Hong Kong: From Early-Developing Follower to Late-Developing Leader

In general, when discussing development, the regions that have been first to develop are commonly those that have been first to modernize, such as Western Europe and North America, while the regions that develop later are the rest of the world. Why is the issue of development important? Because in the capitalist and globalized world of today, developed countries are the global exploiters, developing countries are the exploited, and development is a matter of national survival.

Institutional Monism No Longer Accepted

The so-called development issue of today is actually a question of how late-developing countries can catch up with early-developing ones. In the West, there are many studies and theories of why some countries develop more quickly. The most classic one, of course, is Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which advanced the culture-based argument that Protestantism’s unique beliefs could produce a capitalist economy. In fact, classical theories of modernization all share a similar conviction, namely that “modernization” means “Westernization.” They analyze the characteristics of modern Western societies, such as industrialization, democratization and capitalism, from different angles, optimistic in their belief that late-developing countries need only implant these systems, and they will be able to catch up with the early-developing countries.

Of course, “institutional monism” such as this is no longer accepted today. On the contrary, late-developing countries faced all sorts of unfavorable conditions in the mid-20th century, and even though they tried hard to catch up, they continued to lag behind the early-developing countries. For example, scholars have found that between 1960 and 2004, real per capita income in developing countries grew at an average annual rate of 2.1%, while the economies of rich countries grew at a rate of 2.7%. Even if late-developing countries are able to draw on the experience of early-developing countries, the early-developing countries that are already rising will inevitably rely on their established advantages to ensure that they stay ahead of the game.

Hence the later “dependency theory,” which suggests that late-developing countries’ falling behind is due to the expropriations of the international system: In order to maintain their advantages, the early developers used the international division of labor framework to divide countries into “core” and “periphery” countries, with the core countries being comprised of industrialized nations, while periphery countries exported raw materials and engaged in labor-intensive industries. It is difficult for periphery countries to break free of this division of labor — they are heavily exploited by the core countries, with no prospect of narrowing the gap. In this theory, the core countries are in fact early-developing regions such as Western Europe, Northern Europe and North America. Later, when the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein constructed his “world-systems theory,” he further defined some of the relatively advanced periphery countries as “semi-peripheral,” referring in general to emerging countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.

But back to the topic of this article. What is Hong Kong’s position today? From Japan and the “Four Asian Tigers” to the rise of China — all of these have in fact been powerful refutations of Western theories of development. Neither East Asia nor Southeast Asia has Protestant traditions, for example, yet they have been able to develop capitalism and modernization, and the economic take-offs in each of these regions took place in political systems that are completely different from the West’s electoral democracies (with the exception of Hong Kong, which is more government-led and -driven than market-driven). As late-developing regions, they have all actively integrated themselves into the global economy, not letting their peripheral positions hinder their economic development and modernization.

In no region of Asia has modernization followed the path taken by the West. As a city formerly under British colonial rule for a long period of time, Hong Kong can be regarded as a follower of the early-developing countries, as it has always been included in the governance systems of the early-developers, despite its geographical distance from the United Kingdom. From the legal system to the various professional qualifications, to the standards applied in general affairs, even its civil servants are modeled on the practices of the U.K. and the United States. This is because the U.K. and the U.S. both require a helpful stronghold on China’s doorstep, be it economically or in relation to intelligence activities. When China is on friendly terms with the West, Hong Kong is in its element. But this cuts both ways, for when China’s relations with the West are less than cordial, Hong Kong has a hard time of it.

With China’s rapid development, it has slowly become the core of the late-developing countries, but early-developing countries — whether for reasons relating to ethnicity, culture or ideology — have been reluctant to accept China, wanting to safeguard their own interests. For economic and political reasons, Hong Kong, as a part of China, has been pushed away by the U.S.-led early-developing countries, gradually losing its role as their follower. It has also been pulled in by China for political and national security reasons, quickly integrating and becoming an important component of the leader of the late-developing countries.

This change in status and identity is part of the overall development of the world, and it explains the polarization in Hong Kong today. Some people feel connected to their country, are happy to be part of the publicity for the success of China as a late-developing country, and are full of confidence in Hong Kong’s future; others are accustomed to being followers of the early-developing countries, and seeing Hong Kong as having been pushed away by the U.K. and the U.S., they have become disoriented.

As Hong Kong’s Role Changes, So Too Must Its Mindset

To become a late-developing country leader, we need to provide other late-developing countries with a sense of direction, which is why the story of China and Hong Kong must be told well. Many people do not understand this, thinking that Europe and the U.S. will not accept the China narrative. Early-developing countries have their own views on development, so it is to be expected that they would not accept late-developing countries’ arguments. But as just such a late-developing country, China’s story is mainly aimed at other late developers. Why has China brought peace to the Middle East? Why do ever more countries seek to join the ranks of the BRICS? Why did the Central American Parliament approve China as an observer? There are those who think that China’s story is not accepted by the international community, but in fact, it is just that some people hew to too narrow an understanding of “international.”

Hong Kongers need to understand that Hong Kong’s role is slowly changing from a follower of the early-developing countries to a leader of the late-developing countries, together with Mainland China. To succeed in this role, a change of mindset is important as well. In the past, for example, Hong Kong’s governing body might only have ridden along on the early-developing countries’ coattails, taking its policy cues from Europe and the U.S. and contenting itself with being a follower. However, today’s governing body needs to be more proactive in thinking about the big picture globally and coordinating national policies, rather than just looking at European and American practices. Hong Kong’s role is now in a transitional period, and some confusion is inevitable. However, this commentator believes that once this period has drawn to a close and that role has changed completely, the people of Hong Kong, so good at adapting to their environment, will be bound to set their mindsets right, continuing to work hard for the future of the country and of Hong Kong.

The author is vice chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Young Commentators.

About this publication

About Matthew McKay 110 Articles
Matthew is a British citizen who grew up and is based in Switzerland. He received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and, after 15 years in the private sector, went on to earn an MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization from the University of Geneva. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and an associate of both the UK's Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Swiss Association of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, international cooperation, and neurodivergence.

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