As thousands of legislative delegates and political consultants last week gathered in Beijing for two weeks of meetings of the Chinese National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) faced challenges ranging from an economic slowdown and a ruinous trade war with the US to growing anxieties about the future of Chinese tech giant Huawei and growing domestic discontent.
With respect to Hong Kong, Chinese leaders called for a crackdown on local pro-independence young people, and the territory’s closer integration with the national economy and the one party-state. This reflected Beijing’s heightened concerns over widespread political and socioeconomic grievances among Hong Kongers since 1997.
The latest call for economic integration coincided with the newly announced Greater Bay Area program, an ambitious policy to convert cities and townships in the Pearl River Delta into a high-tech financial zone called the Greater Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area.
At the center of this development agenda is financialization, a process of expanding the profitability of banking and finance at the expense of the labor-intensive manufacturing. As income is diverted from labor to capital, the regional banking and finance industries are positioned to grow faster, with higher monetary returns, along with numerous opportunities and risks.
While this top-down model of regionalization is designed to create a new transregional platform for international and domestic high-tech, services and financial enterprises to thrive, it might end up handing over profits to the wealthy elites, thereby widening inequality and triggering popular discontent.
So far, the discourse of regional economic integration has led to widespread worries, both real and imagined, about the deteriorating rule of law and freedom in Hong Kong. Rather than act as a force for stability and unity, the program has been leveraged by democracy and independence supporters against the pressure for “Mainlandization.”
On the international stage, where China appears to be unmatched, a sense of assertive identity has shaped how Chinese leaders intervene in Hong Kong’s political and judicial affairs, and how China is perceived as a hegemon by Hong Kongers and expatriate communities.
National cohesion builds on shared understandings among citizens who consider themselves to be part of an imagined community. National identity is not socially given, but has to be institutionally constructed from a broad coalition of different groups and interests held together by consensus.
Today’s Chinese nationalism is characterized by the supremacy of the collective over the celebration of individualism. Hong Kongers are instructed to show absolute loyalty to the mighty communist state and to identify truly with the Chinese motherland. This attachment to the collective polity is perceived as a fundamental element of one’s worth and dignity, and a vital means to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power.
These worrisome trends offer a pessimistic glimpse of what Taiwan’s future might look like under the “one country, two systems” framework, a visionary strategy implemented by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) that aimed to guarantee administrative autonomy and judicial independence for Hong Kong and Macau, and to enable experiments with liberal governance on Chinese soil.
As the territory is quickly absorbed into the Chinese political union, the long-standing universal values, regulations and norms that have contributed to the success of Hong Kong are disintegrating.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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