Henry Ho: Think tanks have bigger role to play in HK’s future

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As Hong Kong celebrates the 25th anniversary of its reunification with China, numerous articles have been published, illustrating the success of Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”, a political framework full of Chinese wisdom. As a think-tank leader and researcher for more than 10 years, I would like to discuss how think tanks have developed over the past two and half decades in Hong Kong and also my expectations on the new government think tank.

Very few people in Hong Kong had heard about think tanks in 1997; nor was public policy a popular career or subject of study in universities. The number of active think tanks at that time, no matter how you define it, was less than 10. Notwithstanding that, being a social science graduate, I had the privilege of being one of the youngest researchers at the former Central Policy Unit (CPU) in 2004, under the leadership of Professor Lau Siu-kai. Those years in the CPU during Mr Tung Chee-hwa’s and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s administrations were truly eye-opening and thought-provoking. I met numerous top scholars in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland on subjects ranging from the Basic Law, Chinese economy, regional planning and development to social security and others. Besides conducting policy studies, I also had the opportunity to discuss policy ideas with numerous senior officials from different bureaus and departments, realizing the gap between policy studies and policy implementation. While many of my friends still find it difficult to grasp what think tanks mean today, those years in the CPU inspired me to pursue a career path in this “rare occupation”. Subsequently, I worked in different think tanks before founding one with some young mainland scholars, i.e., the One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.

Think tanks originate from the Western world. They consist of professional multidisciplinary policy researchers from diverse backgrounds. Unlike economic or business research, public policy reports do not normally have a very high monetary value, and regular funding from donors is essential for their long-term development. Political parties, business corporations and charitable foundations are the main source of donors. Besides conducting public policies, think tanks are also a training ground for breeding political talents and act as a “revolving door”. In the United States, many think tanks are affiliated with major political parties, and it is not uncommon for political appointees to be selected from relevant think tanks, and retired politicians could bring their wealth of political experience and influence back to the think tanks, which would be conducive to narrowing the gaps between policy advocacy and policy implementation.

Think tanks in the mainland take a different path of development. The mainland saw a booming think tank development trend after 2015, after President Xi Jinping championed the construction of “New Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics”. Twenty-nine “national top think tanks” are identified under four categories: subsidiary to government or affiliated organizations; universities and research institutes; affiliated to state-owned enterprises; and social think tanks. Think tanks on the mainland do not serve partisan or individual business interests. They serve the whole nation and population by providing in-depth studies and recommendations to different levels of government.

In Hong Kong, according to a survey, more than 30 think tanks were established in the past 25 years covering a wide array of issues such as land supply, youth, environment, technology, governance, etc. They maintained close contacts with the CPU before it was reorganized into the Policy Innovation and Coordination Office in 2017. While think tanks may apply for research funding from the government on a project basis, they do not receive regular funding from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government.

Leaders of the local think tank community welcome Mr John Lee Ka-chiu’s proposed new policy unit within the government. Public policy studies are the essence of any think tanks; and government think tanks are no exception. Yet, from my previous experience in the CPU, two unique functions of a government think tank should not be overlooked.

The first key function is liaison with the mainland. Previous heads of the CPU such as Professor Lau Siu-kai and Mr Shiu Sin-por are not only experts in their own disciplines, but also highly trusted by the central government. Both of them were deeply involved in the process of Hong Kong reunification with China in the 1980s and 1990s. Their strong connections with the mainland enabled the city’s government to obtain firsthand and in-depth understanding of the mainland. Studies conducted by the CPU on subjects such as Pearl River Delta development, regional cooperation, as well as the national Five-Year Plans, broadened the mindset and national perspectives of the city’s top government officials at that time to pursue policies that facilitated integration of Hong Kong to the nation. This pertinent function would be even more crucial in the next five years as Hong Kong is embarking on a new path in resolving deep-seated problems, the solutions of which entail the support of the central government.

Second is the grooming of political talents. The part-time member system of the CPU has served as a training ground for political talents throughout the years. Many members became political appointees of subsequent administrations, or members of statutory and advisory bodies. With the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong” firmly implemented following the revamp of the city’s electoral system, grooming of political talents outside the government will be at the top of the agenda.

From less than 10 to over 40, think tanks have played a crucial role in the deliberation of public policies, and formulation of new ideas and policy recommendations to the government in the past 25 years. Hong Kong is going to start a new chapter under the leadership of Mr John Lee. A reformist government would undoubtedly need new ideas from think tanks on tackling various deep-seated issues. I am sure the think tank community in Hong Kong would welcome more dialogue with the new administration so as to build a better future for Hong Kong.

The author is founder and chairman of One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.

The original article was published in China Daily (June 30, 2022).