China’s Hong Kong has the rare privilege of being a book made extremely timely due to current events. The anti-extradition bill protests that have raged for months have made Hong Kong’s governance—normally interesting only to those that live in the city—a topic of global concern.
Tim Summers—a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former British diplomat—wrote China’s Hong Kong before the current protests: only a small afterword deals with the extradition bill, and even this was completed before the protests took their more intense turn. But Summers’s arguments are vitally important for those who care about Hong Kong, who want to see its autonomy and strengths preserved into the future.
Most outside observers look at Hong Kong solely through its relationship with Mainland China.
In a succinct retelling of events, China’s Hong Kong argues that the way most people analyse Hong Kong is simplistic. Most outside observers look at Hong Kong solely through its relationship with Mainland China: namely, whether Beijing is respecting the “significant degree of autonomy” it promised the city.
Summers argues that focusing exclusively on this relationship misses dynamics on both the local and global level. In other words: Hong Kong may be a mess, but not necessarily just because of Beijing. When it comes to local political dynamics, Summers notes that Hong Kong’s politics have been polarised, gridlocked and dysfunctional for much of the post-Handover period. This has meant that the city has been largely unable to tackle the major social and political issues that plague the city.
A core example is the political reform package that passed in 2010: this expanded Hong Kong’s Election Committee and the franchise for Hong Kong’s “functional constituencies” (the seats in the city’s Legislative Council reserved for certain sectors of the economy). The pan-democratic opposition argued that the package should be rejected, as it was in their view too small a step on the path towards universal suffrage. However, after intense lobbying by then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang, the Hong Kong Democratic Party chose to vote for the package. This decision backfired on the Democratic Party, whose willingness to compromise was punished by voters in later elections. The lesson since then, according to Summers, was “not that building consensus could achieve progress, but that making concessions would lose them votes.” The conversation over political reform has now been stuck for over a decade.
China’s Hong Kong presents a nuanced and complex view that does not lend itself cleanly to moral certainty.
Thus, Summers proposes a different read for Beijing’s concerns about Hong Kong: not due to worries about a free society, but rather that the current version of “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” has not led to very good results.
But while Hong Kong may have been governed poorly for decades, protests have only started to take a more intense turn in the past few years. Summers points to global dynamics: specifically, the rise in dissatisfaction with the status quo after the global financial crisis of 2008 and an economic recovery that has privileged elite interests.
Hong Kong, despite growing at a reasonable rate for an advanced economy, has significant cost-of-living and income inequality issues. It’s well known that the city has some of some of the world’s most expensive housing. Poverty is also stubbornly high: Summers quotes statistics that it affects one in five, while one in five children do not get enough to eat. Social mobility has become more constrained.
Summers connects Hong Kong to the “populist” reactions in the United States and the United Kingdom; one could perhaps add France’s gilet jaunes movement as a comparison as well.
The global dynamics offer an alternate, or at least an additional, explanation as to why dissatisfaction in Hong Kong has increased. Most writing about Hong Kong suggests that rising discontent is solely due to increasing Chinese interference with Hong Kong. But China’s Hong Kong suggests that Hong Kong is part of a pattern of discontent sweeping several advanced economies.
The danger of focusing purely on the Hong Kong-China relationship to explain the city’s discontent is that one might end up looking at the wrong place. Most discussions of “what to do” about Hong Kong focus on Beijing: namely, calling upon the Central Government to honour its commitments to Hong Kong. Instead, China’s Hong Kong suggests that people should focus their efforts on improving the city’s political structures.
It’s easy—possibly too easy—to look at Hong Kong as another society struggling against outside authoritarianism. It lends itself to clean depictions of right and wrong; it, ironically, also dissuades anyone from looking too closely at possible solutions.
China’s Hong Kong presents a more nuanced and complex view that does not lend itself cleanly to moral certainty. But it leaves open the path for positive change: change that will have to happen if the city is to survive.
Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.