COMMENTARY: Hong Kong's unique position could allow them to be a leader in Covid-19 global order

Gateway to the East and West.

Mothership | July 25, 2020, 10:02 AM

COMMENTARY: Hong Kong could become a key player in the new global order if they leverage on their unique position and expertise in the medical sector.

Sharon Chau, Oxford scholar and co-founder of the Oxford Public Health Group, writes about how Hong Kong can take the lead when it comes to health diplomacy:

  • Strong British traditions and unique constitutional status under One Country, Two Systems means that Hong Kong is a bridge between the East and West.
  • Instead of seeing Hong Kong as a city caught between civilisations, Hong Kong should leverage on its unique position to establish themselves as a key international leader.
  • Through research capabilities and a strong partnership with global research institutes, Hong Kong could pass on their expertise, equipment and technology to countries in need.


Health Diplomacy: Hong Kong's Way Forward

By Sharon Chau

“Hong Kong” has always been an evocative term. One can associate it with the beautiful names “Pearl of the Orient” and “fragrant harbour”, or identify it as arguably the most successful of the four Asian Tigers.

What is undeniable though, under these layers, is that Hong Kong has always been a bridge between the East and the West, dictated by our unique geographical position.

Hong Kong in a unique position

During the two World Wars, we were a crucial platform for information exchange.

Even back in the time when Hong Kong was a humble entrepot in the 1950s, we were already facilitating the trade of goods and services between the Mainland and the West, which was further reinforced by our history as an ex-British colony.

Modern Hong Kong has inherited strong British traditions, exemplified by the role of English as a crucial second language and our similar legal system and civil service compared to Britain.

As such, Hong Kong embodies certain Western liberal values. This is complicated by our unique constitutional status under One Country, Two Systems, which affords us access to the heart of the Mainland, but at the same time frees us from certain constraints such as capital controls.

Some hence see us as the perfect gateway to business with Mainland China, but some also think our history of involvement with the West as anathema to traditional Chinese values.

This creates Hong Kong’s awkward position today, where we are at a crossroads between different social orders, economic systems, and moral values. We are caught in the perfect storm between the East and the West.

Due to our unique position, there has always been a perception of Hong Kong as a passive actor in the international stage.

Analogically speaking, it is argued that even though Hong Kong represents the clash between civilisations, its role is a mere price-taker, having to accept prevailing prices in markets as we lack the ability to influence such market prices on our own.

This narrative is not entirely untrue. Hong Kong lacks natural resources and owes a large part of its success to the financial industry, which is highly dependent on decisions made by other countries.

Photo by Tanya Ong.

However, this narrative of “the weak suffer what they must” is grossly outdated.

Hong Kong is one of the freest and most transparent economies in the world, and has consistently been ranked as one of the least corrupt places in the world according to Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Multi-national corporations have flocked to Hong Kong to capture some of the brightest talents Asia has to offer and to enjoy the stable and prosperous business environment.

Hong Kong is definitely not a passive actor subject to the whims of foreign countries – it stands its ground as an international financial metropolis. The younger generation recognises how Hong Kong has immense potential to be a key player on the global stage and wishes for Hong Kong to fulfil its potential.

Hong Kong has potential to be the leader in a new global order

Hong Kong has enormous potential to be the leader in a new liberal global order.

Instead of being seen as a city unwittingly caught between civilisations, we should leverage this unique position to our advantage. Based on our historical interaction with the West, we could become a bastion of the liberal order.

This is represented by strong international institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the wish to build global peace, with values of tolerance and globalisation at the forefront of our agenda.

It is not in our fundamental interest to let political concerns prevail over economic ones to our detriment, and should instead work pragmatically to achieve attainable goals.

In this instance, Hong Kong may learn from another one of the Four Asian Tigers, Singapore. Singapore’s pragmatic foreign policy and its ability to balance and hedge its international position is commendable and should be imitated by Hong Kong.

If done well, Hong Kong could form a strong collaborative relationship and friendship with Singapore due to our strong connections with the exponentially growing Asia.

Democracy is currently under threat with an isolationist Trump espousing “America First” and polarising American politics, Brexit removing Britain’s access to the heart of Europe and populism threatening many democracies around the world, most notably in Eastern Europe and Latin America.

This creates the perfect opportunity for Hong Kong to enter the world stage. We can change our strategy with regards to international engagement, championing unity and liberalism in this age of division and populism.

Health diplomacy and world-class universities

Health diplomacy is a key area in which Hong Kong can really shine.

We enjoy world-class universities, with four of them ranked amongst the world's top 60 and two world-renowned medical schools amongst the world's top 50.

Hong Kong universities offer strong research capabilities in biotech, and they have vast experience and networks for creating partnerships with prominent international universities, research institutions and technology-based companies.

This is exemplified by the establishment of the Hong Kong Science Park, our flagship technology centre.

This points to two of Hong Kong’s largest advantages - our bright talents fostered by a brilliant education system, particularly our medical schools, our strong partnership with global research institutes and our infrastructure in nurturing innovation.

This makes Hong Kong perfectly poised to become a key player in the global medical and biotechnology sectors.

Leveraging on advantages

As a city that has dealt with Covid-19 well, we can further propel ourselves onto the international stage as a key leader in helping troubled countries.

Hong Kong has a strong comparative advantage in public health due to our mature and developed health system, experienced staff, well-equipped public clinics and successful Hospital Authority.

We can pass on our expertise, supplies and equipment to other countries in need, and export technology that has allowed us to handle Covid-19 well. As a result, Hong Kong could very well channel our expertise into acting as a leader and a voice of calm in this pandemic.

Covid-19 will change the world for better or for worse and it is up to us whether we seize this opportunity to become a bastion of global health.

Hong Kong has recently been struck by a third wave of Covid-19 outbreak.

Consequently, mass population screening is a proposal discussed by many biotech companies and laboratories. As there are many asymptomatic and invisible spreaders in our midst, testing the whole population and identifying and isolating these individuals are key to defeating the third wave.

Facing the daunting challenge of testing almost eight million individuals, one innovative idea has surfaced - sample pooling.

Sample pooling is the act of combining multiple patient samples for one test, and has been done successfully in Wuhan where nine million individuals were tested in a mere ten days. It has also been implemented in Germany, Pakistan and India with promising results.

Hong Kong can similarly use sample pooling and leverage its biotech industry to implement mass population screening. If done well, Hong Kong’s implementation of such an ambitious proposal can provide a model for other countries or large cities to emulate, truly propelling us onto the world stage as a global leader in public health.

Hong Kong is uniquely poised to take initiative in this strange era we are living through right now.

If we leverage our advantage as a city that embodies the best of both the East and the West, the world will be in for a surprise.

About Oxford Public Health Group: It is a group founded by Oxford scholars in the face of Covid-19 to pioneer solutions for the pandemic. Their most recent proposal to the World Economic Forum involved using mobile laboratories to test individuals in less accessible villages across Asia.

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Top photo: Tam Wai/Unsplash