Stories with a grand narrative can join the past and the future. They can motivate a community to believe and act. A good story can even persuade others that someone or something is special and, even though they may not have a direct stake in the outcome, they would nevertheless wish the protagonists well.
Hong Kong had a good story in the run-up to 1997. Its people worked hard, and they had an indomitable spirit—they would surely triumph even under Chinese rule because they were well-governed. Hong Kong people were free to do what they wanted, especially in the pursuit of business under a capitalist-liberal environment, protected by a common law-based legal system. That story was the creation of the British, the former colonial master.
The People’s Republic of China had its own story about Hong Kong. Britain snatched it from a weak China in the 19th century and the reunification of Hong Kong with the motherland in 1997 ended more than a century of national humiliation. Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” as a “special administrative region” in China; it would be just as politically stable and economic prosperous as before due to China’s wise and pragmatic “one country, two systems” policy.
Hong Kong people and the world bought those stories. The British version was what the international media focussed upon. Besides, China was modernising, and with economic advancement, the Chinese would become more “capitalistic”. Economic reform would lead to democratic change and China could well follow a “liberal democratic” path, as western powers sought to bring it into the global fold. The Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 was just a blip—the trend was for liberal democratic systems to win out in the end. Hong Kong’s freedoms would best be maintained and yearning for democracy fulfilled when China itself became free and democratic.
Forty years on from when China started its modernisation in the post-Mao Zedong era and twenty years after the reunification, the British version of the Hong Kong story no longer holds. Hong Kong people are not so sure about themselves and their future seems less bright. The outside world also seems to find Hong Kong less interesting. Hong Kong has yet to create a new story that can inspire. The city and its people are stuck—they have no compelling narrative that joins the past and the future.
Indeed, Britain’s story about Hong Kong is over. Beijing’s story about Hong Kong has its own perspective. Only Hong Kong can create its own story that can make sense of its past, explain the present and give a believable yet inspirational picture of the future that can command broad popular support.
It is for Hong Kong to make sense of its perceived trials and tribulations to enable its own people and others to understand the amazing journey the protagonist is on. It should be a story with universal appeal that weaves in the uniqueness of the place, its people, their experiences and culture, their institutions—no longer within the simplistic dichotomy of “capitalism good” and “socialism bad” but against the backdrop of shifting global geopolitics in which China is a rising power, and western powers are questioning the global architecture they constructed post World War II.
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 in good as well as difficult times. Hong Kong is a patriotic part of China. With loyalty made clear, Hong Kong’s conspicuous leeway to contribute to national betterment and to lobby for the HKSAR, is fortified.
The past has bequeathed Hong Kong many advantages: its status as a leading commercial and financial centre, its institutions, respect for the rule of law, an international outlook, and facility with English. But the past is a foundation, not a destination. Hong Kong must release itself from that unspoken aspect of the old British Hong Kong story tied to a sense that it should have become a liberal democracy along Western lines by now.
Today’s Hong Kong has evolved as a “second system”—with an emerging new constitutionality within China and under the Basic Law. The HKSAR has many features that are more progressive than in pre-1997 days, while economically, it is first in line to benefit from the mainland’s continued economic development and the further opening of its markets.
A lot has been invested in the thinking that Hong Kong needed to defend itself against “China” post-1997. Persistent political confrontation with the HKSAR administration as a proxy for challenging Beijing has not helped to advance democracy, implement better policies or improve local governance. Along this path lies continuing self-absorption, self-flagellation and the toxic politics that collectively propel young people towards concluding that the “one country, two systems” rubric cannot work, combined with either apathy or misplaced romanticism regarding “independence” or “self-determination”.
The perfect has too often been made the enemy of the good. Hong Kong’s political experience before and since 1997 offers insights for the future. Beijing has shown willingness to compromise (for example reforms agreed for the 2012 legislature election and the proposed but not enacted reforms for the chief executive election of 2017) but it will want not unreasonable assurances that Hong Kong will reject using its liberties to allow the HKSAR to become an “anti-Beijing-anti-China” base. An “all or nothing” approach has, on balance, plainly been counter-productive. Hong Kong made a grave error in rejecting Beijing’s offer in 2015 allowing candidates, however they might have been selected, to compete in a direct election to choose the chief executive in 2017.
The new Hong Kong story is part of the core narrative of the city’s zeitgeist. It relates to history, affiliations, emotions, nationalism, partisan distinctions, class and the emerging global future. Our primary aim is to advance the construction of this story. We hope it rings true. There is no shame in a patriotism that loves a flawed nation and wanting to contribute to its betterment.
Hong Kong needs its own affirmative story. Nobody from outside can construct that story for Hong Kong. Above all, Hong Kong must avoid trapping itself within a narrow framework which is tied to a view that the best times are over.
The old British Hong Kong story can inform—but certainly should not constrain—the development the new Hong Kong story, which has to pivot on a constructive vision of the present and future. Hong Kong people must seize the moment—as they had done before—to build a robust future as a part of the People’s Republic and to contribute to the betterment of the nation.
Christine Loh Kung-wai has served Hong Kong in the public, NGO and educational sectors for more than three decades, most recently as Hong Kong Undersecretary for the Environment. Richard Cullen is a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong.