The British media, between the endless coverage of the debacle that is Brexit, the May government and the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn, recently managed to find a little time for soul-searching over Hong Kong, on the twentieth anniversary of the 1997 handover. The hand-wringing tone over whether Britain had let the people of Hong Kong led the Guardian for instance to note that:
“Theresa May’s government faces a choice between upholding legal principle and democratic values, and its chronic post-Brexit need for Chinese trade and business at any price. No prizes, or yellow umbrellas, for predicting which way May and Johnson will jump.”
The torturous link to contemporary politics aside, these op-eds convey a tone of unfulfilled potential. Chris Patten weighed in with his own personal laments over what has slowly occurred since , self-flagellating over Chinese encroachment of the former colony.
Yet much of this seems rooted in misconceptions that still seem to pervade the British establishment. For a start, the very act of suggesting that Britain should “do something” about still hints, however much denied, that she is in a position to do so. This is unrealistic not only because of the relative imbalance but also the distance and relevance of the two countries, notwithstanding the occasional bravura peeks through, wishfully claiming that “China needs Britain more than Britain needs China“. This mismatch is true politically, culturally, socially and above all, economically.
In cold economic terms, it is not only the the imbalance that demonstrates relative strength – China incurred a US$37.6bn trade surplus in 2016 for instance – but also mutual insignificance. According to data, Britain is only China’s 9th largest trading partner, accounting for just 2.7% of Chinese exports, far from enough to move the psychological needle. Compare this with Germany, for whom the UK constitutes 7.1% of exports, or even the US at 3.8%. Britain and China are simply not that relevant to each other. China matters slightly more to the UK than vice versa, accounting for 4.4% of her exports (and arguably Chinese consumption of British goods such as high end cars is less easily replicable than in the other direction), but it is still not much of a basis for negotiations or threats.
Moreover, there appears to be a parochial misunderstanding about Hong Kong’s destiny as “just another Chinese city”. Critics will say that social and political life are not the same as economic life; to that I would say one necessarily follows the other. Consider a recent piece in the Financial Times about how the Hong Kong has changed since 1997. Two visuals stand out:
Hong Kong is increasingly no longer a regional hub but more of a China port. Yet this is not just a function of being on China’s doorstep, or even of China’s desire to integrate Hong Kong as some might imagine; it is rather a consequence of the fact that the old colonial entrepot model of corporate imperialism in Asia is gone. China is a self-sustaining economy of critical mass. The days of being able to “do” China from offshore, are as absurd as believing one can cover the US from London or Toronto. This is beginning to apply to other countries too, particularly Indonesia but also Thailand and increasingly, Malaysia. The concept of largely expat financiers and traders sitting in the comfort of the Victoria harbourfront whilst servicing these jurisdictions is faintly ridiculous; and this is a global emerging markets trend.
Asia has changed. The era when its leadership still had links with their former colonial rulers, such as the Cambridge-educated Lee Kwan Yew to Britain, is over. A telling moment was the closing in 2009 of the much-loved Far Eastern Economic Review, a deeply socio-political publication inhabiting a world where Asian leaders and western discourse still understood each other. Today, nothing could be further from the truth – as countries like China pass the “peak export” phase of their development cycle, their economies and leadership are inevitably more introspective. Each country must be engaged from a truly domestic perspective and cities like Hong Kong, and to an extent Singapore, are less relevant. There is nothing Britain can or should do about this.
At least Hong Kong, despite its comparative decline, still has a future bound up with a single large power. Singapore will soon come to find that its position as a safe haven for Indonesian and Malaysian investment and private wealth is under a more serious threat – which has led to their driving ambition behind ASEAN. London, in the end, will probably feel these winds of change too.