Steve Tsang, the Hong Kong academic calling for dialogue with China

Steve Tsang, the Hong Kong academic calling for dialogue with China
Image: Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Steve Tsang is a political historian and director of SOAS University London’s China Institute. He is originally from Hong Kong but moved to the UK in 1981 to study at Oxford University, where he earned a PhD and stayed in various positions for nearly 30 years. 

Tsang was dean of St Antony’s College during the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government, and was put in charge of collecting archival documents and interviewing colonial officers to preserve that history as part of the Oxford University Hong Kong Project.

He is working on a long-term project to chronicle and analyze Chinese president Xi Jinping’s political thought. He has written five books about China and Hong Kong and is an expert in China’s foreign policy and relations with Taiwan, the US, UK, and EU. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: How has your upbringing in Hong Kong influenced your China scholarship?

Tsang: I grew up in Hong Kong and made my first trip to China in 1978 as an undergraduate at the University in Hong Kong. I was very keen to go because I wanted to know what “mother China” was like [during] the end of the Maoist era and the beginning of the Deng Xiaoping era. I was 19 or 20, I was rebellious, and Hong Kong was a [colony]. So even though there was no particular reason why I would be anti-colonial, I was anti-colonial for the hell of it.

I spent about a week or so in China, and that was a big eye opener. In those days, you had to physically get out of the trains in Lon Wu in Hong Kong, walk across Lon Wu Bridge into the Chinese side, and then get on a train in Shenzhen. I couldn’t wait. When the train rolled out of Shenzhen towards Canton, I was looking out of the windows trying to catch sight of everything I could.

By the end of that week, when I returned to Shenzhen to cross the border, and I saw the union flag, and the Hong Kong policemen in British khaki, I thought, ‘This is where I belong.’ One week of exploration was a total eye opener.

Why? What happened during that week?

Tsang: There were [many] experiences. [I was] having some noodles in the noodle shop and there were kids, big ones in their teens and little ones, outside, looking at us eating noodles. It was incredibly uncomfortable. They were pointing at their mouth and rubbing their tummy—’hungry.’ So I pulled out a yuan note and I gave it to the oldest girl, who was in her teens, and said to her, ‘Go buy some food and share it with everybody.’ She grabbed the money and started running. I was so angry. I chased her, took the money back, and then gave it to the little ones and said, ‘Take the money together, go get some food, and share it equally.’

I went back to China for socialism. And what I saw was utter poverty, children starving, and they were behaving in a very selfish way. I was expecting idealism and that wasn’t what I was seeing.

Then we went to Guilin and we wanted to go up the river Li to Yangshuo, this beautiful spot. The staff said, ‘We queue up in the morning at the pier, get our ticket, and go in the boat.’ I wanted to do what the locals do. So I bought the Mao suit, and the green tennis shoes, and we got onto the lower deck [of the boat]. All the tourists, foreigners and Hong Kong people were in the upper deck. So what’s in the upper deck? I wanted to go up and see. I tried to go—’No. Upper decks are for foreigners and Hong Kong or Macao compatriots. You lot stay down there.’

How did that make you feel?

Tsang: That, to me, was bringing back the myth of the Shanghai parks in the 1920s, ‘No dogs or Chinese,’ which was supposedly overthrown by the Communist Party 1. Events like that completely destroy the idealism of a young man about the propaganda of the modernizing China that was coming out of the Maoist era.

Your description of desperate and starving children in Shenzhen—that sounds like the China of the 1970s, not the China of 2021. Do you feel differently about the Chinese government, now that it has brought 800 million people out of extreme poverty?  

Tsang: As an undergraduate in Hong Kong, I carried a Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s Quotations. It was not part of the curriculum but I would go and buy it. I immersed myself in all the Party’s propaganda about China. I believed in what the party was talking about. That’s why I went to China. And they were lies. That was the problem. The problem wasn’t the poverty, or the behavior of the children, or the behavior of the people on the boat.

The economic miracle in China in the last 40 years was totally real. When I first went to China, it was no better than North Korea today. Shanghai, in some ways, is now comparable in your material life and convenience to Manhattan in New York. You can’t say that China has not made enormous progress there. But it doesn’t matter. That has never been the point for me.

So the point for you was that the system that was being advertised to you was not the system on the ground?

Tsang: It’s the untruthfulness of it.

What was it like living through the handover and studying it at Oxford, but as a Hong Konger living in the UK?

Tsang: Well, things change. I started off interested in Hong Kong, with this very strong sense of Hong Kong identity when I arrived in Oxford. Some years down the line, I got married, I settled, I became a British citizen. My identity changed. I would identify myself as a British from Hong Kong rather than a Hong Kong person. My future is no longer with Hong Kong, my family is not in Hong Kong.

How do you feel like the conversation about China has changed in the UK over the years?

Tsang: Around 2010 I was beginning to see a sustained increase in interest in China, but from a very low starting point. So even though it was impressive for me as a practitioner, it really wasn’t that much.

Cameron-Osborne’s golden era 2 was a bit farcical, because it was very one-sided and reflected a lack of understanding of what they were dealing with. Why would the Chinese government not pretend to go along with it when the British government was so enthusiastic about it? But it did result in stronger public interest in things Chinese and China, and also coincided with China becoming rich and powerful and sending a lot more students and tourists to the UK.

Then events changed around 2019, because of the Hong Kong protests and how the Chinese government responded to it, and 2020 because of the pandemic. But those are landmarks for the general public. To me, the real landmark was 2017. At the 19th party Congress, Xi Jinping consolidated power, with a new vision for China, and in that new vision, a lot of things changed.

Like what?

Tsang: In effect, it was the formal inauguration of a ‘China first’ policy, or ‘making China great again,’ And it was also a change of the paradigm towards Hong Kong. We talk about 2019 as if it was the trigger point of everything in Hong Kong; it wasn’t. The big change in Chinese policy was in 2017, when Xi Jinping talked about the “greater bay area” and most people missed it. Before that, Hong Kong was seen as a special administrative region in its own right. But in this conception of the Greater Bay Area, the center is Shenzhen, not Hong Kong. And that is a very important basic paradigm shift.

How does president Xi view the UK?

Tsang: The Chinese government’s view of the UK has always been very instrumentalist. The UK is a very significant country, which China recognizes, but the UK is not in the top league, where there is only one country, and that is the US.

Within Europe as a whole, the single most important partner to China is not the UK, but Germany, because Germany has far more of the technologies that the Chinese want. But the UK has other things that we can offer them. If the UK provides regulatory approval, it carries huge weight globally. And the UK has a tendency to go it alone. We could break the unity of the EU, when we were still in the EU, or we could break the Five Eyes 3 because we don’t want to go along with the Americans.

The UK is also one of the most open countries in the world. We welcome and accept investments in areas that other partner countries would not consider allowing the Chinese to invest in. We take a very pragmatic, non-ideological view to our relationship with other countries, including with China.

How has that changed in the last year or two years?

Tsang: I think they still want to engage with us. But the Chinese government now puts more emphasis on the dignity of China, or the fairness issue, rather than on the pragmatic advantages. A good illustration is the way they dealt with the European Union’s sanctions against China over Xinjiang. They were expecting EU sanctions, so they had counter-sanctions prepared beforehand. When the UK joined EU sanctions, that caught the Chinese by surprise. And it took them about three or four days before they decided on how to respond. They eventually decided to punch the UK back in the face, rather than take advantage of the fact that the UK could be treated differently, and by treating us differently, it could potentially drive a wedge among the Five Eyes.

How should the UK structure its approach to China?

Tsang: I do think we need to have a very clear idea of what we want in our relationship with China. What are the key principles that we cannot give up in this process of engaging with China? I do not believe that we should not engage with China. Of course we should. We must. And one of the great traditions of this country is that diplomacy is needed most when you’re dealing with non-friends than when you’re dealing with friends.

The US has a policy of making the world safe for democracies. The UK doesn’t have such a policy. But the Chinese government under Xi Jinping clearly has a policy to make the world safe for authoritarianism and a world that is safe for authoritarian authoritarianism exists at the expense of democratic values and democracies. And even though we don’t have a policy to make the world safe for democracies, we believe in democratic values and human rights. And those are under threat when you have a rising power which is able to pursue a policy of making the world safe for authoritarianism.

If you were in charge of writing a new China strategy for the UK, what would it say?

Tsang: We want to engage with China to make sure that China will accept and abide by international rules and standards. We want a level playing field in how we deal with each other in trade and investment and all kinds of exchanges. We cannot and must not accept our academics or students going to China and being treated in ways that breach their basic rights, because we don’t do that to Chinese students and academics coming to this country. The same with journalists. Journalists being forced out of China and being threatened is not acceptable and we need to have ways to deal with that.

And we will have to also work on our core values and how we protect them. That means we will have to accept that if we are not willing to accept forced labor in a manufacturing process for goods that we purchase, then we will have to buy from places which are more expensive, or not buy from certain areas and certain companies.

We also need, in parallel to a China strategy, a strategy for the resettlement of people from Hong Kong under the BNO scheme 4. When you are looking at potentially 300,000 people relocating and settling in a country like the UK, however well-educated and well-off most of them may be, they will need help to settle and be able to integrate fully and for this to be mutually beneficial. If we don’t help them, they will congregate in certain parts of this country in the kind of ghettos that immigrants often do, and that will cause problems and tensions with long settled local people. There is an enormous opportunity this country has at the moment in not only offering a safe sanctuary to people from Hong Kong, but also in tapping into their talents and their resources so that it will be mutually beneficial. But that doesn’t happen just like that.