
Still this doesn’t mean that the SAR should survive only on handouts from Beijing. There is a new potential destiny for Hong Kong in the details of the train stations: culture and integration into the world – something Beijing craves now more than it did 10 or 20 years ago.
The explosive growth of the Chinese economy has brought Beijing closer to the world than ever. Yet differences in approach and culture with the rest of world have become even starker and more evident. Despite the proclaimed rejection of Western values, it is clear that the world is largely Westernised and China’s own drive for modernisation is just another word for Westernisation, i.e. Americanisation.
The examples of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea show that modernisation and opening up to the West is actually the best way to preserve Chinese traditional culture. Three decades of Maoism proved conversely that trying to destroy the old Chinese culture and oppose foreign ways landed China nowhere.
Here lies Hong Kong’s destiny: to help China understand the world, Westernised and modern, and help the world to understand and integrate China. This is the task the SAR’s new chief executive will face following the election on March 26.
If the new destiny of Hong Kong emerges, the SAR will gain a role that could stretch well beyond the 30 years leading to the full return to China’s embrace, and it will have really helped to change China.
This creates challenges and opportunities for the Hong Kong elites. They no longer have to funnel cash in and out of China, since there is only residual need for that. They will have to channel culture (the backbone of diplomacy and the skeleton of integration) in and out of China, and have to do this while involving the entire Hong Kong population.
This is already happening. For instance the Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon, is trying to explain the positions of the Church and of China to one another on the difficult subject of the normalisation of ties between Beijing and the Vatican. It is fundamental in bridging the gap of understanding without creating an adversarial, confrontational atmosphere between the Church and in China, both behemoths of more than 1 billion people.
In fact this is the only option. If Hong Kong fails in this task it will have no future, with or without independence.
Conversely if it only starts to embark on this monumental task the advantages would be immediate. The “Hong Kong mediation” could lend new political credibility to Beijing, which is in need of that, especially since tensions with United States and China’s neighbours have risen with the advent of America’s new Trump administration.