Features | Politics | East Asia

Hong Kong’s Looming 2047 Question

The protests that began in 2019 are actually centered on a date nearly 30 years into the future.

By Brian Wong for
Hong Kong’s Looming 2047 Question

A protester holds an umbrella as police fire tear gas during a demonstration in Hong Kong, early Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

2019 and 2047 – two seemingly unrelated years that are two landmark dates in Hong Kong’s political trajectory. The past six months of protests and civil unrest were one of the worst political crises in the territory’s history, which saw fundamental shocks that altered the essence and manifestation of Hong Kong’s deeply rooted political divisions and allegiances. Anti-mainland sentiments and skepticism toward the tenability of “one country, two systems” conspicuously surged among many who sympathized with the movement, whereas the political establishment and Beijing backers saw themselves as defending a vision of a unified China that was under threat by both foreign and insubordinate forces in Hong Kong alike. The unmistakable fact is, at the core of these protests lies a fundamental question over 2047 – the year in which what is colloquially known as the “second handover” is due to occur.

When the paramount leader of China in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, first came up with the vision of “one country, two systems,” he saw the arrangement as one that would preserve the politico-economic arrangements in Hong Kong, Macau, and the mainland relatively intact and with mutual noninterference. “Fifty years unchanged” was offered as a prescriptive and semi-binding prophecy as to the anticipated duration for this particular constitutional arrangement to remain in effect. Fifty years after 1997 – 2047 – would see the territory lose, organically, its autonomous status. Hong Kong would then truly become a constituent part of China.

The initial vision was kept intentionally vague, for a couple of reasons: first, to avoid building up expectations that would be subsequently frustrated and culminate in political instability and fragmentation within Chinese political elites; second, to ensure that the arrangement could dexterously adapt and adjust to circumstantial demands and needs, and finally, given the pioneering and unprecedented nature of “one country, two systems,” it was anticipated that the framework would be enriched by bottom-up, spontaneous feedback mechanisms that calibrated the public will of Hong Kongers with the expectations of their mainland counterparts. So far, so good.

Yet as the past six months have revealed, there exist deeply embedded anxieties and uncertainties among Hong Kongers regarding what 2047 looks like. More accurately, 2047 epitomizes Hong Kongers’ backward-looking frustrations as to the perceived lack of progress on democratization front, and forward-looking worries concerning Hong Kong’s medium-term to long-term relationship with its northern neighbor and mother-nation. The following article seeks to articulate what such substantive worries are, and potentially highlight a few plausible solutions that enable Hong Kong and Beijing to work collaboratively and comprehensively in resolving the existing deadlock.

One preliminary comment before I delve into the exposition, however – it is worth bearing in mind that neither Hong Kong nor Beijing is a monolithic, rigid entity. Accounts that over-emphasize the supposedly insubordinate and rebellious nature of Hong Kongers, or that offer an oversimplistic account of Beijing’s purportedly trenchant desires of maximizing power and control, are neither accurate nor productive for diagnosing potential solutions. It is easy to think that with recent events, any room for compromise has been long lost. While such thinking may be tempting, it is certainly not constructive for navigating a path that could draw support from a critical coalition of reformist local elites, liberal economic elites in Hong Kong, and the more risk-averse and middle-of-the-road bureaucrats in mainland China who would prefer to see a peaceful and productive future path emerge for the special administrative region and its mother-state.

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3 Flashpoints: A Tripartite Framework for Analyzing the 2019-2047 Link

The second handover is viewed as the culmination and manifestation of Hong Kong’s relationships with the mainland on three fronts – the politico-ideological, the civic-cultural, and the economic. Parts of these fronts have come to the foreground of recent protests, but may have also been overshadowed by the domineering, vociferous ethnonationalist (championed by the right-wing) or democratic-pluralist (championed by the left) discourses that proliferated throughout the movement.

The first question concerns the juxtaposition in political institutions and values between Hong Kong and the mainland. Since the early 2000s, the mainland has pivoted away from grassroots liberalization and bottom-up mobilization to a form of quasi-consensus-driven technocracy. At the core of such technocracy lies two dominant tenets: i) an expedient yet efficacious aggregative utilitarian principle – that the maximization of welfare of the majority is justified, even at the expense of trumping individual liberties of particular groups, and ii) a firm commitment to the neo-Hobbesian view that stability – at the expense of uncertainty associated with liberty – is the prior political good that ought to be maximized.

More importantly, Xi Jinping’s ascent has added two further practically rooted normative commitments to the roster. The first is faith in the condensed body politic, wherein centralization of power and resisting devolution go hand in hand in ensuring the technocratic turnover of governing officials and the purging of corrupt bureaucrats. The second is that China’s political vision must be articulated from a Sinocentric imagined community’s point of view. In short, Chinese politics embodies an ethnocentric, quasi-hegemonic, brutalistically technocratic approach to governance.

This is understandably highly distinct from Hong Kong’s unique political culture. The only technocratic elements in Hong Kong’s institutional culture – per 150-plus years of British colonial governance – constitute a highly depoliticized, apolitical, and nonpolitically versed bureaucratic body. Beyond that, Hong Kongers are shaped by cultural, media, and social experiences in subscribing to a quasi-Western conception of democracy as an inherently and instrumentally valuable political system. The former holds true, per the proliferation of narratives emphasizing one vote per one individual (a tenet of political autonomy and self-governance that seems to bypass superficial consequentialist considerations); the latter is best epitomized by the slew of post-materialist slogans that characterize the past six months of protests – that economic stability under ostensible oppression is not a bullet that Hong Kongers are willing to take, or that universal suffrage is, in the eyes of Hong Kongers, the only institutional solution to end corporate kleptocracy and nationalistic projection of the Chinese identity onto Hong Kongers. At the core of the value conflict here lies an identitarian divide – many young Hong Kongers do not subscribe to the same ethnocentric, Sinocentric outlook projected by Chinese politics; instead, they construct an admittedly unnuanced-at-times and brash-at-others reactionary identity to resist what they deem to be irrevocable impositions upon their identities.

2047 is the year when these value systems would inevitably come to a culminating battle, if they have yet to do so by then. Hong Kongers of all political orientations are – reasonably so – concerned about what would befall their city, as these normative and higher-order disputes trickle down to tensions and flare-ups between demographic groups and political ideologies that are only due to become more polarized from this point onwards.

The second question revolves around the cultural. The past six months of protests saw a substantive evolution in Hong Kong’s distinct brand of nationalism. From a previously vague, scattered range of criticisms and rejectionary resistance toward mainland Chinese culture, the ongoing social movement has effectively synthesized the disillusionment of many Hong Kongers with the city’s unique historically inherited cultural legacy, in constructing an assertive and comprehensive Hong Kong identity that is widely adopted among the city’s youths.

There are plausible grounds for why some aspects of this identity may be worrying to the mainland Chinese populace (whose antipathy toward Hong Kongers has only exponentially increased in response to extensively televised images of certain radical local youths indiscriminately targeting Mandarin-speakers and mainland Chinese residents). Some say it is too brazenly ethnocentric (perhaps slightly ironically); others accuse the identity of channeling colonial nostalgia in a counterproductive manner. Yet notwithstanding these allegations, the Hong Kong identity seems here to stay – and is likely to withstand halfhearted and unsuccessful attempts of “hard-selling” its contrary by the government. Nationalistic education is unlikely to be – on its own – effective in reintegrating the Hong Kong identity within a broader sense of belonging to China. Only organic and gradual cultivation of patriotism would plausibly work – and this comes not through hard-wiring of the media or education system, but the genuine provision of reasons and grounds for Hong Kong youths to take pride in belonging to the country.

On the other hand, a further complexity lies in the contours and manifestations of Chinese nationalism. Does the cultural imaginary of China – by 2047 – still have a place for Hong Kong? Would the nationalistic identity trend toward a value-pluralist broad church that operates as a melting pot and modus vivendi mediating between different cultures and religions? Or would the identity be welded into a monolithic construct that crowds out any and all constituents that do not strictly adhere to top-down-devised political allegiances? This open question remains unanswered, and indubitably is one that has loomed at the back of many Hong Kong citizens’ minds since June 2019 – and is likely to be one that Beijing bureaucrats and their Hong Kong counterparts must think cautiously about for the decades to come.

The third dimension concerns the economic. Make no mistake here – there is a distinctly materialistic and class-based dimension to the ongoing protests, despite the superficially post-materialist nature of some of the movement’s concerns. Anxieties over housing, socioeconomic inequalities, prospects of mobility, and occupational under-employment remain conspicuous and will remain so absent substantive and structural changes – which one-off distributions certainly do not suffice in bringing forth.

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Hong Kongers have been deeply alarmed by the implications of closer economic integration with the mainland. While the initial signing of CEPA in the early 2000s and the influx of mainland tourism brought a much-welcome injection into the economy that aided the city with coping with SARS’s devastating legacy, the medium- to long-term costs of unbridled and unrestrained economic integration have reared their heads in recent years. From concerns over parallel trading to hyper-competitiveness in the labor market, from paranoia over the alleged offering of preferential treatment to mainland migrants to the poorly managed attempts at integrating mainland expatriates into Hong Kong’s distinct economic culture – these are economic-in-substance, cultural-in-kind transitional problems that any successful or responsible Hong Kong administration must grapple with.

Across the border, a symmetric problem is posed – Beijing is both alarmed and inflamed by the recalcitrant bellicosity of many Hong Kongers toward what it perceives to be mutually beneficial economic cooperative schemes, such as the Greater Bay Area project or cultivation of closer ties between Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s financial systems. The allegations that these projects are neocolonialist and exclusively to Beijing’s benefit are both unfounded and – in the eyes of particularly hard-lined Beijing bureaucrats – indicative of the lack of gratitude demarcating Hong Kongers’ attitudes toward the mainland’s good will. Will Hong Kong lose its distinctive political and cultural status as it becomes, inevitably and plausibly with good reason, more economically interconnected with and embedded within China? Only time will tell.

Navigating the Next 28 Years: Toward a Dynamic Communicative Framework

The above are questions that require both serious rethinking and genuine exposition with regards to solutions. And such solutions, for the sake of both the mainland and Hong Kong, cannot come through unilateral imposition or impudent extortion from either party.

It is thus imperative that dialogue and exploration of what post-2047 Hong Kong and China look like begin now. Hong Kongers are right that the city is both internationally prominent and hyper-connected to the wider world, yet to believe that such comparative advantages grant it the ability to petulantly discard the hyperconnectivity between Hong Kong and mainland China would be ludicrous. The ties between Hong Kong and the wider world are core assets that would enable the city in preserving a degree of political autonomy and cultural distinctiveness post-2047, but to posit that they are sufficiently strong to enable Hong Kong to ostensibly pursue independence is both epistemically irresponsible and ethically disingenuous. Hong Kongers must channel their rightful frustrations in a constructive manner, in making a mutually beneficial pitch to Beijing and outlining the case for the continued maintenance of two systems under one unified country.

Similarly, Beijing should engage in genuine and forthcoming dialogue with Hong Kong citizens through direct and open channels – unmediated by intermediaries or bureaucratic red tape. Not only would such openness to dialogue be pivotal in consolidating China’s role as a regional leader and significant global player with regards to the exporting of the China model; it would also ensure that the security and political threat from the most extremist faction of Hong Kong opposition could be tactfully and reasonably neutralized. As with Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, Hong Kong could just as well be a part of China without losing its distinctive culture, economic, and political institutions. How the new equilibrium between total assimilation and unrealistic pursuit of independence could be struck – this remains a question that savvy political talents from Hong Kong and the mainland alike must reasonably and productively investigate.

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), and a current MPhil in Politics Candidate at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Wong is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, Founding Director of Citizen Action Design Lab, and a frequent contributor to the South China Morning Post, the American Philosophical Association, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.