My Take

Why we don't understand politics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 5:07am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 7:18am

There is a widespread misunderstanding about the nature and constitutional set-up of the Hong Kong and Macau SARs and, by extension, their colonial past. Many people who are gung-ho about full democracy share it as much as those who are happy to take directions from Beijing.

The misconception is that Hong Kong is a city, its government is like city hall and the chief executive is like a mayor. Or, in the words of a particularly aggressive and ignorant reader of mine: "We are not a sovereign country, just a SAR of China. The role of government here is more akin to a city council and mayor. These bodies are democratically elected in cities of developed countries." (I will skip the rude remarks about my kids.)

All I can say is - you got that all wrong. If you are fighting for full democracy, then at least know the constitutional nature of the polis - Aristotle's word for city-state from which the word politics is derived - you are living in and fighting for. As a polis, we are much more than a mere city. Crucially, we have many of the trappings of a sovereign state. We have our own currency, borders and passports, legal and tax systems, and fiscal and budgetary independence.

State members in the European Union don't have many of these. The reason for our confusion is because, as my friend Nicholas Gordon argues in his Harvard thesis, people are used to thinking in binary terms: you either have sovereignty or you don't.

Our government structure resembles a full-fledged state, minus foreign policy. We have membership in the World Trade Organisation and Apec and are a separate signatory to myriad global treaties and regimes on par with China and other sovereign states.

This is the direct result of "one country, two systems" under the Basic Law, designed to replicate many of the quasi-sovereign features of Hong Kong as a crown colony. Ask yourself how colonials like John Cowperthwaite managed to pursue free-market economics when Harold Wilson and the Labour Party controlled the government back home if they didn't enjoy some independence.

We are more likely to succeed in pursuing independent courses of action if we know our sanctioned independence and its limits. Surely that's somewhat relevant to our demand for universal suffrage.