Date: 11 July, 2010

Xiao Wunan: Looking at Hong Kong with a Third Eye

Originally printed in Asia Weekly

Note about the author: Mr. Xiao Wunan is a long time observer and scholar on Hong Kong issues

Buddhism teaches that all people possess a singular mind of wisdom, centered in our foreheads and spanning the past, present and future.  During the long process of human evolution this mind has gradually been lost.  My impression is that the practice of Buddhism, tantric yoga, as well as the meditation taught in India, are to a large extent intended to rediscover this mind. What is magical is that this mind can transcend time and space, and perceive the essence of material objects. At the same time it also contains a stream of light following the trajectory of the past and future, one which traces the direction and pattern of the material world. In fact, there is a similar concept of a “third eye” present in western culture, one which transcends our potential individual biases in pursuit of a rationality that resides with a neutral and objective perspective.
The author does not reside exclusively in either mainland China or Hong Kong, and his cultural and educational background cannot be completely identified as either “east” or “west”. He does, however, maintain regular spiritual practice and in this essay seeks to apply “third eye” thinking to the identification of channels for resolving some of the issues Hong Kong faces today.

Without doubt, since its return to Mainland China in 1997, Hong Kong has weathered a number of storms: financial crises, real estate and stock market crashes, the gradual erosion of the territory’s core economic competitiveness, as well as public referendums, anti-HSR demonstrations, and programs for political reform. For many, these manifestations give the impression that government, society and the economy in the Special Administrative Region are undergoing unpredictable change, and that the current state of affairs is hard to grasp.

To some extent, all of these issues are superficial. Careful study of their deeper causes reveals a three-fold question worthy of attention: first, what is the right way to define Hong Kong’s positioning?; second, what are the real problems between the mainland and Hong Kong?; third, if the current means of addressing these problems are ineffective, how should they be adjusted?

How can we best understand Hong Kong’s position and irreplaceable advantages? First among these is its close geographic proximity to the mainland. During the past 30 years of reform and opening, Hong Kong has served as a springboard and buffer to an ever rising China as it embraces the world. There is no other region or territory that could play this role. In the future Hong Kong will continue to serve as a bridgehead to China’s peaceful rise. Second, is Hong Kong’s talent advantage. As Zhao Benshan famously wrote, what China lacks today is not money, but talent. According to the personnel selection standards for the Communist Party of China – excellence in moral ethics and knowledge, and diligence - Hong Kong’s professional personnel are all quite qualified regardless of whether one looks at their ethical standards or professional skills. The mainland has no shortage of two kinds of talent: the first includes leaders adept at telling stories; the second includes workers who can bear great struggle and hardship. At present, many believe that China can rely on these talents to leap into the role of a global power, extravagant hopes that are subject to the same misguided logic as current plans to turn Shanghai into an international financial center.

Aside from the points above, little can be said about the other unique advantages that Hong Kong has to offer. Certainly, the high standards maintained in Hong Kong’s social system and legal institutions, its multiculturalism, and its services economy are all first-rate n Asia and indeed the world. However, this does not equate to core competitiveness. Because of this, an accurate characterization of Hong Kong’s position sees it with its back to the mainland, and as a services provider enjoying co-prosperity alongside China’s rise. This also makes clear that on its own Hong Kong lacks is an impetus for sustainable growth.   

Where do problems between the mainland and Hong Kong exist? Along with China’s economic rise and changes to the global economic order, Hong Kong’s initial advantages and glory have disappeared from sight. Recent years of economic overreliance on the mainland has left many in Hong Kong feeling a sense of loss and unease. Moreover, a hundred years of colonial rule in the territory weakened Hong Kong residents’ sense of identity with the mainland, and in their heart of hearts, many look down upon mainlanders, often speaking of them as if they have the character for “bumpkin” stamped on their foreheads. The author has traveled to more than 80 countries, and has discovered that the sentiment of many Hong Kong people towards the mainland is not only far more distant than that expressed by Chinese in Taiwan, Southeast Asia and other regions of the world. In some cases it is even weaker than that expressed by local people in some “third world” countries! Just imagine that if Hong Kong residents are uncomfortable with this kind of life and continue to carry this attitude as they go along, contradictions will become deeper and deeper. There will be nowhere to begin where it comes to talking about building harmony in understanding, trust, and communication.

The Governance and Unification of Hong Kong is Out of Order
If the current methods of addressing issues in Hong Kong are losing effectiveness, how can adjustments be made?  Looking back at years since 1997, work undertaken by the mainland towards the unification of Hong Kong, winning the hearts and minds of the public, has been ineffectual.  Primary reasons include an inadequate recognition of the problems, and strategies and methods that are off-target. The means employed have relied on conventional old-style “brushes” used to tidy things up: those who ‘obey’ are given notoriety and support;  the habitual practice of using public opinion and “movements” to create trends has painted a pretty picture where it comes to unification.  On the contrary, for those that "do not obey", pressure, criticism and suppression is applied. In practice this kind of methodology has often been impetuous, simplistic, and as if putting on a play.  Hong Kong is not the mainland, where leveraging the administrative system, endless meetings, manipulating public opinion and brainwashing people gets very far. From the perspective of the well informed Hong Kong people, who embrace eastern and western cultures and freedom of thought, such an approach simply won’t work.

Where it comes to the emergence of these problems, the object of unification has been misplaced. For a long time the central government has sought to win over beneficiaries and business groups with deeply intertwined interests with the mainland. These groups naturally express obeisance and ingratiating speech, but in their hearts they do not acknowledge the central government or the mainland. Additionally, their advocacy of the rights of the average citizen causes serious social polarization and positions the central government in opposition to the general public. As a result, the middle and lower strata of society, especially the younger generation, do not feel as though they have received any of the same “gifts” from the central government and are naturally full of grievances. With this in mind, powerful social movements with their spearhead pointed at the mainland, and lashing out at representative offices of the central government in Hong Kong do not seem out of the ordinary.

Problems on both sides are readily apparent. For its part, the mainland has 'mistaken the pulse' and 'used the wrong medicine' for Hong Kong. For its part, Hong Kong is lacking in sentiment towards its home country and an objective understanding of changes to its own status. As a result Hong Kong cannot let go of its contradictory posture and mischief making. The solution could very well adopt the enduring traditions of the Communist Party of China: adopt a working attitude of ‘seeking truth from facts’, and wholeheartedly ‘serve the people’ to earn the trust of the general public.

The way forward is to clearly grasp the origins of these problems. This includes reaching a deep understanding the practical situation in Hong Kong - including the requests of the average citizen where it comes to political, economic and social rights – in order to formulate a workable solution. Critical to this strategy is high-level attention to three specific constituents of Hong Kong's social structure. First is the media. Hong Kong is unlike the mainland where the government can control individual thinking and behavior via its organizational system. Hong Kong has a small government amidst an open society, where the media has a large impact. What's more, the Hong Kong media follows the tradition of independent objectivity and it would be impossible to have them 'to breathe through the same nose' as the mainland's Ministry of Propaganda. Thus learning to struggle and cooperate with the media in Hong Kong is skill yet to be mastered. Second are non-governmental organizations of all shapes and sizes. These organizations in Hong Kong have always been well developed and their influence is unmistakable. Their pervasiveness, networking ability, international influence and ability to command society are all strong. Efforts by the central government to engage and get along with these organizations have suffered from inadequate research, understanding and experience in dealing with them. This is a situation in urgent need of change. Third is the diversity of religious groups in Hong Kong. Owing to Hong Kong's history and cultural factors, religion lies deep in people's hearts and touches upon all levels of society. The relationship between Buddhism and Taoism with the mainland is relatively close, and on major questions these groups have maintained unanimity with the central government. Accordingly, this has been an import object of unification. However, Christianity, Catholicism, Mormonism and other outside religions occupy important positions in Hong Kong society. Mutual understanding, communication and contact between related groups and the mainland has been relatively weak. Amongst the younger generation in Hong Kong, especially within the 'post-1980' demographic, these groups exert very strong influence and authority. How to correctly guide and give play to the role of these foreign religions is required learning for the central government.

New Thinking for the Governance of Hong Kong
At the end of the day these problems are not all that complicated. Leaving aside the mind of wisdom or heaven, most fundamental is common sense: respecting the facts, respecting the will of the people, understanding the will of the people, guiding and giving play to the will of the people are fundamental to the governance of Hong Kong. Policies focused on improvements to the living conditions of the masses would make more progress towards unification than anything else, and are thus more sensible. In my view, rather than looking at the political reform agenda for Hong Kong as either a strategic success or the outcome of compromise, one should look at it as the opportunity for new thinking about the governance of the territory that will help it to set sail towards a prosperous future amidst turbulent seas.