News analysis

Hong Kong seeks to regain global relevance as it hosts first geopolitical summit

Mrs Regina Ip, Executive Council convenor and chairwoman of Savantas Policy Institute, giving the opening remarks at The Global Prosperity Summit, which runs from May 13 to 15. PHOTO: GLOBAL PROSPERITY SUMMIT HONG KONG

HONG KONG – Having emerged from a series of protest- and pandemic-induced crises in recent years, Hong Kong has been working to regain its global relevance.

In hosting what the city’s leaders have described as Hong Kong’s first geopolitical summit this week, the government is signalling its intention to redefine its role in terms of contributions towards world development, among other areas.

But the reality is Hong Kong remains held back from its full potential, given its close alignment to the mainland and perceptions that the city might have been preoccupied with national security issues at the expense of global connectedness, said analysts.

From May 13 to 15, The Global Prosperity Summit, which was sponsored by the Hong Kong government and local businesses, brought top scholars and business leaders together to discuss the most pressing issues affecting the world today.

Among the main topics discussed was the strained relationship between China and the United States.

The event’s goal was to “enhance the city’s role as an intermediary between mainland China and the rest of the world by facilitating dialogue and communication”, according to its press release.

Chief Executive John Lee said in a speech on May 13 that the summit, “a first for Hong Kong”, was one way the city was seeking to promote dialogue, collaboration and inclusive prosperity as “the world’s ‘super connector’”.

Hong Kong is in a unique position to do so due to its “cosmopolitan society (that) understands the cultures and political systems of mainland China, as well as the culture and systems of the West”, government adviser Regina Ip, chairwoman of the event’s co-host, local think tank Savantas Policy Institute, told reporters on May 14.

For an inaugural geopolitical conference, there are signs that it lived up to its promise of providing a platform to bridge the East’s and the West’s perceptions of matters of global import.

This was evident as former top US envoy for East Asia Susan Thornton sought to explain in one panel discussion the American psyche and “insecurity” underlying US-China tensions.

Differences between the two powers, such as in their respective ideologies, governance and geopolitical interests, “frankly haven’t changed” over the years, except that now the US is “all of a sudden perceiving that your rival is nipping at your heels… and fear of what might happen if they catch up to you”, said Ms Thornton, now a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.

Chinese venture capitalist Eric Li sought to convey Beijing’s viewpoint at another discussion.

While China’s technology-driven economic growth “has been perceived as rivalry with the US”, it has, in fact, been “mostly, if not completely, driven by China’s own needs for the next stage of its development... to raise its per capita income by several notches in the next generation or two”, said Mr Li, who is chairman of infotech firm Chengwei Capital.

In his keynote speech, Nobel chemistry laureate Roger Kornberg marvelled at the rise of Chinese science, which he saw as “the best thing in the world that could happen to the United States”, as it created competition for scientific innovation in both countries.

Panel speakers shared suggestions for improving US-China ties.

Hong Kong’s Regina Ip (left) moderates a discussion panel with speakers - Professor Huang Ping (centre) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and former US ambassador Kurt Tong, managing partner of The Asia Group. PHOTO: GLOBAL PROSPERITY SUMMIT HONG KONG

For former top US diplomat in Hong Kong Kurt Tong, that included top-level meetings between the two powers’ presidents, greater cooperation in joint projects with a common goal – such as the development of artificial intelligence – and more private sector collaboration.

Professor Huang Ping, director of the Centre for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested more youth exchanges, as well as NGOs stepping up to facilitate communication.

Johns Hopkins University economist Steve Hanke noted that Hong Kong has previously achieved success as an international financial centre through “the five doors of prosperity” – light taxes, small government, stable money, smart regulation and free trade.

How can Hong Kong carve out a niche for itself?

Professor Yang Jiemian, chairman of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies’ Academic Advisory Council, told reporters that for Hong Kong to play a role in effectively promoting civil diplomacy and facilitating US-China dialogue, the city “needs first to work on consolidating and enhancing its existing unique strengths, including its outstanding financial industry and high education standards”.

On Hong Kong’s endeavour to regain global relevance by being a “super connector” bridging East and West, Mr Tong said at a doorstop interview that the city needed to prioritise its international advantages and their relevant policies.

Mr Tong, now a managing partner at US-based business advisory firm The Asia Group, said Hong Kong’s plethora of national security-related top headlines in recent years compared with more economic-focused ones previously, had reshaped the outside world’s perception of the city and what it stood for.

“The key (issue) is prioritisation and clear communication of intent... of Hong Kong’s outward-facing policies, and outreach to really focus the message so that it reaches through all the global noise, and it becomes clear what Hong Kong is trying to achieve,” he said.

Hong Kong’s perception problem was also noted by veteran China commentator Wang Xiangwei, an attendee at the summit, who described it in a May 6 commentary on his blog as “Hong Kong’s biggest danger”.

“Political and business elites have scrambled to embrace mainland-style language, tone, narrative… All this has given rise to a distinct impression that the city is hanging on to every word from Beijing and eagerly awaiting instructions on how to move forward,” wrote Mr Wang, a journalism professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Just as it is important to raise awareness of national security (in Hong Kong)… it is equally important to raise awareness of the city’s distinctive advantages.”

If the Hong Kong government takes to heart these points raised at its first geopolitical summit – and takes action to address them – it would go some way towards winning back its international supporters and alleviating fears about the city’s continued relevance in the world.

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