A conversation on rebuilding mutual understanding in an increasingly divided world.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Ying Lun “Allen” Fung serves as Political Assistant to Secretary for Development of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, where he works on the issue of developable land shortage. Fung’s political career started at Hong Kong University, where he was Vice President of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union and Chairman of China Study Society. Fung then served as personal assistant to former Chief Executive Cy Leung from 2006 to 2012, before joining the government in 2014. Fung is a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies and the All China Youth Federation, and Standing Committee Member of the Guangdong Youth Federation.
It seems that your career in politics started when you were at the University of Hong Kong. What was it that drew you to the field of politics?
Well, I think first of all, I have to start with my interest in politics when I was very young, when I was still in secondary school, and I was 15, or 16 years old. I had started to find my interest in history. When I was studying world history and Chinese history, I found that I was deeply confounded with some of the issues about what’s happening in the modernization process of China. And that actually led to a lot of questions: First of all, what is modernization? And, how are we going to achieve modernization? And also questions like, is it really good to be modernized? At that time, I didn’t have answers. That basically led me to start thinking about these questions and to seek answers myself. So, I started reading about politics.I have always believed that I need to try to understand politics, because politics is everybody’s. It’s not just for some professional politicians. I don’t believe there’s any professional politics; even those who spend their whole lives in politics, I don’t think that they are professionals, because you don’t have accreditation for being a politician. So I will say, I think my interest in politics began with my interest in history. And particularly as a Chinese, a lot of Chinese scholars in the modern day are intrigued by this very big topic of how China can modernize and join the world to be a modernized, civilized, prosperous, and free country.
What drew you to your current line of work of urban planning and development? Could you tell me about specific policies that you’ve worked on?
Well, I I joined the Development Bureau in 2014. Before that, I was a personal assistant to Mr. Cy Leung for six and a half years, and I had participated in his election campaign for his election in 2012. So, after the election, I worked around one and a half years in the private sector before I joined the government. I would say joining the Development Bureau was part of the continuation of being personal assistant to Cy Leung. In terms of development, I’m not a professional engineer. I work mostly from the political perspective. So a lot of work is with district personnel, including the District Council, political parties, and other professional groups. I have also always had a keen interest in urban planning. Urban planning is a very important topic for Hong Kong because we face a very severe land shortage problem. It’s not actually land shortage per say, because we still have land. It’s actually about developable land. Hong Kong is very densely populated and we are very intensively developing. We are using only around 24% to 25% of our land. Roughly less than 300 square kilometers to house over 7.5 million people. So, to support this intensive development, we need to plan ahead, we need to lay down the foundation, we need to have all the infrastructure works, including water supplies, electricity, and drainage systems. And of course, having so many people living so close together, we need to have really good public transport, a well-designed railway system so it’s convenient for people to commute. In Hong Kong we have actually achieved a very high rate of public transportation use. Basically 90% of people are using public transport for daily commutes.
So, I think that my interest in urban planning originated from the problems that Hong Kong faces, because I’m interested in solving how people can live better, because there are advantages for living so close together, for example high usage of public transport, but on the other hand, it also means that we are living in a very dense environment and people’s living spaces are very limited. So, I suppose this is one of the most important problems that Hong Kong faces. By serving in the Development Bureau, I also hope I can help solve this pressing issue in Hong Kong. And I also have a keen interest in the strategic planning part. We should plan ahead, so that when we face new development challenges, we can have timely provision of land for those needs.
I imagine that no one was able to plan ahead for the Coronavirus pandemic. And I imagine that the pandemic has made the issue of developable land shortage even more dire, because people in Hong Kong are living in close quarters, but social distancing has become very important. How has the pandemic affected your work and what do you plan to do in the future?
Well, first of all, let me explain a little bit about the situation in Hong Kong. COVID-19 has, of course, impacted Hong Kong a lot because it has had a grave impact on tourism and the business retail also because Hong Kong’s retail is also very closely related to tourism. But in terms of the living environment, in Hong Kong, I told you that we are very intensively developed, but at the same time Hong Kong’s system is actually very management intensive. You know, the Hong Kong urban environment requires a lot of management. So, I would say Hong Kong people are quite used to intensively managed situations. So, for example, from very early on, the mask wearing ratio in Hong Kong has actually been very high. I would say over 90% to 95% of people were wearing masks even in maybe February or March, before the government had mandated masks for everybody in public areas. So, Hong Kong people have gotten used to that kind of management.In many ways we are also very disciplined. So in terms of the impact of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong has not fared very badly. We basically haven’t shut down at all. We had some work from home early on this year, but we had basically reopened both of our government services very early on. And we had implemented mask wearing and other distancing measures. So far the response has been quite good. Of course, our industries have been affected, air traffic has almost stopped, and the airlines are facing severe difficulties, but those are some global problems, not just Hong Kong. So, the impact on urban planning is not really that great. And that is partly because we have been living close to each other for a long time, so we had experience in implementing more management intensive measures.
With the increasing world population, and exacerbating climate change, it seems like in the future, a lot of places in the world will also face a shortage of developable land, and people will have to live in very close quarters. Do you think that Hong Kong’s experience could be useful then?
In recent decades, people have been talking about vertical cities. We have to develop our cities in a more vertical fashion instead of sprawling them across a lot of land, because that would be encroaching on the environment. So I do believe that in the future, our cities in the world have to be more vertical and in that, Hong Kong can offer some experience.
But I would say Hong Kong still has space for improvement, especially, a very big challenge in the future will be energy consumption. There was actually a debate on whether the future of energy should rely on traditional or modern systems. So, whether we should have power generation with fossil fuels or nuclear power and link up the whole grid with these buildings, or whether we should invest more in battery technologies, so that we can store energy closer to the end user instead of using a grid system. Of course, the grid system has been the most efficient system in the past, but in the future, when technologies further develop, maybe we can make our energy efficiency even higher. But in terms of managing a vertical city and making efficient use of land, Hong Kong has quite a lot of experience to share with the world.
When I’m talking about infrastructure, I’m not just talking about hard infrastructure, like electricity, water supplies, sewage management, drainage management, and so on. To have a livable city, we need to have soft infrastructures also- we hope that our children can have access to quality education close to their homes, that our health care services can be provided to people easily, and that social welfare can be provisioned close to each district. So Hong Kong has a lot of planning standards and guidelines for communities to develop, experiences we can share. When people live so close together, it actually helps enhance the quality of [human] service[s], because you cover more people In those areas, Hong Kong can offer some experience in our past urban planning and provisions, so I believe that we can help when we are talking about building vertical cities in the world.
How have the Hong Kong independence protests affected your work?
First of all, the protests have led to a very severe division in society. People who support the protests and people who don’t are very divided- actually, the whole division started in 2014, with the Occupy Central movement. The society has been divided into basically two colors, the yellow and the blue, and I would say it is badgering the trust in society. The trust in the government, at least for quite a large proportion of the population, has been diminished. So it makes policy formulation and the whole public engagement process even harder for the government. When we are pushing forward planning strategies and other planning projects and so on, we have faced very serious trust issues with the public. Even very simple policies would be faced with uneasiness. It gets more confrontational, especially in the Legislative Council, and in the District Council, so that makes policy formulation and implementation harder.
Diverting away from the topic of your work, why did you decide to join the World Fellows program?
Of course, it is a very high honor to have been accepted as part of this world Fellows Program in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I’m very happy to have this opportunity. I have also read about previous World Fellows, and a lot of highly accomplished young leaders in the world have participated in this program. I believe it is a very good network for making the world better. The fellows are trying to change the world, and this cohort is amazing- people like Evan, and people like Hyppolite, and basically all the fellows are really cool and really amazing people, and that is, of course, a very important reason why I wanted to join this year.
And on the other hand, I believe that 2020 is going down in history as a very special year. A lot of things have changed. It’s not just Covid-19. The world that we thought we understood, is actually changing in a lot of ways. And I believe that it is an important time for me to join as a bridge between China and Hong Kong and the Western world. I really hope that I can somehow give a perspective for the Western world to understand more profoundly, what actually is happening in Hong Kong and the mainland of China. I have always been a very analytical person. I love to think and I love to categorize issues, and I love to build analytical frameworks. For example, to understand US-China relations, and to understand the modern world system, I really would like to give my perspective to not just this cohort, but to establish connections with institutions like Yale.
To have opportunities to actually directly engage and exchange ideas and give my perspective to promote mutual understanding, which is really very important because we are literally in a time when communication is at the speed of light. In such a time, I believe that we should actually be able to communicate better, not worse. If the technologies can bring out the worst part of humanity, it can also amplify the best part. But we need to have frameworks to understand each other, we need to promote that kind of mutual understanding. We have to embrace the differences that we have. Culturally, we are very different. I would say, the kind of mutual understanding that doesn’t try to elucidate the whole foundation, the whole reason behind the difference, is actually intriguing. So I really hope that I can give a perspective for people to better understand, first of all, why are we different? And why are we thinking differently? Why are we taking a different approach to issues? Why do we have different value systems? A different orientation for these values? We cannot let the rise of populism disrupt the search for mutual understanding. I think this fellowship gives me a good opportunity to work on that.
Are you optimistic that under Joe Biden, things will change, and mutual understanding between Hong Kong, China, and the US will be rebuilt?
I would say there are some fundamental differences between the value systems of the US and China. And those differences are not easily reconcilable. It will take a lot of effort from people who really believe in mutual understanding and mutual respect. It is easier said than done. I really like the quote by Antonio Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but I’m an optimist because of will.” So, we have to start somewhere. It may take some time and some back and forth, but I would say we have to try, and after everything is settled down with this election, I really hope we can start on something new, and try to bridge the gap that has been widening for the past few years. I will not underestimate the difficulties, but I do have faith that with people with the will to communicate and engage in mutual understanding, we will be able to work on something.
As a Japanese national, I would like to see a future where Japan, China, and South Korea, arguably some of the most influential countries in Asia, can build close ties and friendly relations and work together in spearheading the development of the East. How can that happen?
I would say, first of all, China, Japan, and Korea, we share a lot in common. The cultural traits are very similar, but at the same time, there are some differences from the historical perspectives. Of course, in modern times, there are some historical issues that we need to sort out, historical animosities, and we need to find a way that is acceptable to both people. It has actually been a very important topic for a lot of Chinese scholars in the past: why was Japan relatively more successful in modernizing? We basically started at the same time, in the mid 19th century. In Japan there was the Meiji Restoration and the reform and modernization, and Japan has actually been more successful in building a modernized institution. China has still been lagging behind in that area. I believe the future of cooperation has to be to work on those parts.
Most of the time, when we are talking about international cooperation, we tend to take a perspective that each state is a coherent and rational actor, but I think in real life, international relations is much more complicated. We need to also think about the political economic systems in the different countries. Of course it is very hard for a country to command or meddle in the internal politics of another country, but as intellectuals, as scholars, as students of history, we need to understand that. I believe that the intellectuals in China, Japan, and Korea need to work together. We are all latecomers in modernization. So, a lot of reforms, a lot of the modern institutions that we have built up, have been modeled to a certain extent on Western countries. So, this kind of reform will go on. Even the US, and Western countries are still reforming. I believe, provided that there is mutual respect for each country’s internal politics, the intellectuals in our countries, sharing a deep historical commonality, should have more exchange of ideas on how we can progress together, make the world and East Asia a better place, a more peaceful and prosperous place for people. I believe this is something that our intellectuals, scholars, and politicians can work more on.
Mao Shiotsu is a rising sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at email@example.com.