Hundreds of thousands of people march in Hong Kong on December 8, 2019. Photo: Asia Times

Beijing is not Hong Kong’s enemy. This is for a multiplicity of reasons.

First, the economic and political interdependence between the mainland and Hong Kong have increased drastically since 1997. From integrated commercial exchanges and consolidation of bilateral financial collaborations, to the rising prominence of mainland skilled labor in steering portions of Hong Kong’s economy, it is both naive and irresponsible to think that Hong Kong could thrive independently of China.

More important, such economic integration is inevitable, whether it be the product of politically driven top-down policies issued by Beijing, or as the natural asymptote of market forces in the city.

Rebuilding Hong Kong after this summer of unrest requires concerted efforts from all parts – and it is likely to be Chinese money, as opposed to US investment, that will fuel its reconstruction.

Yet more fundamentally, the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong populations’ political interests need not be intrinsically opposed. China benefits from a model of functional democracy and devolution in Hong Kong, as a showcase of both its political maturation and pluralist accommodation of different cultures and values under its sovereignty framework.

Hongkongers would benefit from playing a greater role in constructively shaping national politics, in contributing their technical expertise and projecting “smart power” through exporting mature institutions and norms to the mainland.

Finally, the rising trend of radical, ethnocentric ostracization of mainlanders in Hong Kong aptly highlights the perverse dangers of an excessively inward-looking Hong Kong.

If we are constantly fixated about purging the mainlanders, not only will we lose sight of the room for collaboration and synthesis across our distinct cultures and value systems, we will also fall prey to the virulent localism that has taken by storm advanced democracies around the world.

Also read: ‘One country, two systems’ has a future

Yet all of the above is not to say that there are no issues with Hong Kong-China relations today. There exist, loudly and clearly, imminent problems that plague how we in Hong Kong relate to our mainland counterparts. For the establishment to dismiss them as merely the products of foreign interference and socioeconomic woes is fundamentally misguided.

First, many Hongkongers are rightfully worried about the implications of full integration into the Chinese political economy. Over the past 22 years, the local ruling elite has struggled with articulating a vision of Hong Kong that is more closely associated with the mainland, and yet complies with both universally accepted political expectations and Hong Kong’s uniquely liberal values.

Instead, it has taken to “waiting it out,” with the mistaken assumption that when two highly divergent political systems are “combined,” they can organically find a functional modus operandi.

Genuine – not tokenistic – dialogue is crucial in enabling Hongkongers to propose a more liberal and politically emancipated political structure, and articulate why such a structure conforms with China’s interests in preserving national security and core sovereignty baselines.

Second, the rise of identitarian localism in Hong Kong cannot be attributed predominantly to Western forces. Localism and the “Hong Kong identity” arose from deeply rooted resentment toward the calcified establishment – one that has refused to listen, respond sensitively or channel the woes of Hongkongers in communicating with Beijing.

It is the Hong Kong government’s onus to inform Beijing accurately and comprehensively of what the public and the city’s youth want.

Instead of engaging in unreserved dialogue with dissenting and potentially “unpalatable” voices, local elites have taken to caricatures and inaccurate essentializations in order to stall for “more time” in shirking from accountability.

Such aloof passivity is unhelpful in maintaining mutual trust between the central government and local stakeholders.

Finally, if there’s one thing the result of the District Council election has unmistakably informed the world, it is that there is an unprecedentedly high level of public disillusionment with the government, even notwithstanding the often-illegal violence that has proliferated in Hong Kong since June.

Rather than handing down arbitrary judgments and diagnoses of what the movement was about, why not let the people speak for themselves on a formally recognized platform?

Now is the time for the government to open frank and forthcoming dialogue, not in a tokenistic or PR-driven sense, but with the mission of identifying the points for compromise that could transform the wishes of most moderates into realizable action points.

If dialogue does indeed translate to fruitful outcomes, this will indubitably heighten the credibility of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s calls for de-escalation and peaceful reconciliation.

On the other hand, it is high time that the pro-democracy movement recognized that any progress toward democratization within Hong Kong must align with Beijing’s fundamental interests and baselines.

It is apparently unreasonable to expect any constituent part of a country to be permitted to incite actions that jeopardize the country’s national integrity and territorial control – which are Beijing’s “red lines” when it comes to political reform in Hong Kong.

Yet it is equally unreasonable to expect that the Hong Kong public should accept whatever is handed down to them unilaterally, without consultation, debate and tactfully moderated dialogue.

This is where a new political establishment is very much needed – to channel most Hongkongers’ frustrations in productively finding a path out of our political quagmire.

Brian Wong

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar and DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford, and the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.

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