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Tackling Hong Kong’s Governance Challenges

Nov 19, 2019
  • Li Huan

    Deputy Director at CICIR's Institute of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, and Distinguished Research Fellow, Xiamen University

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Hong Kong is sick. Since the start of demonstrations against the proposed amendment to its fugitive offenders law during the summer, radical protesters have carried out violent attacks, targeting not only law-enforcement officers but also institutions, shops and even individuals.

The situation has raised concerns among all who care about Hong Kong. The government of the special administrative region has responded with some measures, none of which have helped to reduce protesters’ anger, be it the chief executive's apology, the formal withdrawal of the amendment bill, the anti-mask law’s attempt to deter masked protesters or the policy address, which was rich in supportive measures.

In prolonging the situation, the protesters have lost focus. Some now oppose for the sake of opposition. Lone wolf attacks are increasing. Residents are disappointed. Some accuse the HKSAR government of failing to respond to protesters’ demands in better ways while others accuse it of passing up better measures to stop the violence. The government seems to be blamed for whatever it does.

What is going on in Hong Kong? What is wrong with the governance there?

When it comes to governance, or governing, Hong Kong was under British rule for a long time. In the century and a half before the handover, neoliberalism combined with the serendipity of the times to enable Hong Kong to perform an economic miracle and become one of the so-called Four Asian Tigers. The booming economy led to improved livelihoods, but at the same time it hid many problems. Hong Kong’s return to the motherland in 1997 meant re-integration into Chinese governance. Under the “one country, two systems” doctrine, Hong Kong enjoys more rights than it did under British rule. The central government handles state-related affairs, while the SAR government is in charge of Hong Kong’s internal affairs — meaning Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy.

In the 22 years since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, the central government has honored its commitment and given the SAR government full autonomy within the framework of the Constitution and the SAR’s Basic Law. In the course of the disturbances and social unrest, it has been clear that the central government fully respects that high degree of autonomy and supports the SAR government in its handling of the ever-evolving situation. Under the Basic Law, the SAR government may, when necessary, seek assistance from the central government. However, as things have developed so far, the SAR has been trying to tackle the problems on its own, and the central government has consistently expressed understanding, trust and support, giving it full space to hone its actions. After all, under British rule, the Hong Kong people never had a taste of being masters of their own affairs or determining the course of their own destiny. In the later period of British rule, some Chinese rose to senior levels in government, but policy decisions remained in the hands of the British government and its governor’s team. Chinese civil servants were only policy implementers.

Since Hong Kong’s return, the power to make important decisions on the city’s future development has been in the hands of the Hong Kong people. The chief executive, the principal officials and the more than 160,000 civil servants are the people putting into reality the principle of “Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong.” The recent developments have to a certain extent been a test of the SAR government’s capabilities and performance.

Is this SAR government fully capable, and has it performed well? That is a matter of opinion. Admittedly, it is the responsibility of not only the SAR government but also the central government to govern Hong Kong well. By the same token, the success of the “one country, two systems” policy bears not only on the SAR government but also on the central government. The two levels of government have different powers and a division of labor, but both seek long-term prosperity and stability for Hong Kong. In the journey towards this goal, while setbacks may be unavoidable, it is critical that the two should be of one heart and one mind.

How should Hong Kong be governed? It is a dynamic process. For the SAR government, it is of paramount importance to enhance the capabilities and performance of the governing team. The SAR government must ponder a series of questions: How should it handle the relationship with the central government? How should it put into practice the idea of Hong Kong People administering Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy? How should it evolve from a policy implementer to a policymaker? And how should it define its own responsibility as an international actor, all within the “one country, two systems” framework, as it will be there to stay for a long time?

With regard to the current situation, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the governing team must work closely together, since it is not the responsibility of the police only but also the whole SAR government to uphold the rule of law, restore public order and stop riots and violence. Too many emotions have been involved in the protracted social unrest, blurring the distinction between right and wrong. But clearly all Hong Kong people are in the same boat and will have to decide together what course to follow.

The central government will naturally uphold the “one country, two systems” policy as an integral part of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Besides adherence to that framework, the central government also has the responsibility to continuously improve, in practice, the relevant institutions and to train together with the SAR government more talented people who love the country and Hong Kong. It is incumbent upon the central government to work with the SAR government to draw a blueprint for Hong Kong’s development, albeit with institutions, modes and stages that are different from those on the mainland.

For international entities with significant interests there, Hong Kong provides a balcony view of a more open China and a unique window for observing China’s development. To understand the future of China, this window must not close. A well-governed Hong Kong will be win-win for Hong Kong, for China as a whole and for the rest of the world.

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