This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –
In the long campaign that culminated with Scotland rejecting independence from the UK in a referendum last September, pro-Union politicians are held to have “gone negative”. Be that as it may (and hey, look, it’s a hard task making “No” sound positive), many of those same politicians – including British Prime Minister David Cameron – were frequently to be heard conceding that “of course Scotland could make it on her own” if she opted to.
Beyond population size, Scotland and Hong Kong aren’t closely comparable. What’s more, the idea of independence remains a somewhat specialised interest in Hong Kong in a way that it is no longer in Scotland. But still – try to imagine, just for a moment, the words “of course Hong Kong could make it on her own” sally from the mouth of any mainstream Hong Kong politician, pro-establishment or pan-democrat, let alone from the country’s actual head of government. Cannot? Fair enough – at times, that little word seems to wear well as the SAR’s unofficial motto.
It’s hard to say which goes first: aversion to the question or pessimism about the outlook for Hong Kong if it could somehow reject the first bit of “one country, two systems”. Equally hard is to discern whether those fears are more or less potent than the ones attendant on Hong Kong’s de facto assimilation into mainland China. Whatever, it’s not a discussion that is generally had without the shutters coming down. Without “preferential treatment” from the mainland, goes the coup de grace, Hong Kong would cease to benefit from its rise. Food supplies, water, energy, employment: all would be at risk. Uncoupled, we’d be isolated, bereft, screwed.
It may be a minor point of detail, but few of these contentions are cut-and-dried. “[In the unlikely event of Hong Kong declaring independence] I am not worried about food and water,” HKUST economist Carsten Holz’s tells me. “Food can be imported from anywhere in the world – anything that comes by container costs pretty much the same, no matter from where it comes. Water can be gained from the ocean.”
In terms of food, one might consider an end to import monopolies (Ng Fung Hong, anyone?) to be an economic good in itself. Reports also indicate Hong Kong pays way over the odds for the water it gets from the Dongjiang River and could better utilise what it collects in its own reservoirs. Meanwhile, on energy, there are cross-border power flows to meet supply shortages both ways, meaning that Hong Kong frequently exports electricity to Guangdong.
If you need a model for how these resource issues might be handled more efficiently by an independent Hong Kong, just consider that most solvent of Asian city-states, Singapore. Over the years the Lion City has drastically reduced its reliance on Malaysia through expanding its portfolio of LNG suppliers, pioneering urban agriculture and investing in water recycling, freshwater reservoirs and desalination.
The likely fate of Hong Kong’s financial industry is another matter. The sector is a huge beneficiary of the yuan’s internationalisation, of so-called dim sum bond trading, and of companies investing here in China-listed shares. The official rhetoric during the Occupy protests was that, if it came to it, Hong Kong could simply be bypassed in favour of other financial centres, whether off-shore or in China itself. The question begged is why that’s not happening already.
Instead, Chinese companies continue to raise far more in Hong Kong IPOs than they do on the mainland’s own exchanges. Most finance people will tell you that for all the veiled threats, the mainland still depends on Hong Kong for investment in and out just as much as Hong Kong depends on those same money flows. Hongkongers may be wary of Hong Kong becoming “just another Chinese city”, but the fact that it’s not – that it offers a stable investment environment, the rule of law and enforceable regulations – is what attracts foreign companies. Like Rabelais’ Gargantua waltzing a Chihuahua, the two sides dance around these issues.
For Holz, the big “unknown” is employment. “Much would depend on the mainland regime’s response to Hong Kong declaring independence,” he says. “If it blocked all ties, there would be an immediate and probably severe impact on employment in Hong Kong.” But, he adds: “I am not sure there would be such a drastic response as I suspect that many leading individuals in the regime have private interests in Hong Kong.”
Up until recently, any putative independence movement seemed little more than a straw man for official mouthpieces intent on promoting Article 23 sedition legislation. Such intent has, however, given grist to the mill of a growing “localism”. As we have seen with regard to the June 4 commemorations this year, younger pro-democracy activists question the point of championing democracy for mainland China when efforts in that direction have achieved so little to date. For many living in a city where mainland money has helped push property and business rental prices to breaking point,“one country, two systems” begins to look more and more like a forced marriage.
As recently as Sunday, Beijing’s man, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei, made it clear it is almost as pointless to agitate for democratic rights in Hong Kong itself. Paving the way for Hong Kong to elect leaders who do not owe their mandate entirely to Beijing could not be tolerated, he acknowledged, as this would be to assent to Hong Kong evolving as a separate political entity. In that sense, concessions on electoral reform might be likened to devolution, which in Britain was meant to settle questions of political legitimacy but instead freed the constitutional genie from its bottle. To mix the metaphor somewhat, that bottle is still being shaken up – as Beijing is likely to have observed.
“The idea of independence is like narcotics,” was Exco member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung’s warning on the subject in March. Narcotics can be harmful, of course, but sometimes liberating too. They also tend to be illegal. Talk of independence isn’t, yet. It may be the unlikeliest of outcomes for Hong Kong – but that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t have its eyes fully open to what it might mean.