How democracy changed Hong Kong

Regina Ip says as well as politicising important issues and polarising society, loosening the elite's grip on power has had some unexpected side effects, which all bodes ill for the city's future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 6:20pm

In recent years, the death of senior officials who were familiar names in the final decades of the colonial administration - former secretary for security David Jeaffreson, L.M.(Bim) Davies, "Mr 1997", and most recently John Walden, former director of home affairs - calls for a fresh examination of how democracy changed Hong Kong.

Scholars have pointed out that the British administrators passed up two opportunities to democratise Hong Kong. Yet, by deriving its practices from "the best traditions of imperial Chinese government and its philosophical, Confucian basis" and stressing "efficiency, honesty, fairness, benevolent paternalism and individual freedom", they created a hugely successful colony.

Dr Steve Tsang, an Oxford historian, pointed out in his 1988 monograph Democracy Shelved that plans to introduce democracy to Hong Kong started in London in 1945, but were shelved in 1952 for a combination of reasons, including objections from the local Chinese elite, the expatriate mercantile class and, above all, a judgment on the part of the colonial administrators that Hong Kong was better run as a colony than under a more representative form of government.

Dr Ambrose King, a sociologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pointed out in his 1975 article "The administrative absorption of politics in Hong Kong" that, after the riots of 1966 and 1967, the colonial administration seriously reconsidered introducing a more representative form of government, but decided ultimately to remedy its lack of direct, popular mandate by bringing officials closer to the people through the introduction of the city district officer scheme. To ensure the scheme would gain immediate, wide public support, the administration posted the brightest and best local officers to serve as the first batch of officials. The scheme quickly gained public approval and provided the blueprint for the current district administration system.

The colonial administrators had good reasons to shelve democracy. They found Hong Kong a bureaucrats' paradise not just because of the high salaries, but also because it afforded those elite administrators a chance to build an economic miracle and a successful society by blending the finest of British and Chinese administrative traditions, unencumbered by the divisive, debilitating effects of parliamentary politics.

Discussions on file were filled with concerns about how democratic politics would politicise otherwise professional discussion of issues and polarise society; how members of the Legislative Council would "play to the gallery" and Legco would become "a dreary talk shop". Alas, with the current lawmakers taking to new levels their skills in fruit-throwing, filibustering, and seeking powers and privileges to investigate the government, one cannot but note, with quiet discomfort, the ominous prescience of the colonial forebears.

Democracy has changed Hong Kong in more ways than affecting how the legislature functions. Another important change is the creation of new, multiple pathways to power. On the face of it, all well and good. Yet the loosening of the elite's grip on power has had some unexpected side effects.

First, democratisation of the legislature has given rise to a new political breed. No geographical constituency legislator could have got elected without honing their skills in sloganeering, staging public protests, mobilising the masses, attacking their opponents and generally all the chicanery of political campaigning. The elite representatives of the professions and the captains of industry are now outnumbered by trade unionists, bleeding-heart social workers, lawyers and academics who fill the directly elected seats.

Unfortunately, partly owing to a handicap of our system which does not yet provide enough opportunity for elected legislators to assume policy responsibility, few take up their positions with a sense of responsibility for the overall welfare of society.

Second, the political accountability system, introduced in 2002, has created a new political class in government, who are supposed to call the shots but lag behind their civil service underlings in professional knowledge and experience. In some cases, top jobs have gone to political appointees with thin CVs. Due to their lack of experience, most have few political assets to bring to the government.

The advent of democracy has fanned expectations of the public, who have been encouraged by the electoral candidates into believing the government could solve all problems.

The perpetual escalation of public demands to provide universal retirement benefits, 15 years of free, compulsory education, poverty relief based on a "relative" definition of poverty, and so on, make it impossible in the long term to maintain a simple, low taxation system and "small government".

Thus, democracy has not only upended the old system, it has also potentially sowed the seeds of destruction of the new system. Let's hope Hong Kong does not follow the path that The Economist reminded us of recently, quoting John Adams, America's second president: "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself."

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party