Weeks of violence have virtually turned a once-bustling and peaceful Hong Kong into a war zone. Worst of all, the desecration of symbols of national sovereignty by rioters suggests that the special administrative region’s (SAR) lifeline is under grave threat.
Even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, as a great seaport and commercial center, grew to prosperity through entrepôt trade with the mainland, cashing in on its convenient location for the transshipment of goods to and from the West. After the mainland opened to the outside world at the end of the 1970s, Hong Kong further prospered by acting as a bridge between the mainland and the outside world.
Supported by its free market system and the rule of law, Hong Kong’s prosperity in the past decades has mostly been derived from its investment and trade with the mainland, while at the same time, the city’s investors have contributed to the epic economic transformation on the mainland since the start of its reform and opening up. It was a perfect win-win situation.
When Hong Kong faced headwinds, the Central Government never hesitated to give a helping hand. To help the SAR recover from the 1998 Asian financial turmoil and the devastating SARS crisis in 2003, the mainland signed the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) with Hong Kong in 2003, slashing tariffs, facilitating trade and opening service sectors to the SAR. CEPA was expanded several times in the following years and was hailed by Hong Kong people as gifts from the Central Government.
But laissez-faire economic policy has its limits. Unaffordable housing prices, social immobility and stagnant income growth are the reasons cited for discontent among young people in Hong Kong today.
In sticking to reform and opening up, Chinese leaders see development as the key to solving thorny issues facing the country and eliminating poverty, and have urged Hong Kong to discard political scuffles and seek economic development instead. It should be kept in mind that, without development, the territory will slide into economic stagnation and find no way to solve its social problems.
The recent violence has hit the territory’s economy very hard and will cause permanent damage to its business environment and endanger its status as a global financial center if the city is no longer perceived as safe.
Although many people in Hong Kong may feel the SAR has lost out to rival cities on the mainland, opportunities still abound, especially in terms of cross-border cooperation and exchanges under the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development plan. There is also a lot Hong Kong and Shenzhen can do to deepen cooperation in technology, higher education, service sectors and infrastructure construction. Hong Kong’s advantages, such as its status as a global financial center, established rule of law and prestigious universities, will remain intact if order is restored. However, under the “one country, two systems” principle, the ball is in Hong Kong’s court when it comes to how the city will give full play to its advantages and tap the opportunities in the mainland market.
Unfortunately, some young Hongkongers seem to have become closed-minded and refuse to engage with their motherland, seeing it as their enemy and the U.S. and the U.K. as their saviors. Taking a hostile stance against everything connected with the mainland, this small group of people has lost a proper vision for their city and their future, failing to see what the future of Hong Kong truly hinges upon. While stressing “two systems,” they should bear in mind that “one country” comes first and is indispensable.
A Hong Kong cut off from the mainland economy will trigger an inexorable decline of the city. Chaos and failure to remain a part of the China growth story will only render the city useless to multinationals and deprive it of the potential to tap opportunities across the border. Should that happen, the younger generation in Hong Kong will only find themselves worse off.
Hong Kong’s lifeline lies in the “one country, two systems” principle that enables it to capitalize on the rise of the country while enjoying autonomy and retaining its way of life for 50 years after its handover. This principle is not a cliché, but a fundamental issue concerning China’s sovereignty over the city and the future of the city.
Even foreign businesses are worried about the impact from the unrest. “It is without question that smoothly functioning Hong Kong commerce is fundamentally important to our members’ business interests and an important validator of the ‘one country, two systems’ approach,” Timothy Stratford, chairman of American Chamber of Commerce in China, was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying.
It is high time that Hong Kong people worked together to bring an end to violence, anarchy and chaos, safeguard the city’s lifeline and start the healing process.
(The author is head of the Shenzhen Daily News Desk.)