Hong Kong roundtable: ten years, five views
TIME International Editor Michael Elliott, Senior Editor Zoher Abdoolcarim and Reporter Austin Ramzy sat down with Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan; construction and property tycoon Sir Gordon Wu; Christine Loh, head of think tank Civic Exchange; barrister (and former solicitor general) Daniel Fung; and Raymond Zhou, Beijing-based editor at large for the China Daily. To read an extended transcript of their discussion, click here.
TIME: In the past 10 years, what has surprised you most?
CHAN: The very severe economic downturn [sparked by the 1997 Asian financial crisis]. Before the handover, everybody’s eyes were directed at how well or not well the political transition would go. Nobody expected difficulties on the economic front. Certainly, in the first few years, from where I sat as Chief Secretary, the political transition went extremely well. Hong Kong wasn’t swallowed up by mainland China; the People’s Liberation Army wasn’t all over the place—it was, and still is, conspicuous by its absence.
WU: There seems to be a lot of discontent on the political front. In the 1960s and ’70s, when Hong Kong people were busy working to foster economic growth, China was doing all the political [stuff]. Today, China has settled down and become very busy with economic activities, while here in Hong Kong we’re going the other way. It’s a fresh cultural revolution.
LOH: Hong Kong is not quite sure how to attach itself to the mainland, and, at the same time, stay connected to the rest of the world. There is this ambivalence about who and what we are. Many of us have transited from being British to being Chinese. But [some] Hong Kong people, and perhaps Beijing, have [doubts] about our loyalty. That has made it more difficult for us to be a part of China. We’re still trying to knit these two pieces together—attachment to both the nation and the world.
FUNG: The resilience of the legal system is a real surprise—not just the idea that common law would survive the reversion to Chinese sovereignty, but the birth of constitutionalism. As a British colony for 156 years, we never had a written constitution. Now, post-’97, our courts, using a common-law system, are able to [interpret the Basic Law] and make it living law. That is something amazing. That is a miracle.
ZHOU: The biggest difference in the past decade is a stronger sense of national identity. A decade ago, when I was first in Hong Kong, my friends would strongly advise me not to speak Mandarin. Nowadays I can speak anything: English, Mandarin or my not-even-passable Cantonese, and I’m treated like an equal. I feel very comfortable here.
TIME: Is Hong Kong’s relationship to China, its identity, settled then?
CHAN: This acceptance of being Chinese has never been an issue. Even under British rule, I regarded myself as Chinese and nothing else. The question really is: What are the defining qualities of being Chinese? What are the core values you espouse? In Hong Kong we have a group of what I describe as disillusioned people who, before the handover, regarded themselves as loyal supporters of the communist cause. This group has not had the reward and recognition, after 1997, that they think they deserve. We continue to have problems with this group.
WU: It’s not only this group of pro-communists; there’s also another one that is very vocal and doesn’t even want to respect the Basic Law. The Basic Law is our mini-constitution. Whether we like it or not, we must respect it and follow it. If you analyze the Basic Law, it’s not bad for Hong Kong; we don’t have to pay taxes to Beijing, we don’t have to pick up the defense expenses. The Basic Law says that Hong Kong is going to be a capitalistic system. It lays out the groundwork on how Hong Kong is going to be governed. Obviously, one day I’d like to see universal suffrage [full democracy], but I don’t want to see it tomorrow.
LOH: This point about whether we respect the Basic Law or not—there are different views as to what respect means. We have essentially adopted a structure that was billed as highly successful back in the 1970s and ’80s—no democracy, strong government. Does it still work today? Can you make it work in the next 10, 20 years? I have my doubts.
FUNG: It’s really a matter of defining what is Hong Kong’s role vis-à-vis China. Is Hong Kong’s role in the 21st century purely that of capital formation for mainland state enterprises, which is a very important role indeed, or is there some other role? Is Hong Kong to be an intellectual decompression chamber between China and the outside world?
TIME: Sir Gordon, would you agree that Hong Kong has not stood still over these 10 years, and neither has China?
WU: Nothing has moved much on Hong Kong’s political front—apart from the nearly daily demonstrations in the streets. That is not good … Some people say we should [have universal suffrage] immediately. The right way is a gradual process so we get to the promised land without chaos and pain.
ZHOU: The future of Hong Kong and the future of the mainland are so inextricably linked that whatever measure is taken in Hong Kong, we have to consider the repercussions in the mainland. Political reform won’t just happen in a vacuum of Hong Kong; it will happen in the framework of all of China. That’s why the pacing is so important. Ideally, you have universal suffrage tomorrow. It sounds great, but we have to be pragmatic. The gradual approach will not only be more acceptable to the central government but, I feel, to all mainlanders.
CHAN: I’d like to ask Mr. Zhou whether he thinks the central government is at all concerned about effective and good governance in Hong Kong?
ZHOU: I think so. We should change the mind-set that the central government is somehow against Hong Kong. That’s not true; everyone in the mainland wants good things for Hong Kong. It’s in the details, in the approaches, that there are different opinions … When [mainland] newspapers and magazines write about Hong Kong, we mention how Hong Kong manages the environment, how Hong Kong fights corruption, how Hong Kong has this civil society. In all these aspects, people in the mainland, ordinary people, people in the media, they see Hong Kong as this role model … Mainlanders also remember [that] when China was opening up in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Hong Kong was so crucial. It was the engine that drove the growth at least of southern China. People are grateful.
TIME: Think back to 2003, the SARS year. What were your thoughts then?
LOH: It was a phenomenal period. We were suddenly struck by this new disease. We were in the depths of depression; we didn’t know what was going to happen. Then we had 500,000 people demonstrating. Within six months, Hong Kong people felt really bad, came together, and felt really good. Before we knew it, the so-called economic depression was gone. That was the fastest transit in community emotions that I’ve been through.
WU: I have always felt confident about the future of Hong Kong, even in 2003.
TIME: Why so?
WU: I came back to Hong Kong in 1958 as a Princeton graduate. Hong Kong went straight into a real estate depression. After that was the ’65 bank run, ’67 riots, the oil shocks, the ’87 stock-market crash. I witnessed many of these downturns, but Hong Kong always bounced back, because Hong Kong people rely on themselves. They say, O.K., the roof has fallen, it’s no good crying, let’s get it back up again.
TIME: Do people in the mainland admire that aspect of Hong Kong?
ZHOU: It’s more than the resilience. That’s something shared by all Chinese people. SARS was the darkest cloud in the past decade but it was encircled by a silver lining. Something good came out of it, not just the economic rebound but communication between Hong Kong and the mainland. It’s a tragedy that led to something good. The mainland realized that whatever decisions it makes in the mainland will affect Hong Kong positively or negatively.
TIME: Let’s turn to something specific. Why is the standard of English in Hong Kong deteriorating?
CHAN: The government has to create some sort of an environment where people can speak English. Singapore has a better environment for speaking English because a lot of people speak English within their families and not just in the workplace or schools. But here in Hong Kong they don’t. Even officials are less willing to speak in English despite the fact that English and Chinese are both official languages.
FUNG: It’s not just English; it’s also Chinese. One of the problems is the insistence, since 1997, of teaching in the mother tongue, which is Cantonese. It’s the equivalent of teaching Sicilian instead of Italian or Provençal instead of French. You’re basically condemning the next generation to second-class citizenship when they hit the job market. The government needs to expend political capital in order to push through Mandarin teaching. Without language proficiency, Hong Kong will never grow. We are now 90% services. Therefore language ability is at a premium. This is very serious—a long-term, systemic problem. I [once] asked the head of United Artists in Hong Kong why we only got the sex-and-violence movies, the lowest common denominators, not intelligent movies from the U.S. His answer was very direct, and very compelling. He said, “You people are so badly educated you do not appreciate the good movies, and therefore I cannot sell them.” There’s a kernel of truth in that. You do not get that type of culture which says I want to look at those sort of movies. In Beijing you do.
TIME: Hong Kong may be a harbinger of something really important for the 21st century: a free, Chinese, international city. All of us have an interest in such cities being tremendous successes. Do you agree that Hong Kong is a city with a connection to China, but also to the rest of the world.
LOH: There are two layers, two societies, in Hong Kong. This is not based on race or how much money you have. It’s based on outlook and attitude and education. You have a small group in Hong Kong who find it quite easy to switch between English and Chinese cultures. These are the same people who would talk about education quality, English quality, cleaning up the environment, carbon trading, [London Mayor] Ken Livingstone [and his] road pricing, and why we can’t do it. Then we have this very local aspect that is much more belly gazing, much more Cantonese driven. [We need] to reach out to those people and say, there’s a big world out there, there’s China at the back, be interested, learn Mandarin, learn English.
CHAN: We’re still depending on the capital that was accumulated over 156 years of British rule in terms of our connectivity with the rest of the world. If you look at what has happened in the last 10 years, the government espouses to be an international city but it doesn’t ask itself what are the prerequisites and the ingredients of an international city. If you ask any of our main trading partners—the U.S., Britain—we’re rapidly disappearing from their radar screens. In a sense it’s natural because, with China becoming economically stronger and having more prominence, people’s eyes will naturally gravitate toward the mainland. But we’re not doing nearly enough. I remember in the days before 1997, because of concerns over the political transition, the government had no choice but constantly to go overseas to sell Hong Kong.
FUNG: It’s not just trade missions either; we need substance, because without substance there’s nothing to sell. The environment is critical. Education is absolutely critical. You will not get a world-class city like New York or London unless you get first-class educational institutions. You will not get the intellectual ferment of world-class cities unless you have a cultural scene which is commensurate. You don’t get that in Hong Kong. Without those critical components, [the government’s slogan] “Asia’s World City” is just an aspiration. We can’t just keep repeating that mantra; we need to do something about it.
TIME: Raymond, when looking at Hong Kong compared to many mainland cities, Hong Kong must seem pretty well run. Now you’re with four very thoughtful Hong Kong people revealing what doesn’t work here. Are you surprised by this?
ZHOU: Not really. I lived in the U.S. for almost 15 years. When you look at the States, you feel they run their country perfectly. But when you move there you see all the complaints. It’s the same thing. I hear you talk about the educational system here, but you probably haven’t heard us talking about the mainland’s educational system. We all hate it. It has so many more problems. In terms of hardware the mainland is quickly catching up with Hong Kong, so maybe you have a sense of competition. But if you look at the software, Hong Kong is so far ahead.
TIME: For the next 10 years, what would be the absolutely key two or three things essential to an exciting, international vision for Hong Kong?
CHAN: You need a constitutional structure that will enable government to govern well, tune into community aspirations and be able to get its policies and programs through the legislature. If you can’t, then you’re going to have a very difficult road ahead. You need good, strong, ethical leadership. I have more faith in the people of Hong Kong. They’re pragmatic. They know what they want. This manifestation of civil action—you’re going to see more and more of it, not less and less. And the government needs to be able to cope with it.
WU: The main thing is a harmonious partnership between the legislature and government, not this confrontational thing. Christine, this is where you and I differ. If you look at all the constitutions, even in America, it is not [the case] that everybody is equal. In Hong Kong, [the business élite] must have representation.
CHAN: Gordon, why do you assume that under full democracy businesspeople will be thrown out lock, stock and barrel? You underestimate their own abilities to woo the public.
LOH: Hong Kong has $3.5 billion in the budget to spend on infrastructure. I want that to be spent on the kind of infrastructure that is well designed. What do we mean today by something that is well designed? It takes public health and environment and energy efficiency all into account, plus heritage preservation.
FUNG: If there’s one issue that should be visited in the next 10 years, it’s really to confront the sacred cow of positive non-interventionism. Has its shelf life expired? If you look at the way that Asia is developing, nobody subscribes to this. And who is the loser? Hong Kong. Let’s take one example: the film industry. In the 1980s the film industry in Hong Kong, plus music, which was a spin-off, the Canto-pop phenomenon, led Asia. Today we are totally eclipsed by South Korea, by Thailand. Why did Hong Kong lose New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to Singapore when Tisch actually wanted to establish in Hong Kong? Singapore gave them the land—flat out, that’s it. We lost that and therefore we lost the chance to regenerate film, drama, television. Our entertainment industry is in the doldrums. Our directors go to Hollywood, or they work in mainland China. They don’t stay here. Why is it that even New York, the world’s world city, has a film policy which has wrested film production away from Toronto? By tax rates and subsidies—that’s how they did it. That’s the opposite of positive non-interventionism, which is a mantra for “do nothing.”
CHAN: You need to be very careful about selecting winners.
FUNG: If we refuse to look at the sacred cow, if we do not have an honest debate about it, [and just say] this is the Hong Kong way, then we need to ask ourselves: Is the Hong Kong way going to succeed for the next 50 years? We know that these people in Singapore are not just sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Nor are those in South Korea, nor is Malaysia, nor is Dubai, nor is Almaty, nor is Abu Dhabi. Let’s look at some of their policies. Let us not be complacent, let us not assume that because we are where we are today, nobody can overhaul us. In a globalized world, we can be overhauled whilst we sleep. Autor: Michael Elliott, Zoher Abdoolcarim and Austin Ramzy