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Society & Culture

How Hong Kong Can Play A Greater Role in the Sino-American Conversation

Jul 03, 2024
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

As a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong bears a distinct responsibility of demonstrating that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula – alongside the consequent institutional, legal, fiscal, and sociocultural autonomy the city enjoys – is in the interest of both the city and China at large. Recent years have seen serious questions raised over Hong Kong’s tenability as an international financial, cultural, and economic center. These questions should be addressed head-on and taken constructively, as opposed to dismissed out of hand. 

How the Sino-American Relationship Poses Fundamental Challenges to the City

Some have alleged that the fundamental transformations to its approach to governance, and the ever-increasing integration between the city and the rest of China, have been to Hong Kong’s detriment. These voices often fail to provide and account for a tenable alternative; they also neglect the fact that Hong Kong must learn to reconcile with and make sense of its place within a complex, dynamic, and constantly evolving Chinese state. Greater integration need not connote greater assimilation and homogenisation – and there is much that an international and forward-thinking Hong Kong would offer greater China in the long-term.

Some have concluded that as the Sino-American rivalry and tensions escalate, Hong Kong would inevitably become collateral damage, sandwiched in between the two jostling powers. Indeed, despite the robust and entrenched economic interests of American multinational corporations in the city, a growing chorus of voices within the DC political establishment has taken the stance that it is purportedly impossible for a capitalist region to flourish within a socialist country. 

Pessimists have also argued that in response to heightened antagonism and provocations by the US, Beijing would turn towards greater securitisation and laying down the law, in both the proverbial and literal senses, in Hong Kong – thereby further blurring the lines between the city and the mainland, to mutual disadvantage.

At the core of this debate is a fundamental question: given the persistence of Sino-Western tensions and the precipitously geopolitical pressures over the city’s status coming from all directions, can Hong Kong find a way to make itself useful and valuable? Or will it become a parochial, inward-looking, and anodyne city that pales in comparison with Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen, consigned to the dustbins of irrelevance?

I remain cautiously optimistic. In lieu of outlining a comprehensive vision for how Hong Kong is to tackle the plethora of challenges in its way, I shall focus on the ‘power relationship’ between the U.S. and China in which the city has found itself as both a fault-line and core stakeholder.

As A Prime Platform for Track-II Dialogue

Throughout history, Hong Kongers have long punched above their weight, whether it be in serving as a critical gateway for goods and commodities into the mainland at the height of the Cold War, inspiring and molding the trajectory of opening-up and reform in the 1980s or complementing China’s financial and technological internationalisation in the early 2000s.

Indeed, the personal bonds between senior Hong Kong politicians and businesspersons and their counterparts in the U.S. – like the enduring ties between C.H. Tung and the Bush family – have proven to be critical in enabling the Chinese and American leaders to gauge accurately the strategic intentions of the other.

Regrettably, the American political elite of today has neither the appetite for balanced, even-handed dialogue or open-minded collaboration with their Chinese counterparts. Yet this does not mean Hong Kong should forego building the bridges through academic, business, and citizen-to-citizen (what I term the “ABC” of track-2 diplomacy) channels.

First, Hong Kong must openly declare and strategically position itself as the premier hub for Sino-American track-II engagements. Over the past six months, I have had the privilege of sharing a panel with two visiting delegations from the Harvard Kennedy School, who had long maintained robust exchanges with the Asia Global Institute – a stalwart in the University of Hong Kong ecosystem.

From the Hong Kong Forum hosted by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation through to the Global Prosperity Summit earlier this year, it is evident that the city is seeking to platform difficult but necessary conversations on topics of mutual interest and concern to citizens from both sides of the Pacific. Indeed, one of the flagship projects of the Centre on Contemporary China and the World, also at the University of Hong Kong, concerns a Hong Kong-Shanghai collaboration focusing on the correlation between climate change, public health conditions, and oceanic conditions, with the intention of enabling cross-continental dissemination of the research findings going forward.

The SAR has far less restrictive entry and visa requirements than the mainland, and there are many topics that could be better addressed in the comparatively more liberal and unrestrained discursive atmosphere. The seasoned private sector also offers an immense repository of capital, knowledge, and connections that can be tapped into to enable meaningful joint ventures.

As a Gateway for the West into Emerging Markets

Second, Hong Kong should position itself as a gateway not only for China to the world, but also for the proverbial West into emerging markets, including Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. The former is a region in which Hong Kong enjoys exceptional soft power and possesses extensive business linkages.

The latter two are regions where – in shoring up expertise and connections with local interlocutors and partners – this city can find a renewed purpose and value-add for investors, entrepreneurs, and multinational corporations who seek both a vigorous legal system and flourishing accessibility in their prospective Asian headquarters.

Whilst the Chinese primary and secondary equity markets remain tepid in the wake of the structural issues affecting its economy, it behooves business leaders with creativity and audacity in the city to steer Hong Kong to diversify in a multitude of directions – including towards markets that it had historically neglected or de-emphasised. By becoming more integrated within the Asian ecosystem at large, Hong Kong can most certainly enhance its attractiveness for American investors looking for familiar hands over unfamiliar terrain.

As a Premier Site for Deep Education-based Engagements

Finally, there is much that can be done in unlocking Hong Kong’s human capital potential. A personal suggestion that responds to both President Xi Jinping’s pledge to have 50,000 American students enroll in Chinese institutions and Ambassador Nicholas Burns’ emphasis upon academic engagements, is for the government to work hand-in-hand with the private sector to offer 5,000 scholarships or study openings – whether they be short-term exchange visits, pre-doc fellowships, or more long-term joint degrees – to American students.

As a bilingual city that remains significantly easier to access on the visa front (no visa needed for American citizens into the city), there is much that we have to offer those who seek to gain a more authentic and robust glimpse into life on the mainland. Indeed, universities should encourage and facilitate these students’ exploration of the Greater Bay Area, whilst they are here on exchange. It is only through immersion and direct experience that misconceptions can be tackled and resolved – and it is vital that we start young. Education hence plays a most instrumental role.

Hong Kong isn’t over. As a city, as a collective, we must forge a path forward without delusions of grandeur, or of the Panglossian view that we can return to the past. As Sino-American relations remain in the doldrums, it is up to Hong Kong to demonstrate to the world that it is both unique and possesses the agency just yet – to make a small yet tangible positive difference.  

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