- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

China’s Domestic Politics and Hong Kong

Joseph Fewsmith

There is much controversy over the future of Hong Kong following its July 1, 1997, return to Chinese sovereignty. Much of this debate revolves around images, generally not well-grounded, of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.). Nevertheless, if there is a nugget of truth in these images, it is that the future of Hong Kong is dependent on China, in particular on its future stability and continued reform. Hong Kong simply cannot be isolated from either the economic development of China or its political and social situation. An unstable China means an unstable Hong Kong.

Although the dependence of Hong Kong on the P.R.C. is obvious, it is often forgotten that Hong Kong will not be an entirely passive participant in this process. The political reunification of Hong Kong and China will continue the long-standing process of integrating their economies and social systems. Over the mid- to long-run, Hong Kong, with its prosperous and international economy and vibrant culture, will clearly have an impact on China. Indeed, Hong Kong has already had a tremendous impact on the P.R.C., influencing the development not only of neighboring Guangdong Province but also providing a training ground in which thousands of Communist Party cadres have gained experience in the ways of international commerce. In the future, the influence between Hong Kong and the P.R.C. will continue to be two-way. However, the degree to which Hong Kong‘s familiarity with international business practices and understanding of intellectual and artistic freedom can have a positive affect on China depends first and foremost on continued reform in China. That is to say, Hong Kong can affect China in important ways, but it can only do so on the margin, over the longer term, and if political conditions are opportune in China.

China’s domestic politics get little attention in the international media, yet the evolution of the political situation will have profound implications for China, for its international relations, and for Hong Kong. Frequently, Chinese domestic politics are viewed in a highly reductionist manner and broad generalizations are made on the basis of little evidence. Scenarios that view the development of the P.R.C. in either highly optimistic or gravely pessimistic terms often assume that the course of China’s future is fixed and that it is safe to make straight-line predictions on the basis of the present. What gets left out of these writings is the very active and wide-ranging debate within China over its own future. In fact, many elites and their advisors are struggling to deal with a whole host of problems, including but not restricted to assessing the successes and failures of the Dengist reforms, dealing with the legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests, and judging a rapidly changing international environment. In contrast to many of the generalizations often heard, Chinese society and politics are very much in flux and the guideposts to action are arguably less clear than at any time since the communist victory in 1949.

In thinking about Chinese domestic politics, three points are particularly important. First, the range of opinion among Chinese elites and sub-elites (those who try to influence elite opinion through their research and writings) is considerable. The distance between the "left" and the "right" is as great, if not greater, than it has ever been, and this makes the job of holding the center (roughly General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s position) difficult and subject to challenge. Second, the impact of China’s foreign relations on elite and sub-elite opinion is very significant. It is difficult to imagine a China with a hostile international environment carrying out reform and opening up smoothly. Third, the return of Hong Kong seems likely to have important ramifications both for China’s domestic politics and for its international relations. A smooth return is likely, over time, to have a significant impact on China’s domestic scene and to impress other countries that China is continuing its course of reform. Conversely, a difficult transition will undoubtedly focus renewed attention on China’s abuses of human rights and other problems and complicate China’s domestic political situation.