A boy holds a placard that reads "Safeguard the Rule of Law" and "Say No to Violence" during a peaceful rally at Tamar Park, Hong Kong, July 20, 2019. [CHINA DAILY]
For over two months, the world's media has been covering the evolution of the tensions affecting Hong Kong. In a highly developed Chinese world-city in which the fundamental rights of the 7,5 million citizens are well protected, the immediate reaction of any responsible commentator should be the condemnation of violence, a rejection of extremism and a clear call for a return to normal life.
After the denunciation of the riotous behavior comes the time to understand what are the causes of the unrest, the formulation of constructive policies able to take the city into a more serene future.
The vast majority of the comments trying to comprehend the Hong Kong's protests tend to focus on constitutional or legal considerations. They refer to the debates occurring around what is known as the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, they present discussions on the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region of the People's Republic of China, and they try to reflect on the controversies surrounding the proposed Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation.
Disagreements over constitutional or legal matters, including the question of universal suffrage raised by the Article 68 of the Basic Law, are reflected in the political diversity of the city's 70-member Legislative Council.
However, this is not sufficient to cause a sustained and significant movement of protest. Some of the activists wearing black T-shirts may be exclusively driven by political motives but the use of the "color revolution" as a general paradigm to interpret the Hong Kong situation is over-simplistic. Arguably, there are deeper economic and social factors that can explain the discontent of large segments of the Hong Kong society.
It is not difficult to conceive that in the geopolitical era which coincides with Donald Trump's presidency in the United States, some policymakers have been tempted in Washington DC to support or manipulate Hong Kong political activists to undermine the work of the Chief Executive, and beyond, the Chinese central government.
Some individuals might have rejoiced to see Hong Kong's most chaotic moments, some organizations might even want to instigate more instability, but any external force has in reality a limited impact on the city.
In the complex mix of factors surrounding the current Hong Kong affairs, the domestic social and economic issues stand as the main source of the crisis.
Fundamentally, the political principle envisioned by Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), "one country, two systems", is a working reality. Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China and enjoys, as stated in the Basic Law, a high degree of effective autonomy.
Deng Xiaoping, who passed away months before Hong Kong's handover in 1997, conceptualized a powerful constitutional framework for the transition from colonial Hong Kong – the city had been governed by the United Kingdom for 155 years following the First Opium War – to a post-colonial political arrangement.
Now, 22 years after the handover, Hong Kong's GDP per capita is high, more than US$50 000, and the metropolis can be proud of a very high Human Development Index. However, it is also marked by a high Gini coefficient, an important indicator of inequalities.
In other words, Hong Kong is rightly associated with its tycoons – with 67 billionaires Hong Kong has more ultra-rich individuals than any other city in the world, but many young Hong Kong citizens are having difficulties coping with very high costs of living.
The housing issue is, in particular, extremely problematic. Thanks to the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) and his vision of a "home-owning society" more than 90 percent of residents in Singapore own their homes, while only 50 percent of Hong Kong households own their property.
Due to the inequalities, the lives of many in Hong Kong comprises accumulated frustrations. And anxiety is added to frustration when comparison with neighboring Shenzhen, in the mainland, is made.
It is by contrast with Shenzhen's rapid progress and the growth of Shenzhen's giants, Huawei, BYD, SF Express and Tencent, that Hong Kong's relative stagnation takes the shape of evidence.
In that sense, it can certainly be said that Deng Xiaoping was even more successful in relation with Hong Kong and, in retrospect, even more successful in relation with the development of Shenzhen. In 2018 the GDP of Shenzhen surpassed Hong Kong's economic output. Hong Kong's GDP per capita remains higher than Shenzhen, but 40 years ago no one would have thought that Shenzhen would evolve into such a powerful source of innovation and economic value.
More generally, the achievements that the "reform and opening-up" brought in the mainland normalized the role of Hong Kong. Administratively "special" according to the Basic Law, Hong Kong has become "not so special" any more in the context of the advancement of Guangdong, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Tianjin.
Hong Kong is often presented as a financial center, it is indeed one of the largest stock exchange in the world. But half of its listed companies are from mainland China, and in terms of market capitalization the Shanghai Stock Exchange is already more significant.
If populism is to be defined by an anti-establishment sentiment, it is a form of populism which marched around Hong Kong's skyscrapers. And many young people being dissatisfied with what they perceive as an unfair coalition between money and power decided to protest against the elites, looking at Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the Chief Executive since 2017, as a symbol of the establishment.
Despite the obvious differences between the European and the Chinese contexts, an analogy can be drawn between the populist sentiment which led the UK on the path to Brexit and the belief of some Hong Kong's locals who would like to exit the "one country, two systems" construction. In both cases, the inability to strike the right balance between the local and a larger political entity has led to a rapid self-weakening.
In this context, what are the strategic actions that the Hong Kong government could take to break up what is perceived as an unfair social status quo and to re-inject trust throughout Hong Kong society?
Since the July 1 2003 march and even in the months that followed the 2014 Umbrella Movement, too little changed. The 2019 protests have to trigger a real social transformation which could be called a Hong Kong New Deal for the public good.
It is a New Deal in the sense that it has to be an unprecedented effort by the government, and not distorted market forces, to provide solutions to the social inequalities, to the housing problem and to social mobility. The New Deal which has to include massive investments and wage and fiscal reforms would mean the end of cartel politics.
Second, the Special Administrative Region and Beijing have to devise ambitious mechanisms so Hong Kong's young leaders can discover mainland China beyond stereotypes. A growing shared awareness of the dynamics making the Chinese renaissance would be a catalyst for trust and cohesiveness. `
Third, Hong Kong has to renew itself in the framework of the Greater Bay Area, one of China's 21st century major initiatives. Banking, finance, services and trade are Hong Kong's traditional strengths. By connecting with the Greater Bay Area eco-system, Hong Kong could evolve into one of the world's leading Smart Cities. In order to achieve this goal, Hong Kong needs to reward the entrepreneurs and the innovators and to stop worshipping the real estate developers.
Fourth, while the links that Hong Kong can forge with Guangdong within the Greater Bay Area are mutually beneficial, the Belt and Road Initiative offers to the city a long-term strategic horizon. By positioning itself and the Greater Bay Area as an engine for the construction of the maritime new Silk Road, Hong Kong can create value for itself and others in Southeast Asia, in the Indian Ocean, in the Middle East and in Africa.
Hong Kong and the central government will find the resources to tackle the present crisis. It requires a capacity to recognize the real problems, the courage to take the right decisions and the ability to communicate around them with confidence and determination.
In other words, it is wise leadership which will take Hong Kong into a future of greater shared prosperity as a part of the larger renaissance of Chinese civilization.
The author is the founder of the Europe-China Forum (2002) and of The New Silk Road Initiative (2015). He is the author of Limited Views On The Chinese Renaissance (2018).
The author contributed this article to China Watch exclusively. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of China Watch.
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