On June 30 and July 1, China’s Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the HKSAR. He gave an important speech that concluded with four expectations for Hong Kong, delivered to all of us, including our new Chief Executive John Lee. These should be taken seriously.

Xi Jinping Hong Kong visit
Xi Jinping gives a speech at the West Kowloon Station on June 30, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

First, Xi said, Hong Kong should improve governance – which could be interpreted as a push for administrative reform of the government to achieve “satisfactory performance.” Effective governance, however, goes beyond the activities of government. Because most public policy is co-produced, the administration needs the enthusiastic cooperation of civil society. Yet by using the national security law and our new electoral arrangements, authorities have hollowed out civil society and marginalised its participation. Governance also needs the active engagement of the business community, now reeling under tight Covid restrictions.

Xi offered no advice on how to synergise these three components of governance (government, business, civil society). Trust in government is low and it is only part of “satisfactory performance.” To do this, government must be willing to share authority and empower citizens, all of us and not just the rich and powerful, to influence public policy. Lee needs to actively engage civil society and business. Nothing less will be effective.

Second, Xi focused on integrating Hong Kong with mainland development plans, especially the Greater Bay Area. Much of what he said we have heard before. But he also urged authorities to break “the impediments of vested interests.” This is code for the largest property developers, who also monopolise public utilities, transport, and food retailing in Hong Kong as outlined in Alice Poon’s Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong. Officials diluted their power in the Election Committee and LegCo, but they are still here.

Our (still colonial) system of public finance that depends on high land prices empowers these interests. Curbing the influence of vested interests will require reform of this system, identifying new sources of revenue such as a value-added tax, and weaning the government off its heavy dependence on land revenue. Is John Lee up for this?

John Lee Exco Executive council
Chief Executive John Lee and his Secretaries of Departments. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

Xi’s third and fourth expectations may be considered together. The central government requires the new government to address livelihood issues, especially “meeting the people’s aspirations for a better life.” Xi defined such a life in terms of bigger apartments, more business start-up opportunities, better education for kids and better elder care.

The fourth expectation focuses on harmony, solidarity and unity and promoting “mainstream values.” Xi drills down on Hong Kong’s youth who, he tells us, need  a heightened sense of national pride and ownership, and more education, employment, business opportunities and their own home. Xi urged John Lee to deliver policies that “live up to the people’s expectations.”

Xi’s understanding of people’s expectations focuses almost exclusively on material aspects. So too, apparently, does the Hong Kong government. Our new youth czar, Alice Mak Mei-kuen, repeated Xi’s characterisation of youth expectations: education, employment, entrepreneurship, and home buying. A safe strategy, to be sure. But how does she, or Xi, know what our young people expect? This is an empirical question that requires investigation.

housing building property market
A pair of Hongkongers walked in front of real estate advertisements. File photo: Supplied.

Data indicates that young people in Hong Kong hold a mix of material and non-material values. Material values focus on order, economic growth and economic stability while non-material values highlight participation in politics and the freedoms listed in the Basic Law, such as the freedom of speech. Neither Xi nor Mak address this complexity.

According to the World Values Survey Wave 7 (2017-2020), in Hong Kong 79.3 per cent of over 2,000 respondents to their random sample survey hold mixed or non-material (labelled post-materialist) values. A note to President Xi: 55.3 percent of young people on the mainland also fall into this category, even after years of political socialisation “with Chinese characteristics.” Have our leaders fallen into the trap of assuming people’s expectations without investigation? This is a dangerous position.

Neither Xi nor Mak appear to understand that many young people today want more than the material. Without understanding this, how can authorities hope to reach our youth? The signature youth policy of the new administration must not be dumbing down people’s expectations but understanding them and meeting them and being perceived to do so. To understand public expectations, the government must re-establish its own credible public opinion survey capacity. The previous administration assumed it knew what we wanted, and that no investigation was needed, with disastrous consequences.

We already have credible survey capacity outside government. Both the Chinese University of Hong Kong and HKPORI do excellent work. These surveys and the government’s own credible surveys should guide policy decisions. This is what evidence-based policy making is all about.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.