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How Hong Kong's business elite have thwarted democracy for 150 years

Philip Bowring says a look back over the past 150 years reveals how Hong Kong's business elite have continually used their power to frustrate the public's democratic ambitions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 2014, 4:32am

Each time they seemed to be losing steam, stupid, sometimes vicious, official actions have rejuvenated the Occupy movement. Its eventual end will be "not with a bang but with a whimper" in the face of exhaustion and public irritation. How much better to have gone out on a high, declaring an astonishing propaganda victory, but vowing to return if the voices of protest were not finally heard.

The aims could never be achieved immediately. The goal had to be longer term and less an appeal to Beijing, more a warning to the forces of entrenched privilege in Hong Kong, already under threat from repeated revelations of greed and sleaze. Does this decrepit system have the capacity to respond to the underlying causes of discontent, if not to the specific of the chief executive selection?

Sadly, Hong Kong's history of constitutional development offers little encouragement. Almost always, what an early governor called the "enormous power of the great commercial houses" has impeded the public interest; business thrived not because of genius, but because of the myriad of small enterprises in a city state with free trade and stable institutions. The first proposal for elections to the Legislative Council dates to 1856, when the governor suggested five out of 13 members be elected by those, regardless of race, owning land with a rent of £10 or more. Voting rights for Chinese would "associate them with the actions of government". London rejected it, saying, for different reasons, neither British nor Chinese residents could be trusted to advance the public interest.

It was not till 1880 that a Chinese was invited onto Legco. The first elections, with a narrow land ownership franchise, were held in 1884 for some members of the Sanitary Board, which advised on public health issues. But such was the influence of landowners on the board and in Legco that a government plan to provide more air space and prevent overcrowding was rejected on the grounds of infringing property rights. (How familiar that sounds today).

The next proposal for elections to Legco came in 1884, from leading businessmen. Their idea of democracy not merely only included rate-paying landowners, but only those who were British subjects. London correctly saw it as way to create a British merchant oligarchy and that the existing system better served the non-British majority's interests.

Astonishingly, for the next 60 years, there were only minor changes in the Hong Kong power structure of colonial officials and appointed unofficial members. Wars, chaos in China, the Japanese invasion, the global slump all became reasons why Hong Kong stayed in the 19th century while partly elected governments appeared in other British territories and as more Chinese were recruited into the administration.

In 1946, in the decolonisation drive after the war, the governor proposed a 48-member Municipal Council with wide powers, one-third elected by non-Chinese, one third by Chinese institutions and one-third by Chinese individuals. It failed because of expatriate business resistance, a new, more conservative governor, and London's fears of Hong Kong becoming a political battleground between Kuomintang and Communist parties.

As the pace of decolonisation gathered momentum in the late 1950s, some in Hong Kong saw the need for change. At that point Beijing made its views very clear, in a message from Zhou Enlai to prime minister Harold Macmillan in 1958. Zhou claimed that, with support from America, "a plot or conspiracy was being hatched to make Hong Kong a self-governing dominion like Singapore". Any such move would be seen as "a very unfriendly act". The present system should stay unchanged.

This set the tone for British officialdom for the next 30 years. The 1967 sacking of the British embassy in Beijing, in response to the jailing of rioters in Hong Kong, convinced many British diplomats that their view of British interests should not be sacrificed to responsibilities to Hong Kong. This was underlined by the fact that, from 1972 until 1992, the Foreign Office supplied all the governors. Murray MacLehose focused on social not constitutional reform, Edward Youde spent most of his energy on the Joint Declaration negotiations. David Wilson was the very embodiment of the desire for a "through train" to 1997 - in practice, one dictated by Beijing. This went down well with the commercial interests appointed to Legco and the Executive Council. In 1987, Wilson indulged in a disgraceful phony consultation exercise, saying people did not want direct elections. His stance was swept away by the local response to Tiananmen. The push for directly elected seats was unstoppable. 1991 saw the first.

Wilson's weakness in dealing with Beijing brought about his replacement by a politician, Chris Patten. Even Patten's democracy rush was almost derailed by a mix of the opposition of the commercial interests in Legco and a campaign in London by "sinologist" former ambassadors, headed by Percy Cradock, men with contempt for Hong Kong aspirations and advocates of secret dealings with Beijing.

Patten's reforms were reversed, but their legacy lives on, a recurring nightmare for Beijing and for the tycoons who control the land and use their power to thwart the public interest as surely now as in 1856.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator