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Hong Kong’s Role in Reconstructing Sino-American Engagement

Aug 05, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The Sino-American relationship will continue to be one of the most important geopolitical relationships defining the future of our world - for the foreseeable future. Hong Kong, as by far the most liberal and international of cities on Chinese soil, has a unique role to play in facilitating pragmatic, outcome-driven Sino-American engagement - but only if it knows how to play its cards wisely. 

Hong Kong possesses many long-standing virtues and fortes that persist till this very day, despite the past few tumultuous years. The city stands amongst the two Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of China alongside Macau, with English and Chinese as official languages, a common law jurisdiction, and a uniquely capitalist economic structure that evades excessive regulation or bureaucratic structures that have long been absent in the city. 

Whilst the government’s laissez-faire attitudes towards the economy are no more - with good reason, too, given the rampant inequalities that had accumulated in the city over the past few decades induced by exorbitant housing prices and an under-diversified economy - Hong Kong remains one of the most open, business-friendly, and plugged-in business hubs in Asia, in 2023. 

None of this is to justify understating the predicaments it has faced, or underestimating the headwinds the city confronts today. Decades of political upheaval, three years of a pandemic-induced lockdown, and contemporary concerns over the viability and uniqueness of the city given geopolitical risks have led to questions’ being posed over the city’s future. 

Yet the jury is still out. We must jettison undue pessimism. Hong Kong still has a role to play in connecting the rest of China with the world, and a core sphere in which this plays out concerns the Sino-American relationship. 

Much ink has been spilled on how Beijing and Washington have shared interests in keeping Hong Kong’s role as a financial gateway into China thriving for American and foreign corporations. There are nevertheless three, less well-litigated directions that Hong Kong should explore, in order to contribute proactively towards the bilateral relationship between the two largest economies in the world. 

Firstly, Hong Kong can serve to house collaborative efforts between the U.S. and China on more ‘technical’ fronts and issues that are neither politically sensitive nor involve issues of military or defence (which fall strictly beyond the purview of the SAR). The rise of existential risks such as climate change, the advent of artificial intelligence, biohazards and pandemics, and events precipitating heightened risk of large-scale military conflict, behoves Beijing and Washington to coordinate and communicate with one another, in minimizing undue downsides and maximising the fruits of joint research. 

With its international culture, exceptional human capital density, and familiarity to both mainland Chinese and American visitors, Hong Kong serves as amongst the few sites in the world where meaningful cooperation can take place. As I have argued elsewhere, a joint task force and committee involving AI scientists, ethicists, lawyers, and bureaucrats from the US, China, and beyond, is essential in aligning regulatory standards and policymaking expectations concerning the development of Large Learning Models (LLMs) and generative AI. On climate change, Hong Kong’s concentration of environmental scientists, ESG specialists, and ‘climate diplomats’ straddling the US and China equips it with the resources and infrastructure to convene top-level track-1.5 and track-2 conversations between both countries on how best to mitigate and manage the repercussions of global warming. 

Academics and technocrats from both sides are likely to find Hong Kong a much easier place to navigate than the mainland (for Americans) and the U.S. (for the Chinese), on grounds concerning visa-free entry, freedom of information and debate, and also the overarching efficiency of the city’s software and people. Going forward, Hong Kong policymakers, academics, and entrepreneurs should strive to take the lead in steering conversations on compliance, regulation, and good governance across the multitude of fields outlined above. This would also aid with putting Hong Kong ‘back on the map’ in the world - as a place for robust, rigorous debate over the future of Sino-American cooperation. 

Secondly, Hong Kong should position itself as a site for relatively balanced, enriched, and nuanced conversations over China’s domestic affairs and foreign policy. With the precipitous polarization of the Sino-American relationship has come a rapid dwindling in the number and openness of spaces where forthcoming debates about China’s strengths and weaknesses can be held in an even-handed manner. With a legal system and social culture distinctive from the mainland’s, there exists theoretical room for the SAR to double down on fostering China-watching that is both ‘connected to’ the lived realities in the mainland, as well as suitably ‘distant from’ the ground zero. 

The recent arrivals of heavyweights such as Daniel Bell and Li Chengare reassuring signs that this city can yet attract exceptional experts with know-how and wisdom, who can hopefully pave the way towards a more diverse and pluralistic space for commentary on the country. Bilingual talents, including Chinese studies returning from overseas studies, but also individuals eager to make sense of modern China whilst living in a highly Westernized society, will indubitably find in Hong Kong a suitable home for their work. 

This argument is of course predicated upon the presumption that Hong Kong retains its unique institutions, cultural ambience, and intellectual range. Should such features be dented, whether it be due to domestic efforts or otherwise, then it would of course be futile to speak of balanced and phlegmatic engagement on the subject matter. 

This ties me onto the third and final point. As evidenced fully by the recent visits to China by entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Elon Musk, as well as the 100-year-old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the bedrock of the Sino-American relationship is the people - the private citizens, businesses, and investors who actively have a skin in the game, who want to see the U.S. and China pave, and not fight, over their range of differences.  

In a recent speech delivered in Hong Kong, retired Singaporean diplomat and intellect Kishore Mahbubani warned that Hong Kong should be prepared to be “sandwiched” and “kicked around like a football” between Beijing and Washington. The hope in countering such sandwiching, I posit, rests with the private sector. Hong Kong features some of the world’s most connected, cosmopolitan, and intellectually brilliant businessmen who care deeply for the preservation of regional stability and world peace. 

Many of these individuals have been at the forefront of efforts at improving trust and reducing animosity between both sides of the Pacific. At times like these, with intergovernmental trust having stooped to new lows, it is vital that Hong Kong retains and offers the space and room for these individuals to initiate and maintain backchannel communications - especially on behalf of the SAR government, which had historically found itself on the back foot when it comes to responding to geopolitical dynamics and international conflicts.   

There is hope in Hong Kong, but such seeds for hope must be harnessed and cultivated - or Hong Kong risks sliding into irrelevance on the world stage. The SAR must also diversify beyond the Sino-U.S. relationship, though that is the subject for another discussion altogether.

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