One Belt, One Road, One Eunuch and Some Flawed Advocacy

Successful advocates are mind-changers. They work wonders by deploying evidence that supports the merits of their arguments. Hong Kong’s high-ranking advocates for China’s Belt and Road Initiative are not the skillful sort. (This article was originally published on February 16, 2016 on fragrantdelta.)


It is bad enough that some politicians repeatedly distort the past when invoking President Xi Jinping’s amorphous initiative to tie 65 Eurasian countries into a zone of infrastructure, trade, finance and social connectivity.

Exco Convener Lam Woon-kwong (林煥光) may think he sounds wise by advising Hongkongersto think of the initiative as a soft power push symbolised by the “open and diplomatic” voyages of the Ming eunuch admiral Zheng He. And, Maritime Silk Road Society Co-Chair and Exco member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (葉劉淑儀) may believe she looks splendid at the head of an organisation that advises locals to “recapture the ancient spirit of adventure” of the Han dynasty “explorer and diplomat” Zhang Qian.

In reality, both come off as dunces. More accomplished historians have already pointed out – using imperial records – that Zheng He’s voyages were not exactly peaceful and that the purpose of Zhang Qian’s almost legendary journey to Central Asia was to find military allies against tribes the emperor did not like. In history, as in the present day, the lands in question were theatres of interest for Middle Kingdom military strategists.

Sadly, in 21st century Hong Kong, this is not the most problematic of Belt and Road advocacy message failings. Far worse, local Belt and Roaders have systematically sacrificed the logical integrity of their argumentation. Take Leung Chun-ying’s 2016 Policy Address, which critics have decried for the lip service it pays to the northern mandarins. Leung mentions Belt and Road 48 times, surpassing even “One Country, Two Systems” in historic frequency of use in one address.

What Leung does not do is explain why the Hong Kong government should have to spend new money on the Belt and Road at all, let alone HK$1 billion in scholarships to 100 students from the relevant countries, HK$200 million in support of professional services firms’ Belt and Road exchanges, and the operating costs of the proposed Belt and Road Steering Committee.

His many claims that Hong Kong is well placed to gain from China’s plans do not fit the bill. After all, there is a big difference between pointing out the territory’s hard-earned comparative advantages in meeting the needs of a central government strategy and actively advocating public resource allocation to support that strategy. Allocation implies tradeoffs, and advocates must justify those tradeoffs.

In fact, Leung is guilty of a form of non sequitur argumentation known as “affirming the consequent” – if A is true, then B is true; B is true; therefore A must be true. In the Belt and Road context, the argument is as follows:

Thanks to past actions, Hong Kong is uniquely suited to take advantage of the initiative. Hong Kong is uniquely suited, therefore we need to take action.

Clearly, any gains Hong Kong might realise from overall Belt and Road development cannot be taken as the sole justification to undertake new public sector action. On the contrary, any money the Hong Kong government spends should have a measurable positive outcome in its own right.

The Chief Executive is not alone in using this questionable logic to structure arguments. The same Regina Ip, who has a love for penning articles and speeches (here, here, and here) that do little more than discuss what Hong Kong businesses can gain through Belt and Road participation, is an offender. As she opines in an August 2015 SCMP commentary, the government should spearhead Hong Kong’s participation in the initiative rather than leaving the task to businesses.

Specifically, Ip criticises Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華) for having previously indicated that resource allocation under the Belt and Road Initiative should left to the market. She suggests that Tsang’s comments may no longer be relevant in Hong Kong, while implying that government intervention may be “smart” in this case.

Joining Ip, once again, is Lam Woon-kwong, who has attempted to justify the administration’s scholarship plan based on his trite observation that students who study in Hong Kong become the territory’s “friends”. As an added bonus, bringing Belt and Road students to Hong Kong will help internationalise a student body that has too many “yellow faces”, as he puts it.

Never mind that, at 15.2 percent of all tertiary students, Hong Kong’s non-local student population far exceeds the 4.2 percent of the US, a country that has long been considered a magnet for overseas applicants. Mainlanders represent 78.4 percent of the non-local Hong Kong student body, which, nevertheless, also includes 2,377 (4.4 percent) non-Chinese Asians. Might Lam be looking at the wrong “diversity” issue?

Regardless, it is clear that adding a mere 100 applicants from the Belt and Road will not yield a big statistical difference whether or not friendly relations develop. It will, however, set taxpayers back HK$1 billion.

This said, there is no question that the Belt and Road Initiative could yield some opportunities for Hong Kong somewhere. While some have questioned whether regimes along the route will spend investors’ dollars wisely, surely some gain will arise if enough money is thrown at the countries in question.

But this should not free those who advocate new public sector Belt and Road involvement from explaining why the Hong Kong government needs to do anything different from what it has been doing for years.

Officials are already facilitating the initiative by negotiating a free-trade agreement with ASEAN. And they have long been pushing for greater financial integration in Asia. Finally, provided they can continue to avoid – in theory, if not always in practice – excessive intervention in the commercial and academic realms, there is no reason why Hong Kong cannot flourish as a center for commerce and academic exchanges.

Of course, the burden of providing evidence to back their words may require some northward-looking politicians to dial back their enthusiastic rhetoric. Yet these political minds should consider the situation in a different light. While Beijing officials might approve of efforts to talk up the Belt and Road Initiative, they will be all the more appreciative if their local mouthpieces learn how to effectively sell President Xi’s signature strategy.

Tommy Patterson

Tommy Patterson

Tommy Patterson is an independent Hong Kong-based political analyst, policy researcher and strategic communications consultant.

Mr Patterson has recently launched http://fragrantdelta.com where you can read more of his ideas and analysis on Hong Kong and regional politics and policy.

Tommy Patterson