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The struggling art of China watching

What will be the impact of China's power shift on Hong Kong?
Last modified: 8 Nov 2012 08:14
Rumours about what Xi’s ascendancy means for which faction, abound.[Reuters]

For the veteran China watchers of Hong Kong, the question is not so much who has got it (unless every pundit and commentator between here and London's School of Oriental Studies is wrong, it's going to be Xi Jingping, and you can have that for nothing).

The more intriguing prospect is who will be joining China's new leader in guiding the world's second largest economy in the years to come.

The art of 'China watching' has been struggling to find a role for itself in recent times.

The opening up of China to the outside world, the expansion of its own media and the burgeoning growth of social media have all taken their toll. The days when Hong Kong was a hotbed of intrigue and a listening post for spooks, journalists and sometimes people doing both are largely in the past.

That is, until it comes to changes of leadership at the top of 83-million strong Communist Party of China.

That process is still as opaque as ever, giving China watchers here a welcome opportunity to practice their craft. Rumours and theories about what Xi’s ascendancy mean for which faction, abound. As do predictions for his underlings.

And the consensus seems to be, more of the same.

Conservatives are widely expected to hold sway in the next all-powerful Politburo, dealing a blow to those looking for political reform.

Economic progress that increases prosperity for ordinary people in China but without relinquishing any political control, seem to be the watch words of this Party Congress.

Giant neighbour

For Hong Kong, which has become more dependent upon, and more integrated with, its giant neighbour as it has grown economically, that status quo will do very nicely.

The rapacious buying habits of Mainland shoppers and Chinese investment in Hong Kong stocks and property have sustained the local economy through the worst of the financial crisis.

And what will do very nicely indeed, is China’s growth model coinciding with the defeat of Mitt Romney, Republican US presidential nominee, with his threats of retaliation for alleged currency manipulation.

In this city where, as the tourism literature proclaims, East meets West, harmony between the two is good for business.

But at a packed luncheon here last week, came a warning from the doyen of China watchers, Professor Roderick Macfarquhar, about China’s unwillingness, or inability to change course.

So entrenched are the self interests of the Communist Party of China, that it seems now incapable of reform without some huge internal upheaval.

Even for the most cynical Hong Kong businessman or woman, that will strike a cord.

Living so close to the giant, this city knows the impact of Cultural Revolutions, Great Leaps Forward and student uprisings.

And as another pre-eminent China watcher here once put it to me, anyone who doesn’t think there could be a future China without a Communist Party firmly in control, two words from history – "Soviet Union".