Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Why Hong Kong cannot be another Singapore 
The rule of law is threatened by Communist party authority 

Some years ago, I was talking to a government minister in Singapore. In a moment of frankness, he acknowledged that his government deliberately made life difficult for its political opponents — and then added with a faint smile: “But here in Singapore we use dental tools. In China, they use a sledgehammer.” I thought of that conversation as Beijing last week imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong. Among the territory’s business elite, there are many who hope that — once people get used to the law — Hong Kong can resume its status as one of the world’s great business cities. They argue that a year of unrest and demonstrations had left Hong Kong teetering on the brink of anarchy. Now, so the argument goes, Beijing has acted to restore order and Hong Kong can get back to business. The model that is sometimes cited by the pro-Beijing camp is Singapore. Few people would claim that Singapore is a western-style, liberal democracy. But the city state is a highly successful and hospitable environment for businesses from all over the world. 

I heard hints of the Singapore model, in comments made last week by Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong. He told Bloomberg Television that international business people would have to steer clear of the four taboo areas set out in the national security law: secession; subversion; terrorism; and collusion with foreign powers. As long as they did that, everything would be fine. As Mr Tien put it: “You can still go dancing . . . horseracing, you can innovate, you can trade . . . Just stay away from those four areas.” In Singapore, expatriate executives are generally happy to observe the political red lines set up by the government. Freedom House, a US-based institution that monitors political freedom around the world, rates Singapore as only “partly free”. In its latest report, it notes that the city state’s political system “constrains the growth of credible opposition parties and limits freedom of expression”. The democracy watchdog rates Singapore as less free than neighbouring Indonesia — a much poorer country. Yet outsiders trust Singapore’s court system to act impartially and efficiently on business issues. In fact, legal services are an important export for Singapore, which has established the third-largest international legal arbitration service in the world. Sadly, however, it is unlikely that the Singapore model will work in Hong Kong. As a small, independent city state, Singapore is well aware that it is ultimately reliant on the good opinions and good will of the outside world. It has no hinterland to fall back upon, but Hong Kong is a territory that is part of China, a vast country that feels it is beholden to no one. If Hong Kong has to be sacrificed for the greater good of the People’s Republic, as defined by the Communist party, then Xi Jinping’s government would take that decision unhesitatingly. 

The Singaporeans constantly measure themselves against global best practice. Their system has some authoritarian features, but it is predictable and restrained. By contrast, the Chinese system is unpredictable and based on the unrestrained power and authority of the Communist party. Singapore’s founding father was Lee Kuan Yew, a distinguished lawyer, trained at Cambridge and steeped in the western tradition. But President Xi’s China explicitly rejects western notions of the rule of law in favour of rule by the Communist party. In an article published last year, Mr Xi himself wrote: “China must never follow the path of western constitutionalism, separation of powers or judicial independence.” Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s prosperity has been built on the western legalism and judicial independence that China’s president regards as anathema. It is his principle of the absolute authority of the Communist party that is now going to be extended to Hong Kong as part of the new national security law. In a system in which the Communist party decides, nobody in Hong Kong can have any real idea where the lines will be drawn. That will be up to the national security officials dispatched to Hong Kong from Beijing. They come from a culture in which obsequious praise of Mr Xi is the norm. Will they be willing to accept anything less in Hong Kong? Conversation traditionally flows freely in Hong Kong offices and bars, where you can speculate as much as you like about the health, wealth and general sanity of Mr Xi. 

Those conversations will already be flowing less freely, as people watch what they write in an email or even say in private. For businesses based in Hong Kong, a key question will be whether they can expect fair treatment if they get into a legal dispute with a well-connected mainland business or a Chinese state-owned enterprise. Even those businesspeople who fancy that they have great connections in Beijing are vulnerable to an unpleasant surprise. It is not uncommon for the bosses of big Chinese businesses to fall from grace very suddenly, as part of a murky investigation into alleged corruption. China would doubtless prefer Hong Kong to remain a prosperous and dynamic city. After a year of demonstrations and unrest, Beijing may even genuinely believe that it is saving Hong Kong from anarchy. But its actions are unfortunately reminiscent of a phrase often attributed to a US officer in Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village, in order to save it.”

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