Transition ‧ Masters

Learning from Transitions

Transitions are challenging. Many readers have successfully made transitions from youth to adult, single to married, or from being a child to being a parent. But the existence of youth suicide, divorce and parental abandonment remind us that failure to successfully transition abounds. Succeeding even in many transitions does not guarantee success in the next. But there are attitudes that contribute to successful transitions and attitudes that contribute to failure.

Hong Kong went from a tiny, remote fishing port to one of China’s largest cities, ensconced in a web of transport and communication tying it to every major city on earth. That transformation witnessed more than one transition successfully made. What can we learn from Hong Kong’s history about avoiding failures and successfully making transitions?  

Transitions can be shocking. Hong Kong changed from being a transport link into southern China to being an isolated enclave cut off from the mainland in 1950. It went from being a nearly emptied city in 1945, with barely half a million residents, to a city teeming with millions of refugees. Hong Kong could easily have failed to face such massive changes. But it had a government that learned, from the hillside fires in the early 1950s that sparked massive housing programmes, and the riots of the 1960s that provoked governance and educational reforms and major infrastructure investments, that it had to act or Hong Kong would dissolve into chaos.  

Under pressure to survive, Hong Kong began to develop the New Territories, pioneering the new town process and launching one of the most rapid, wide scale urban redevelopment experiences ever seen. The transition of the farm- and village-dominated New Territories to integrated urban and suburban areas of the city was not without problems. But few cities have expanded as rapidly and successfully as Hong Kong. Fewer still managed such an extensive change so well.  

Government succeeded because it set aside its colonial ideology of “positive non-intervention” and took up a new outlook of planning and promoting a vision for the people. It dropped its unwillingness to involve locals in governance by implementing District Board and Urban and Regional Council systems, even giving taxation and inspection powers to the councils and slowly expanding the electorates until everyone could vote.

As China opened up, Hong Kong transitioned from being a factory dominated city to being a China trade dominated city.  It assumed a key role in transitioning not just itself but all of China into a major international trade and finance entity. Hong Kong itself had to completely transition its currency structure in the early 1980s, setting up the pegged currency board system. Its experience with this currency transition no doubt has helped China move toward a more open, better managed currency. Hong Kong was instrumental in teaching and guiding China into entering the World Trade Organization and liberating its economy from total state control. The entire city of Shenzhen, now twice or more Hong Kong’s size, exists primarily due to Hong Kong’s investment, energy and example, and to the many people who worked there and lived here, or lived there and worked here. Hong Kong had to give up its rigid idea of not opening the border 24 hours a day and having restricted border crossings and restricted interaction with mainlanders. The mainland had to redefine socialism and open up government to more participation by other than party members. So China under Deng Xiaoping even copied Hong Kong’s District Board idea. Flexibility in the face of great change ensured success for China and for Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s.

Deng learned from Hong Kong’s successful transitions from 1950 to 1997 – just a few have been mentioned in this essay – that economic reforms must be accompanied by political and educational reforms. The most important thing Deng Xiaoping learned from Hong Kong’s many successful transitions, however, was that leaders must be flexible and willing to learn from their mistakes. His comments about tolerating flies and not picking the colour of cats hammered home this point. His comment that China needed many Hong Kongs along its coast also recognised Hong Kong’s exemplary ability to successfully face change.

Unfortunately, since 1997 and Deng’s death, flexible leadership and willingness to learn from mistakes has not been at the forefront either in China or in Hong Kong. For example, disbanding the municipal councils and not reforming District Councils to have more authority and responsibility has turned out to have been a major error, and though many recognise the mistake, no one has been willing yet to take the lead to correct it. Corruption reared its ugly head again when the anti-corruption reforms of the 1970s were not followed up by applying anti-corruption standards to local and government interactions with mainland firms and governments. Double standards are at the heart of threats to the legitimacy of government, a lesson learned in the 1960s and 1970s but forgotten in this century. Leaders of the umbrella movement and both local and national government refused to work out their differences and figure out a way forward. Flexibility and compromise became dirty words rather than keys to success.

As a result, successfully transitioning from British colonialism, where in the early 1950s locals had no power to elect any of their leaders, to Chinese autonomy, where according to the Basic Law at some point every Hong Konger will have power to elect all their leaders, appears in peril.  Hong Kong has slipped from producing 20% of China’s GDP in 1997 to barely 2 percent today. Many seem determined to reverse the tides of time rather than realise no amount of protest or suppression can stop the rising tide of change.

As Deng Xiaoping noted, a country cannot succeed with economic and political reforms being pursued in isolation from each other. This applies to Hong Kong and the mainland equally. If Hong Kong’s people and local and national governments refuse to recognise and correct mistakes and refuse to be flexible and creative in adapting to new economic and political challenges, as they have in the past, we will fail.


Prof Michael E. DeGolyer 

Professor of Government & International Studies and Director of the Masters in Public Policy Programme at Hong Kong Baptist University until retiring in 2015. He also directed the Hong Kong Transition Project, a long-term study between 1988-2016 of Hong Kong people’s transition from colonial subjects to Chinese citizens with right to amend their constitution and elect their executives and representatives.