Tea Leaf Nation

Hong Kong’s Inconvenient Truth

Some desire political independence, but the city looks to the mainland for most of its resources.

Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

HONG KONG — Around Hong Kong, the former British colony now subject to Chinese sovereignty, the central government in Beijing is widely, though none-too-fondly, called "Grandpa." Implicit in this moniker is what Siu-keung Cheung, a sociologist at Shue Yan University in Hong Kong, characterized in an interview with Foreign Policy as the "control of bodies and lives" — through which Beijing presents itself as the generous benefactor to compatriots in Hong Kong.

Even as the grassroots campaign in Hong Kong to wrest greater autonomy and other freedoms under Beijing’s one-country, two-systems constitutional framework has intensified, the city’s long-standing dependence on the mainland for basic necessities like water, food, and energy rarely gets a mention. But if Hong Kong has anything to learn from its colonial ruler’s experience in negotiating with Beijing, it’s that the cold, hard realities of resource dependency can translate into political concessions.

Although not quite a piece of "barren rock" as derided by Lord Palmerston, Britain’s foreign secretary during the First Opium War, from 1839 to 1842, the fact remains that Hong Kong isn’t endowed with the necessary natural resources to support its population of 7 million. The Hong Kong special administrative region of China gets over 70 percent of its water from Dongjiang, a river in neighboring Guangdong province. Meanwhile, over 90 percent of fresh meat and vegetables consumed in Hong Kong is sourced from the mainland. And mainland energy sources generate more than half of the electricity consumed locally.

Many Hong Kongers in the staunchly capitalistic city tend to regard the supplies as mere business transactions with an equally capitalistic state, not least because the city pays market prices. Most people have also taken it for granted that water will keep flowing and live pigs will keep being trucked in from across the border. But decades before the reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the political ramifications of Hong Kong’s resource dependency loomed large in the minds of British colonial officials. And as the tug of war between Hong Kong and the mainland over universal suffrage intensifies, these issues may come to hold greater sway in the public consciousness.

When British colonial officials exercised control over Hong Kong, they were deeply preoccupied with Hong Kong’s use of mainland water. After China’s civil war ended with the Communist victory in 1949, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the tiny territory and strained its scarce water resources. Rationing became a fact of life. In 1960, Guangdong provincial officials and the colonial government struck a deal allowing Hong Kong to pipe in water from a reservoir recently completed in Shenzhen, now a megacity of over 10 million but then a sleepy part of a rural county. Beijing offered the water for free, but Hong Kong’s colonial government rejected the overture because it saw Beijing’s offer as a political ploy, and it insisted instead on a strictly commercial transaction. The Chinese agreed and in return earned badly needed foreign currency and, later, funding for treatment infrastructure. This laid the groundwork — both hydrological and geopolitical — to draw the colony closer to the mainland.

A few years into the 1960 supply agreement, a severe drought limited water rationing to four hours every four days. Since then, continued population growth and climate change have made Chinese water even harder to reject. According to Hong Kong government figures, in 2012, Hong Kong depended on the mainland for 76 percent of its water supply, up from 22 percent in 1965.

During the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s sovereignty, which began in 1982, water supply ranked high on the list of concerns. (Dependence on water from the mainland was 34 percent in 1980.) Percy Cradock, then the British ambassador to China and who was involved in the negotiations, warned Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the British had little bargaining power because Hong Kong so heavily relied on the mainland for fresh water. The British eventually made significant concessions and gave up all of their rights to Hong Kong.

The fact that water might have sealed the city’s fate on the negotiating table seems like ancient history in post-handover Hong Kong. But it has not been forgotten; in August 2010, Nelson K. Lee, a lecturer in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published the results of archival research and argued that the British had given up pursuing water independence for Hong Kong as a part of the handover negotiations, while China had intentionally increased the quantity of water supplied to Hong Kong in order to tighten the mainland’s leash on the territory. "This certainly captured the attention of the pro-[Hong Kong] independence movement," Lee told FP. Lee said that was true "even for ordinary Hong Kongers," making the general public "more attuned to the politics behind what used to be formulaic economic calculations."

This shift is evident in the recent backlash against the Hong Kong government’s proposal in early 2014 to tap more electricity from the China Southern Power Grid in Guangzhou. The proposal, if implemented, will result in Hong Kong relying on the mainland for more than 90 percent of its energy needs. A chorus of opposing voices, ranging from environmental groups to the local electric utilities duopoly, roared when public consultation completed in mid-June.

As it is, Hong Kong already relies on the mainland for about half of its electricity. Natural gas piped in from a gas field on the Chinese island of Hainan provides about a quarter of the electricity supply for Hong Kong, about another quarter comes from Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station in Shenzhen, and the rest comes from coal imported from elsewhere, including from the mainland. When the Daya Bay plant was being planned in the mid-1980s, Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest, with many citing the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in the then-Soviet city of Chernobyl in April 1986 as a dangerous precedent. But in the end, the energy-hungry city became one of the plant’s largest customers. There’s one source of dependency that is already nearly absolute: fresh meat and produce. According to Hong Kong government figures, Hong Kong gets all of its fresh beef, 94 percent of its fresh pork, and 92 percent of its fresh vegetables from the mainland. 

To be sure, Beijing has not threatened to pull the plug on water, food, and electricity for Hong Kong — that would not be politically astute. "At the end of the day, the party is all about paternalistic politics, but it can’t use water and food as bargaining chips. The cost of using them as such is simply too high," said Cheung. "Because once the trigger is pulled, it’ll backfire." 

Violet Law has been based in southern China since 2009 and has reported from Europe and South Asia. Before that she was a staff writer at metropolitan dailies in five states east of the Mississippi and was a contributor to various national magazines.