Hong Kong residents are experiencing unsustainable angst and anxiety because of perceived encroachment by mainland China and unaddressed ambiguity regarding their fate post-2047; Xi Jinping must formally provide clarity to alleviate the situation, and soon.
On Wednesday, September 4, 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam decided to permanently withdraw the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill, whose proposal (and subsequent suspension but not permanent withdrawal) was the ostensible impetus for the mass protests taking place in Hong Kong over the past several months.
The extradition bill was proposed by the Hong Kong government—a limited democracy that is heavily influenced by the mainland Communist Party of China (CPC)—in response to a murder case in which a Hong Kong man killed his girlfriend while they were on vacation in Taiwan. The man could not be charged with murder because there was no established extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Taiwan, and so the bill was intended to close this loophole.
However, given the controversial relationship between China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC), as well as the fact that Macau is a special administrative region (SAR) of China, the bill would allow for the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong not only to Taiwan, but also to Macau and mainland China. This outraged Hong Kong citizens, leading many to perceive the bill as a symbol that they were further ceding to the CPC’s autocratic influence, and only strengthened their widespread belief that mainland China is continuing to insidiously encroach upon the prized rights and autonomy of Hong Kong.
While the permanent withdrawal of the bill represents a milestone achievement for citizens of Hong Kong and indicates the possibility of negotiations with the CPC, many protesters are adamant that only one of their five demands has now been met. In reality, the act did not address what is really on Hong Kong’s mind: the angst-inducing uncertainty that persists regarding what is to become of Hong Kong in the future. Consequently, there is no reason to believe that tensions between the regions have reached a sunset. In fact, to the contrary, we should expect to see mounting anxiety among the people of Hong Kong, with protests continuing until meaningful negotiations transpire between Hong Kong and mainland China.
Some history for those unfamiliar with the context: Hong Kong, the other SAR of China, is in effect a ticking time bomb whose autonomy from the mainland is set to expire in 2047, 50 years after the territory was peacefully returned to China following over 150 years of British colonial rule. Over that considerable period of time, Hong Kong established a new identity for itself, one that you can only really appreciate by visiting the place. It is a fascinating hybrid between Western and Eastern values—one that makes me (a German American) feel right at home, and one that has led a preponderance of residents to view their city as possessing an entirely different cultural identity from that of mainland China—to which Hong Kong belongs.
Its uniqueness is in part reflected by its positioning on the trilemma (or impossible trinity) that HBS MBA students learn about in BGIE during their first year of study. Notice how the United States, China, and Hong Kong each occupy a different leg of the triangle.
I am an avid explorer, having traveled to some 40 countries thus far, including several cities in mainland China. I have visited Hong Kong at least a dozen times. It—like much of China—is one of the most vibrant places I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, and not only because it is the permanent home of my twin brother, who has resided in the city continuously for over seven years now.
Before my first trip to the region, I did not realize that the majority of Hong Kong is actually composed of beautiful wilderness: a network of steep mountain slopes, the backbone of tropical forests and lush jungle. An impressively comprehensive, efficient public transportation system seamlessly moves residents from inner city hustle and bustle to serene nature in just a few minutes. Cleanliness standards are high, infrastructure is world-class, the people you meet are generally respectful and cheerful, and inhabitants are proud to proclaim that they are from Hong Kong.
The SAR has a winning formula, economically and culturally, just as mainland China does with rivaling economic hubs like Shanghai. It is in China’s best interest to allow these cities to retain their unique identities—their competitive advantages—and their propensities to thereby continue to thrive via their notably different operating models. Doing so is not only a form of economic hedging for China as a whole, but also a commitment to respecting the needs and desires of China’s people—even those who do not conform to traditional Chinese norms—especially when preserving a unique territory’s way of life does not adversely affect other Chinese citizens.
Those foreign to the region also do not always understand that Hong Kong’s practices of democratic governance, laissez-faire economics, and individual freedom of expression run in stark contrast to many of the predominant values exercised across the border in mainland China. Furthermore, many find it interesting to learn that the language spoken in Hong Kong, Cantonese, differs substantially from the Mandarin spoken in most of mainland China.
The radical differences in lifestyle and cultural norms between the two regions have led many Hong Kong residents to label themselves as “Hongkongers,” and not as Chinese.
I personally view Hong Kong as a beacon of the global liberal order (GLO) manifesting itself in an economically prosperous, progressive, luminary metropolis in East Asia. From the perspective of the United States, Hong Kong is a special place: a bustling home away from home with shared values, whose virtues are to be extolled and whose principles and voices should be lauded and supported. Hong Kong’s success can and should, therefore, be viewed in large part as success for the United States, many European states, and other nations that continue to support the GLO.
Cultural differences between Hong Kong and mainland China have only seemed to grow since 1997, when China and Britain mutually stipulated that the “one country, two systems” policy should be maintained to ensure that Hong Kong can continue to operate in its own fashion with adequate autonomy. With the policy set to expire just under 28 years from now, and with no public mention yet from the CPC regarding the overall fate of Hong Kong when 2047 arrives, the people of Hong Kong have become increasingly anxious about—and defensive against—the prospect of being coerced against their will into changing their way of life to more closely reflect that of mainland China.
Generally speaking, it is unwise to seek to impose a new way of life onto a proud group of unified people who are not interfering with your affairs. We have all read about the several consecutive weeks of massive protests taking place in Hong Kong over the summer of 2019, with residents holding hands in miles-long human chains and bearing signs that represent pleas for Hong Kong to maintain its way of living into perpetuity.
Residents’ cries for reassurance have, however, seemed to have fallen on deaf or defensive ears, and the lack of communication and productive negotiation between Hong Kong and mainland China has only intensified the tension felt within Hong Kong.
What Hong Kong therefore needs most at present is an open, candid conversation with mainland China to formally hash out the details of Hong Kong’s future. In simplest terms, the two sides need to talk.
Carrie Lam should lead a diverse, balanced delegation of Hong Kong representatives to meet with PRC central government officials, who will together craft a long-term, mutually agreeable plan for Hong Kong. Ideas for selecting members of such a cohort include sourcing from directly elected representatives of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), as well as de facto leaders of Hong Kong’s major protests.
Xi and Lam should then formally and publicly promulgate the agreement to the people of Hong Kong (and the rest of the world) so that there is no longer major ambiguity surrounding how they should expect their unique and fabulous city to operate in the future. It is this transparency regarding the fate of Hong Kong that residents require at this pivotal time in China’s history.
As the dominant player and decision maker, mainland China has an obligation to serve the primary needs of its citizens; it is therefore of paramount importance that the people of prosperous Hong Kong be adequately served and left feeling confident about the anticipated trajectory of their homeland. This will only come about through an open dialogue between Hong Kong and mainland China that adequately appeals to the needs of Hong Kong, while simultaneously successfully managing the perceptions and expectations of mainland Chinese citizens.
Xi Jinping has made a habit of flexing his political muscle with bold, action-oriented rhetoric in order to appease populist demand from CPC hardliners, many of whom vehemently oppose Western democratic ideals. Examples of such expression include China’s recent threat of military action in Hong Kong via a buildup of combat vehicles just across the border in Shenzhen, as well as his demonstrated capacity for very effectively controlling the media narrative within mainland China.
China’s control over its people’s perceptions is a major asset, as it would foreseeably be relatively easy for Xi and other Chinese leaders to paint an image of victorious negotiations with Hong Kong, while in reality coming to a reasoned agreement with the SAR that mollifies its inhabitants’ concerns regarding the future of their city, and also forging lasting, productive relations between mainland China and Hong Kong.
A concerning idea is that CPC decision makers are in reality communist hardliners with an ultimate ambition to absorb Hong Kong fully into mainland Chinese culture, thereby eliminating the Western values of democracy and freedom of expression that Hong Kong has cherished for so long. A Western power in a similar situation—say, the United States if it were to purchase a territory whose inhabitants exhibited primarily socialist or communist values— might logically wish to convert that population to better align with its own societal leanings.
It would, however, be a great global show of empathy and skillful leadership on the part of China, or the United States in such a hypothetical case, to publicly and formally indicate that it is going to allow residents to continue to live their lives as they desire without interference, and without a deadline. Hong Kong would, in such a world, no longer feel like a ticking time bomb, but instead like a beacon of freedom and progress in the Far East, and China would be flexing its muscles of tolerance in a manner that would impress superpowers across the globe.
Ian Tracy is an MBA candidate in Harvard Business School’s Class of 2020 and a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Ian has earned two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees in engineering from MIT. He is a former and future management consultant at McKinsey & Company, as well as a former consultant at BCG and the Samsung Global Strategy Group. He also has prior work experience as an aerospace and automotive engineer at Boeing and BMW, respectively. In addition to his passions for business and engineering, Ian has a real knack for global exploration and a keen interest in international relations.