What Hong Kong needs to rebound from two terrible years

March 5, 2021, 4:30 AM UTC
A pro-democracy supporter during a vigil outside a courthouse in Hong Kong. "Respect for the law is unlikely unless citizens recognize that they have a stake and have a say in their city’s future," writes Brian Wong.
Lam Yik—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The past two years have not been easy on Hong Kong.

From an eventually shelved, unpopular extradition bill that sparked million-strong marches and a summer of violent and non-violent protests, to the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of an austere National Security Law, the “Pearl of the Orient” has experienced blow after blow. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that pessimism and cynicism are sentiments rampant amongst many in the city’s population—especially its youth. 

What does Hong Kong need? There is no simple, single answer­—and indeed, to think so would be an error that has unfortunately oft been made. Democrats zealously ascribe the city’s plights to a lack of democracy, though they have perhaps struggled to explain how democracy could ameliorate these problems. Beijing loyalists accuse foreign powers of ostensibly instigating unrest in the city, yet offer few solutions beyond the quelling of foreign interference and toeing of political lines. Senior bureaucrats, meanwhile, find solace in adhering to the status quo, without questioning the undergirding problematic structures.

In truth, Hong Kong is desperately in need of fixing. It needs thorough, proper reforms that take seriously its structural problems, in ways that are compatible with its political realities and feasibility constraints. 

Fixing a broken economy

Hong Kong needs answers to its rampant socioeconomic inequalities. Abject poverty afflicts nearly one in seven of its denizens. It is ludicrous that in a city amongst the most developed in the world, thousands must live in cramped iron cages and dilapidated coffin-houses, with over 268,000 applicants for public housing queueing for over five years before being allocated a flat. Some of the skyrocketing prices and perennial shortages in housing can be attributed to speculative investment from up north, though much more of this problem should be traced to a taxation-revenue structure that desperately lacks diversification and is over-dependent upon land sales.

Hong Kong’s economy is unfit for purpose. The city’s status as a regional shipping hub has been in steady decline, as its northern neighbors (including Guangzhou and Ningbo) invest far more aggressively in infrastructure and capacity-building. Though buttressed by a fundamentally robust legal infrastructure and favorable fiscal policies, its financial industry is at risk of being overtaken by regional competitors who are more willing to cut through red tape in attracting new firms, and to embrace risks associated with nascent fintech. Hong Kong’s economic windfall from high-skilled professional services (e.g. the legal and medical sectors) and the predominantly service-driven economic growth rarely, if ever, trickles down to the city’s middle and lower classes—the proverbial 99%. 

Fresh university graduates find themselves struggling in their bids for employment—with science degree-holders, for instance, often resorting to suboptimal generalist employment, in lieu of jobs for which they are in fact specifically trained. It is thus unsurprising—albeit regrettable—that many, alienated from the city’s exclusionary economy, found personally resonant the quixotic, self-destructive nihilism of the 2019-2020 protests, as a means of expressing their discontent.  

Addressing an out-of-touch governing class

It goes without saying that Hong Kong needs serious rethinking over its governance. Past administrations have been woefully out-of-touch with the ordinary masses, with glaringly blatant divergence in their economic interests and lived experiences. Most appointed officials in the cabinet earn income, benefits, and perks that add up to at least four times the city’s median household income.  The lack of structural incentives for innovative, inclusive policymaking has rendered leading bureaucrats risk-averse and insulated from community feedback. Many in the political establishment, long banking on their obsequiousness and ability to say the “right” things to please the “right” people, have systemically failed to uphold the interests of the many, as opposed to the few. 

On the other hand, the dearth of exit options for those in opposition has also driven generations of promising activists and civil society leaders down the convenient path of obstinate obstructionism, thereby precluding pragmatic compromises and deals from being struck between government and opposition.  Universal suffrage and enfranchisement are theoretically sound solutions, yet, as was apparent in the Legislative Council’s rejection of the 2015 proposal, the acceptance of compromise solutions was seen by Pan-Democratic legislators as neither conducive to their political fortunes nor principally acceptable. 

That 2015 proposal sought to introduce “universal suffrage” to Hong Kong, where only candidates pre-vetted and backed by a majority on an election committee, primarily staffed by Beijing loyalists, would be permitted to run for the city’s top seat, the Chief Executive post. The vetoing of the package was a regrettable product of legislative intransigence and public skepticism towards the government, which have only been amplified and exacerbated since the seminal vote. It hence remains unclear if a viable political solution can be identified and pursued in the short-to-medium term. Alternatives must therefore be proactively explored—specifically ones that, on grounds of feasibility and desirability, do not require radical changes to the city’s long-standing electoral structures.

There are two unassailable facts about the city that we should acknowledge—irrespective of where one stands politically, on China or Hong Kong. The first is that the city, since 1997, has remained a part of China; more pertinently, Chinese political influence in the city is unlikely to recede or decline over the coming years. The second is that Hong Kong remains overwhelmingly dependent upon China—whether it be in terms of investment, commercial and economic opportunities, or, more idiosyncratically, its fresh-water supply. Hence in charting Hong Kong’s future, the core baselines of Chinese interests cannot and should not be crossed—the outcomes of doing so have been made painfully apparent for all to see. 

One could pretend that moralizing, bellicose rhetoric from the international or local community could transform Chinese policies and attitudes towards the city. Such approaches are neither cognizant of the power asymmetry between Hong Kong and the rest of the country, nor therefore responsible towards and responsive to the collateral damage of the ensuing political conflicts, whether it be the victims of vigilantism and disproportionate force, or those who lost their jobs and income as a result of the protests and governmental ineptitude. 

Similarly, some may wishfully believe that the draconian National Security Law and heavy-handed approach towards governing the city will result in Hong Kong having normalcy restored to it—all would be kumbaya. Yet the mere imposition of stringent laws cannot bring about genuine social order, in the absence of reparative efforts and thorough reforms. Law and order go hand-in-hand. Respect for the law is unlikely unless citizens recognize that they have a stake and have a say in their city’s future. 

A route to recovery

Hong Kong needs genuine reconciliation and justice. 

Reconciliation, in rebuilding deeply fractured interpersonal and social relations. Some recent commentary has suggested that the world is mistaken about the Hong Kong narrative. Ironically, there is perhaps no unifying narrative that can satisfactorily, in the eyes of all Hong Kongers, account for the city’s angst. And that’s precisely the problem. 

Trust between groups with conflicting political judgments, between families and friends, between parents and children, has reached historic lows in the aftermath of 2019. Polarization has reached unprecedented heights, with communities coalescing around parallel facts—abetted by echo chambers and media inflammation from both ends. 

We must start with restoring the human touch to the “other side”—in humanizing as opposed to demonizing the Other.  

Justice, in holding accountable—in a fair, even-handed manner—actors who are responsible for the past two years of social and civil unrest. This requires the preservation of integrity and independence in the city’s judiciary—no doubt a daunting and challenging task. 

Hong Kong needs reform. Hong Kong needs progress. Above all, it needs all of us to realize that its problems cannot be reduced into simplistic slogans and convenient narratives—it deserves better than that.

Brian Wong is the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review, and a Rhodes Scholar from Hong Kong. 

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion