‘Strategic Optimism’ for Hong Kong’s future

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Hong Kong is a little less than midway through a historically unique geopolitical process in which an essentially democratic society is being integrated into an authoritarian-led country over the course of decades, with an important, but not final, waypoint in 2047. Never before in human history, so far as I can tell, has this process been attempted on an extended timescale. Many democratic cities, countries and other jurisdictions have, in history, been overrun and dominated in the span of days, weeks and months but never on the slow-motion scale of decades. And certainly never with a governing document like the Basic Law which lays out in common law language how things are roughly supposed to go until a predetermined endpoint.

This unique process leads to a few interesting challenges in trying to forecast how any given societal dispute will play out – such as the current city-wide revolt over the Extradition Bill. At its most basic, there is no rule book and few useful corollaries to inform our thinking so we must look beyond simple heuristics of international relations. To those who decry the current protestors actions (peaceful and radical) because ‘it is useless to resist the Mainland’ (due to its supposed strength and undoubted size) and claim that ‘in 2047 Hong Kong is going to be a suburb of Shenzhen anyway’ (as the basic law guarantee ends) I have a few points.

First, no one really knows what Mainland China will look like in 30 years or what its priorities for Hong Kong will be. As an example, Western analysts thought Xi Jinping might be a liberal reformer upon assuming power; in fact, the exact opposite has occurred. The EIU is now forecasting that China will become more socially liberal in the late 2020s as a post-Xi reaction.

On paper, Hong Kong’s Basic Law Chapter 1 Article 5 states simply “The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.” The Basic Law, and the Chinese constitution for that matter, are silent on what happens after 2047. Therefore anything could happen and everyone has motivation to work towards their desired outcome. There is quite a decent chance Hong Kong keeps the same system it has in place right now. Or it might have a modified system with Mainland-style laws enforced on anti-sedition, education and extradition and a neutered LegCo. Or it might be a common law commercial system and Mainland law for everything else. Or we could indeed become a suburb of Shenzhen. The point is, again, there is no predetermined outcome and everyone can work towards the endpoint they desire – by whatever means and often in conflict with each other.

Second, for all the pessimism about the efficacy of civic action (i.e. protests) in Hong Kong, the people’s voice actually has quite a good record of protecting existing rights and freedoms. Clear wins in terms of rights protection include the Article 23 protests in 2003, the Scholarism action against education reform in 2012, the Occupy Movement (which many people forget actually did result in the LegCo defeat of the proposed, flawed, electoral reform bill). And now the spring 2019 movement against the Extradition Bill has made it political kryptonite akin to Article 23. It is unclear why this streak must necessarily end. If this success did end and the people’s voice lost its power, it would be due to a complete abandonment of One Country, Two Systems. And that dismantling would be a prerequisite for any pessimistic forecast to be correct.

Third, under Xi Jinping Hong Kong is more important to China than it was under Hu Jintao, who was actually opening China, and especially Shanghai, to the world. To use Jake Vanderkamp’s phrase ‘Hong Kong does what China cannot or will not’ and when the number of those things goes up or becomes more seriously restricted, Hong Kong’s relative value to the regime increases. Currently, the CCP is to a large degree isolating its society from Western information and influences – but still needs significant FDI to keep its state-led economic system going. Relatedly, the CCP seems unable to turn Shanghai into any kind of regional, let alone global, finance centre. Does this sound like Hong Kong is going to be more or less valuable to the Mainland in the coming years?

Fourth, demographic and attitudinal trends in Hong Kong augur well for democratic development. Hong Kong has some of the longest-lived people on earth and while an ageing population can be an economic challenge, it is likely to be a social boon. The current crop of young political leaders like Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, and the hundreds of thousands of marching young people will live into their 90s with the longest healthspans (active years) in human history. Children born in Hong Kong this year are projected, for the first time, to live to over 100. This is without a doubt the most politically aware and rights-hungry generation ever in Hong Kong’s history. They have access to global media to increase pressure as they fight for their beliefs over the course of decades. Today’s protestors also want the city to thrive and continue its role as an international hub which aligns them with most HK citizens and with the business community. To a meaningful degree, this combination mitigates the CCP’s overwhelming military and United Front capabilities. The people’s hearts will persist in the face of oppression.

It is for these reasons I am strategically optimistic about Hong Kong’s future even as the tactical battles on the streets and the operational level politicking this summer has been ripping Hong Kong’s social fabric apart.

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