From 1841 to the end of the last century, Hong Kong developed from a fishing community into an international center of finance, trade and shipping in its own right, a process that sped up especially since the 1950s. However, much of that period found the city very much dependent on the West for economic impetus.
Between 1979 and the end of last century the Chinese mainland’s reform and opening-up drive focused on wooing Western investors, giving Hong Kong an excellent opportunity to take advantage of its more developed economy and knowledge about Western markets while serving as the only bridge between the mainland and Western economies at that time.
Since the turn of the century Hong Kong has run into growing challenges in continuing its role as an intermediary between the mainland and the Western world.
As the economic center of gravity of the world kept shifting from the West toward the East, Hong Kong’s dependence on Western economies and knowledge about the West began to lose its edge over the mainland and even some local residents’ blind faith in the West started to crumble. After joining the World Trade Organization, the mainland’s opening to the outside world grew even wider and Hong Kong lost its role as the sole bridge between the mainland and the West, or the only intermediary for that matter.
Since the last global financial crisis broke out in 2008 the financial, economic and political situation of the world has gone into a more profound ground-shift than ever, with the mainland becoming the second-largest economy in the world. Since 2013 the mainland’s leading role has grown even bigger as the Belt and Road Initiative put forward by President Xi Jinping started up and set the desire to create a community with a shared future for mankind in motion. All these developments demand a fresh look by Hong Kong at its place between the mainland and the rest of the world. That means Hong Kong needs to reposition itself in the fast-changing global situation.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which concluded last week, put a new question in front of Hong Kong: How will the city’s place as a part of the country change, and what must it do in response in the next 20 to 30 years?
General Secretary Xi said in his report to the congress that the next three years will be the final stretch toward the goal of China becoming a moderately prosperous society in 2020. The CPC has drawn up a two-stage development plan for the period from 2020 to the middle of the 21st century to develop China into a “great modern socialist country”. In the first stage from 2020 to 2035, the CPC will build on the foundation created by the moderately prosperous society with a further 15 years of hard work to see that socialist modernization is basically realized. In the second stage from 2035 to the middle of the 21st century, the CPC will, building on having basically achieved modernization, work hard for a further 15 years to develop the nation into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.
The 33-year national development blueprint raises three new questions for Hong Kong: Firstly, when the mainland becomes a moderately prosperous society in 2020, will Hong Kong’s economy as a whole and local residents’ average income, including per capita assets, remain higher than the mainland’s or will the income gap between the two regions narrow; could the city even see its level surpassed by most mainland residents? Secondly when the country achieves the goal of basically realizing socialist modernization in 2035, will Hong Kong maintain its higher level of urban development over its mainland counterparts or be overtaken instead? Thirdly when the country realizes its goal of building up a modern, strong socialist society in 2050, where will Hong Kong stand in terms of national development?
It is the current special administrative region government’s responsibility to answer the first question above. People should note that the congress did not set a quantitative goal such as “doubling (100 percent increase)” for the year 2035 and 2050. It’s because the mainland in the past put so much emphasis on GDP growth and many serious problems have emerged as a result; but the government’s role has been neglected for too long in the Hong Kong economy. It is high time the SAR government considered setting a quantitative goal for economic development in the next three years to ensure the city’s economy and local residents’ average income as well as asset values remain ahead of the mainland’s average.
As for the other two questions, it will be up to the sixth-term SAR government and those further down the road to come up with answers. For starters, the future SAR government must lead Hong Kong society to focus on developing the economy, improving people’s livelihood and advancing social progress.
At the same time, it needs to explore a better way to select the chief executive and Legislative Council members by universal suffrage according to the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” principle. However, only after local society reaches consensus over the issue can the SAR government work on restarting the constitutional reform process.
(The author is a senior research fellow of China Everbright Holdings)
(Published on Page 8, China Daily Hong Kong Edition, November 2, 2017)