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More tension in Hong Kong than Taiwan due to polarized identity

Extreme policies appealing to wider audience, making Lam's job harder

Dr. Syaru Shirley Lin, professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong and University of Virginia (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG -- Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a career bureaucrat-cum-pro-Beijing politician, was elected on March 26 to be the next chief executive of Hong Kong. She will be the first woman to occupy the top job in the territory, but there is no fervor like that seen last January when Tsai Ing-wen was elected Taiwan's first female president. 

Lam not only lacks a mandate due to the territory's undemocratic electoral system and her low popularity, but she also has to govern a polarized society. Syaru Shirley Lin, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Virginia, is a scholar of both Taiwan and Hong Kong affairs. She told the Nikkei Asian Review that the situation in Hong Kong is much more tense than that in Taiwan, and Lam faces a number of difficult tasks ahead. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What did you make of the election result on March 26?

A: Young people in the city did not see any of the three candidates as representing change or having much legitimacy. Lam's 777 votes may be better than the 689 that current chief executive Leung Chun-ying got five years ago, but it is still noteworthy that Lam could not win any support from the pan-democrats. This foreshadows a very difficult environment for governance in her term.

Q: Is there any chance of healing the deep rift that exists in Hong Kong society?

A: Lam is known to be a hard-liner on welfare, the environment and political reform. But these are exactly the issues she must tackle right away. Hong Kong is facing a high income trap -- low fertility, high inequality, high housing prices and so on -- and it is the most inequitable among all advanced economies, with young people having limited housing and job opportunities. In the Umbrella Movement of 2014, Lam was the hard-line face stonewalling the students, and she was also the official handling people protesting the demolition of the historic Queen's Pier in 2007.

A polarized identity will make extreme policy options appealing to a wide audience. This will lead to controversies over all policy proposals, even well-thought-out economic policies, because some citizens will want to show their support for extreme policies or their opposition to reasonable policies in order to express their identity.

We are already seeing this with Lam's proposal for a Hong Kong branch of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The proposal may be beneficial in attracting more tourists and enriching the cultural life of the city, but it is surrounded by controversy because it is seen as a further step toward the "mainlandization" of Hong Kong.

The latest example of how a divided identity leads to extreme policy proposals and actions is the opposition to a joint cross-border customs and immigration checkpoint for the Hong Kong-Guangzhou Express Rail Link. Even if the railway is highly beneficial to Hong Kong economically, citizens will scrutinize the proposal to ensure that the stationing of mainland officials at the checkpoint will not harm Hong Kong's autonomy. Having Chinese immigration personnel in Hong Kong and having a rail link that brings mainland Chinese more easily to Hong Kong will make the debate very heated. Lam has a difficult five years ahead.

Q: And you see parallels with Taiwan?

A: This is similar to the emotional debates over Taiwan's economic policy toward China three decades ago. That was when Taiwan's identity was divided, and Taiwanese were not quite sure whether they were Chinese or Taiwanese nor if Taiwan was part of China.

Hong Kong is in a similar polarized environment now, except Beijing has the ability to intervene at a high level in Hong Kong's institutions, like the election for chief executive. This means in the years ahead, Lam will face continued challenges to her attempts to pass legislation, including filibustering, just like Chen Shui-bian did.

Q: What do you expect from Beijing down the road?

A: A hard-line stance on both Taiwan and Hong Kong will likely continue through the 19th Party Congress in the fall because Beijing has many priorities to juggle and keeping things under control in Hong Kong is more important than bringing about real social change. But Beijing's insistence on a hard-line candidate like Lam, after an embattled term with the deeply unpopular leader Leung, is not very wise.

By choosing a candidate who is unlikely to bridge the gap among different groups and different generations in Hong Kong, Beijing has signaled that it will continue its existing strategy of doling out economic benefits to those close to it and stonewalling groups who are fighting for electoral reform and more autonomy. This is another parallel to Taiwan, which has been squeezed more and more because Taiwanese voted for leaders Beijing does not like.

And, as you can see, this has led to more Taiwanese backlash. In fact, the more Beijing tried to help the Nationalist Party, the less popular it became. Beijing's strategy has not yielded positive results and has not made Taiwanese more likely to support unification. 

Q: The "one country, two systems" formula put in place in Hong Kong for 50 years until 2047 by Beijing was originally intended to be applied to Taiwan.

A: As you can see in the polls done by the University of Hong Kong, trust in both "one country, two systems" and the central government is declining. Many people believe that 2047 is no longer the date at which that system may end, but think that a more gradual erosion of the system is already well underway.

The situation in Hong Kong is much more tense than that in Taiwan because Hong Kong is part of China. It should be a shining city on a hill. But all has gone awry. "One country, two systems" has no appeal in Taiwan. 

We did not hear about independence in Hong Kong three years ago. Why do people prefer to espouse extreme policy options that may harm them economically? President Xi Jinping is cracking down on other cities in China, but Hong Kong is a different place with a different culture and language. People are opting to embrace extreme policies to show that they are different from the Chinese. It is a matter of identity. 

Everything that has happened in the last 30 years in Taiwan has been condensed in three to five years in Hong Kong. Taiwan's oscillation over its China policy was a reflection of Taiwan's identity, and you see that in Hong Kong.

Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong?

A: I am not very optimistic about Hong Kong. The territory is in a high income trap, like Japan and Singapore. But very few governments have been able to transition out of it. Doing so will require a lot of wisdom, and the city's problems are very different from the ones facing other cities in China. 

The local government [in Hong Kong] has been unsuccessful in creating consensus, and this has complicated the issue. The central government has its own concerns. Many things that have happened are results of decisions made by the local government. I think to blame them on Xi is not accurate and misleading. But, at the same time, some could be attributed to Beijing's lack of focus on what is the best course of action. 

But it's the same in Taiwan. A lack of focus means Beijing is always playing defense. When things don't go well, they have to play hardball, and that has not been good. So, unfortunately, Hong Kong will see increasing polarization. It is difficult to incorporate a city with a long history separated from China with its own unique culture and history. Beijing will be proving to the world that it will not be able to promote unification with Taiwan very well either.

Many people believe Hong Kong is a domestic issue for China, and if the worst happens, who would come to Hong Kong's aid? The media seems to care a lot because many media companies have their Asian headquarters here. But when talking about international actors, if the polarization escalates, how many governments will pressure Beijing to do the right thing? It may be very unfortunate.

Interviewed by Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong

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