The election took place against the backdrop of Hong Kong residents taking to the streets in the largest protests in years, protesting against the unsatisfactory performance of the outgoing government of Donald Tsang. During Hu Jintao's last visit to Hong Kong as acting President of the PRC, the protests also articulated anxiety that China was interfering in unwelcome ways with the city's internal affairs.
Here is a news report on the election of CY Leung:
To put this in context, below I have included a diagram that shows where Hong Kong falls as an administrative unit in China's political system - as a special administrative region (SAR) which is granted an exceptional degree of autonomy by Beijing.
And here is a map illustrating the location of these various units, including the two SARs, Hong Kong and Macau:
The main fear of those campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong is that China will not stick to its promises to introduce direct elections for the city's full legislature and Chief Executive within this decade, since it has already postponed them several times. At the same time, there is a widely-held view outside of China that Hong Kong must sooner or later become democratic - with all of its social, cultural and economic differences from the mainland - or else it will lose the lively, liberal character that has made it what it is today, an international financial hub.
And the assumption is that China cannot afford to lose that.
Since the handover in 1997, China has been politically stable and economically successful, whilst Hong Kong has benefited from the rapid growth in bilateral economic ties between the two entities. Although large numbers still congregate in Victoria Park every June to commemorate the victims of Tianenmen Square in 1989, an effective mass movement for elective democracy does not seem to have emerged. What we see are regular protests and a mixture of intermittent state-backed repression and concessions. And, disconcertingly, almost exactly the same reasons proffered in Beijing for delaying elections that were given by the British decades earlier.
Moreover, the pro-democracy camp in the Legislative Council seems too riven by mistrust to coordinate effective collective action. The video below is from 2010, though the situation was the same back in 2003-4 when Joseph Y. S. Cheng observed: "The various pro-democracy groups attempted to appear united, but failed to present themselves as an alternative administration, not an opposition operating merely for the sake of opposition. Cooperation among the pro-democracy political groups in the Legislative Council elections proved to be much more difficult than in the District Council elections, and coordination was unsatisfactory".
To account for the glacial progress towards liberal democracy in Hong Kong, I think we need to break down and analyse some of the assumptions underlying the influential view that economic success needs capitalism, and capitalism - sooner or later - necessitates democracy. In short, I do not think the latter proposition is true. To explain why I think this, I will first show how Hong Kong came to be seen as the definitive proof of the former proposition - and thus how it became a test case for the latter.
When word reached the British government that it had secured Hong Kong Island in the Treaty of Nanjing as reparation for China's burning shipments of British opium, it came as a crushing disappointment.
The Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston dismissed it as "a barren and uninhabited rock...with hardly a house upon it", whilst Queen Victoria was amused to speculate that her daughter might one day be "princess of Hong Kong", an insignificant lump of granite. The historian Niall Ferguson writes in Empire that, at the time, "the only real benefit of acquiring Hong Kong as a result of the war of 1841 was that it provided firms like Jardine Matheson with a base for their opium-smuggling operation."
But Captain Charles Elliot, the Superintendent of Trade in Canton who had bargained for the sovereignty of the island, believed this pessimism was short-sighted; in time, he thought that the island's deep water harbour would be a vital strategic asset as a gateway for traders from East and West, even more valuable than the already-humming trading centres situated further up from the Pearl River Delta. Yet he was still recalled to Britain and replaced for "unaccountably strange conduct."
|Captain Charles Elliot (1801-1875)|
|Queen's Road, 1910|
Nonetheless until the Second World War Hong Kong was economically outshadowed by other entrepots such as the British 'treaty ports' of Shanghai and Guangzhou. Instability on the mainland led to waves of large-scale migration to Hong Kong: in 1950, its population increased by 186% just as a result of inward migration. Many of these migrants were politicians, officials and businessmen associated with the exiled Nationalist regime, and they brought with them their skills, their capital and their connections.
This economic success (average GDP growth of 10% in the 1950s-60s) followed the failure of the first, and most far-reaching, British plan to democratise the colony, the 1949 Young Plan, as described by Brian Hook. The Plan envisaged the gradual transfer of all decision-making power to a two-thirds directly-elected municipal council as a preliminary to full self-determination, but it was abandoned in the face of unanimous opposition from inside the government, and from local elites.
In other words, the system could be geared towards more consensual and responsive government without the need for far-reaching change - as they had managed to do by modifying the "unequal treaties" after a wave of anti-imperialist strikes and demonstrations in the 1920s. They seemed to be vindicated in that belief when, in 1956, leftist groups and students staged anti-colonial protests that failed to win over wider public support - the so-called 'Double-Ten Riots'.
|Factory in Hong Kong, 1960|
It was a decade of burgeoning prosperity and rags-to-riches stories of individual entrepreneurs abounded. Here is some footage of Hong Kong Central from 1962, which shows the impact of modernisation on the landscape.
This was also a "golden era" of beat-pop in Hong Kong, which starkly symbolised the pluralism and artistic freedom in the city compared with the ideological straitjacket being imposed on the arts in the mainland during the Cultural Revolution, which officially began in 1966.
In 1964 The Beatles played in Hong Kong and inspired a whole generation of young musicians to form bands such as The Menace, and Teddy Robin & The Playboys. "It's So Easy" by Danny Diaz & the Checkmates was a major hit in Hong Kong in the seminal year of 1966.
In the same year as the UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the then Governor Sir David Trench published the second plan for democracy in Hong Kong. The Dickinson Report proposed a hierarchy of mostly directly-elected self-government in the colony, "constituting a system of local administration intended to achieve optimum local participation, decentralisation of central government and devolution of financial responsibility." There already existed an elected body with some responsibility for governance in urban areas, the 'Urbco', but the Report called for a far wider and simpler franchise.
Yet neither of these proposals was ever implemented. Why? According to Brian Hook the reason was that the colonial authorities fear that elections would bring the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong:
|Protesters covering Government House with posters|
Until this time it is possible to argue that the governance of Hong Kong corresponded to a model of laissez-faire capitalism: as the last Governor of the city Chris Patten puts it in his book East and West, the colony was "blessed with a small team of colonial administrators eccentric enough to believe in free markets". The Foreign Office in London exercised restraint in using its extensive formal powers, which amounted to the "sovereign power to appoint and remove the Governor and senior officials, to appoint the senior judiciary, to disallow legislation, to apply specifically designed Acts of Parliament and Orders in Council to Hong Kong, and in the responsibility for its external affairs, with the exception of trade relations."
But this also meant that the power of government remained passive in areas which, in Britain itself, were considered legitimate domains of government intervention - namely to ensure full employment and look to the welfare of its people "from cradle to grave." The justification for this was captured by the racist saying that "the Chinese need no Sundays." The combination of the government's insensitivity to public opinion and the widening gap between the rich and the poor led to a rash of industrial action and civil disobedience in 1966; when the police responded by suppressing the protests, they turned violent.
Leftist groups in Hong Kong, inspired by the Red Guards across the border (and brandishing their own Little Red Books), formed a "struggle committee" and launched an "Anti-British, Anti-Violence Struggle" with the aim of forcing the British out of Hong Kong. And unlike the riots ten years earlier, the riots in 1967 initially attracted broad public support.
The documentary below covers these fascinating events, and argues that it took a show of violence to shake the colonial government out of its complacency and made it respond with a range of measures: social welfare laws to serve the poor, a labour ordinance, better institutions for consulting public opinion on policy (including bicameralism) and an assertive anti-corruption agency - the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), created in 1971.
The legacy of the 1967 riots subsequently became crucial to the different narratives used to frame what Hong Kong's development story signified. In the documentary above, the then Secretary for the New Territories Sir David Akers-Jones saw the government's ability to quell, and respond to, the riots as proof of both the durability of Hong Kong's economic model - "very quickly we put the problems of 1967 behind us and the economy recovered" - and of the capacity of the colonial political system to successfully adapt to public demands without the need for full-scale democratisation (they were helped in this by Beijing's withdrawal of support for the bombing campaign, Mao well aware that there was only so far they could push the British without losing the entrepot on which their economy depended).
But this account of Hong Kong's development greatly distorted the degree of state intervention in its economy, most notably in the allocation of land. What was presented as a spontaneously-occurring self-correcting system was in reality the result of political movements and political decisions.
Arguably the most influential of the free-market evangelists who sung the praises of Hong Kong was the economist Milton Friedman of the so-called "Chicago School" of his discipline.
Here is the full first episode (the section on Hong Kong starts at 08:00, and Friedman debates his critics from 28:55):
There was one big problem with this account of Hong Kong's success: the colony had not had laissez-faire economic management since the 1967 riots, precisely during the time it had flourished as a financial centre.
|The Goddess of |
Democracy in Hong Kong
The point I am trying to make here is that the oft-heard contention that for Hong Kong to continue to prosper it must retain a form of laissez-faire capitalism, and thus must remain liberal and must become democratic, does not necessarily follow from its recent history - with episodes of illberalism, crucial forms of state intervention and the obstruction of democracy - and, moreover, I do not see that it follows from the sort of arguments that are usually given as justification.
To clarify the point further, it is worth examining this argument in detail, which is laid out with admirable lucidity by Lord Patten in East and West. Here is an interview with Lord Patten from 2000 in which he describes how assuming the governorship at a time when all the talk was of "Asian values" eclipsing the decadent, individualist West forced him to reflect deeply on how he saw the relationship between capitalism, democracy and liberty. The most relevant segment starts around 15mins in.
Patten had served as a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, where he had witnessed firsthand the power of Big Ideas to transform the political landscape. This is how he describes that realisation, from the vantage point of a newly-elected MP on the moderate wing of the Conservative Party:
Thatcher's Big Idea, which Patten took with him to Hong Kong when he was appointed Governor in 1992, was that free markets, in the long run, always and everywhere produce inexorable pressure for liberal democracy, because it is under liberal democracy that they function best.
Under this system, "We can use the law to defend ourselves against anyone, however powerful. The law is made by those we elect to represent us in a legislature or parliament, and it can be changed if we can persuade enough of our fellow citizens that it should be. We are therefore both rulers and ruled."
The rule of law functions best under elective democracy because of the fundamental human need for a sense of "reciprocity", and the instinctive belief that the law should correspond in some reliable way to a society's customs and values. According to Patten, this need for reciprocity is the justification for the legal protection of our basic human rights and civil liberties: it means "giving others the ability to obtain what you yourself wish to obtain, when the rules apply equally to everyone, when everyone has the same security and opportunity to excel, and when there is parity of esteem."
However, it is one thing to say that, taking the long view, capitalism works best in a liberal democratic setting, and quite another to suggest that it always and everywhere works to increase the likelihood of liberal democracy - especially when, in the case of any particular society, the choice confronted is more often than not between worst and second- or third-best outcomes.
It was Fukuyama who memorably declared after 1989 that the battle over Big Ideas was over - liberal-democratic capitalism had decisively won the argument about the best way to organise society. His view bolstered the arguments of those who believed that capitalism would bring liberal democracy to Hong Kong - whereas anti-democratic capitalists in the past had merely been fooling themselves, now they could no longer do even that. I will return to this point later.
Quite apart from the nuts and bolts of this argument, it must also be said that Patten's assessment of what had made Hong Kong into an economic powerhouse is inadequate:
In any case, it is right to see 1989 as a turning-point in this story - in more ways than one.
The period from 1984-97 was full of interminable wrangles and recriminations between British and Chinese diplomats and politicians, far too many to go into here. In essence, the argument centred on whether either party to the Joint Declaration was betraying what they had signed up to, in its letters or spirit, and how. At the heart of the matter was what the Declaration meant by "convergence" between Hong Kong and the PRC over the intervening period.
In Understanding China, John Bryan Starr states the essence of the disagreement:
Therefore, when Lord Patten arrived as Governor in 1992 and immediately put forward proposals for de facto directly electing two-thirds of the Legco by universal suffrage (the remaining third being appointed), Beijing reacted furiously and snubbed Patten for the remainder of his term in office.
|Inside the Legco|
As a result, the British strategy of trying to reach an ongoing consensus with Beijing gave way to one of "making Hong Kong "indigestible" - as democratic as possible in the time remaining so that when the Chinese took control in 1997, undoing the changes would cause them the maximum possible international embarrassment."
Here is a clip from the 1997 BBC documentary The Last Governor about Patten's time in Hong Kong. It is an really insightful series worth watching in its entirety. This clip shows the election held in September 1995 - the first and, so far, only election in which a majority of the representatives were directly elected.
|Members of the new Legco being sworn in, June 1997|
Beijing set up its own Provisional Council for Hong Kong during this period, which met regularly in Shenzhen, and in 1996 a selection committee appointed by the National People's Congress (NPC) chose Tung Chee-hwa to replace Patten (whose sham election Jonathan Dimbleby described as "certainty in slow motion"). The PRC declared that it did not recognise the legitimacy of the 1995 election and would dismiss the resulting Legco after 1997 - which it proceeded to do.
Here is some footage of the official handover ceremony (the lowering/raising of the flags is at 06:30).
The political system set up after 1997 has remained basically the same, with only minor modifications. The PRC has repeatedly promised to make the Legco and Chief Executive fully elected, with the latter being the most important in a centralised system (opposition legislators inside Legco are constitutionally prohibited from sponsoring bills on matters of public spending, the operation of government, or the political structure, and for bills relating to government policy they need the prior written consent of the Chief Executive).
|Pro-democracy demonstration, 2004|
To my mind, arguments about the democratising power of new technologies seem to cut both ways - they might allow more people to connect with other likeminded people, but the same speed and ease they lend to organisation may also make it harder to build the deep bonds of trust that make for durable and credible political movements, bonds which arise out of commitment and sacrifice.
But if the "battle of ideas" is supposedly won, then it would seem that the challenges that arise from below are more likely to be ones that can be managed and controlled from within the system - even if that system is an authoritarian capitalist state that promises, eventually, to be a liberal democracy. If liberal democracy requires free-market capitalism, but not vice versa, then it would seem as if Hong Kong can claim to be progressing towards democracy simply by shoring up its economy (and, of course, taking any administrative measures necessary to preserve market stability).
In the end, I think we can afford to be more optimistic because I think that the "End of History" proclaimed by Fukuyama carries within it the potential for new alternative Big Ideas for solving new societal challenges. In removing broad-brush rivals to liberal-democratic capitalism, it has made it easier to notice the actually existing plurality of forms that the uniform facade of capitalism has taken around the world; far from coming to an end, the debate has moved forward and the terms have been clarified. The global financial crisis, by casting a spotlight on just how heavily involved governments are in their economies, even in supposed bastions of "neo-liberalism", has highlighted how the rhetoric of free-markets is often used to distract from the underlying reality of "positive non-interventionism", and the essentially contestable political choices and value-judgments embodied therein. If this helps to move us away from the notion that there are countries, such as Hong Kong, that represent some idealised "pure" free-market standard against which we must measure ourselves, then I think it is all the better.
In the meantime, I am not pessimistic about the chances of Hong Kong moving towards liberal democracy - it's just that I think it is unlikely to happen as straightforwardly as some might expect.