Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

An ancient Chinese history lesson for today’s Hong Kong

  • The early years of the historic Han dynasty might have practised the first ‘one country two systems’. The eventual demise of the political model may have much to teach us about the present

History is not necessarily a guide to the future, though it sometimes offers interesting parallels and stimulates thoughts about the present. The rise of the Han dynasty from the ashes of the Qin may offer some useful ideas about the fate of “one country, two systems” and the failure of reform in Hong Kong.

I came across this historical comparison recently while reading War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe, which was originally the PhD thesis of Hong Kong native and University of Notre Dame political scientist Victoria Hui Tin-bor. She has also been active in Hong Kong-American pro-democracy circles.

It’s an intriguing idea, perhaps even more relevant today than when her book was first published in 2005. “Liu Bang, the first rebel leader to capture the capital, stepped into Qin’s shoes and proclaimed the Han dynasty in 206BC,” she wrote.

“As Qin had established a set of unified bureaucratic and coercive apparatuses, Liu could attempt a wholesale takeover. However, he also had to placate the ambitions of allies and relatives who had helped him seize the empire and who commanded their own armies.

“The result was a ‘modified form of the multi-state system of the Warring States period,’ something akin to the ‘one country, two systems’ model today. While Han Gaozu [née Liu Bang] directly controlled the capital and surrounding area in the Guanzhong region, he grudgingly agreed to the establishment of feudatory principalities in the east.

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“[These] principalities enjoyed independent political authority with large armed forces. The passes between the imperial regions and the eastern states were guarded, and ‘passports’ were required of all travellers.”


There are obvious parallels with the present. Take away the army and the early Han system sounds a bit like Hong Kong’s existing one country, two systems; include the armed forces and you have that for Taiwan as originally envisioned by the late Deng Xiaoping for its unification with the mainland, a once promising political model that now lies in tatters across the Taiwan Strait.

Emperor Gaozu needed to placate his “allies and relatives” at the founding of the new dynasty just as Beijing needed to appease local vested interests such as the property tycoons and the rural power bases in the New Territories during the transition period before and after the 1997 handover.

As the British colonial administration had established “a set of unified bureaucratic and coercive apparatuses”, the post-1997 Hong Kong government effected a wholesale adaptation of the governing system along with practically all previous social policies as well as taxation and other revenue-raising methods such as the all-important land sales and legalised gambling for the public coffers. This accorded not only with Beijing’s design, but proved perfectly natural for the city’s new government officials, most of whom were trained as civil servants under the colonial Brits, especially with the second administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

In land supply, public housing, social welfare, education and public health service, the post-1997 government followed the Brits lock, stock and barrel. Any temporary reforms or departures would eventually return to the original form, or worse, to a previous, even less progressive state. The education reform of the first post-1997 administration of Tung Chee-hwa and its reversal to type under Tsang is a prime example.

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Contrary to widespread local perception and international criticism, the only real and lasting reform in post-1997 Hong Kong has been political, in the gradual but significant expansion of the franchise. The pan-democrats gave themselves too little credit, or too much!


The district council seats became fully directly elected. From a small minority of seats in the Legislative Council, direct election was extended to a majority, with half of them being geographically based and five “super-seats” being open to all eligible voters. Meanwhile, memberships on the Election Committee for the chief executive increased from a few hundred to 1,200, with at least a fourth of them taken by pro-democracy figures. All that reached a high point with the offer of universal suffrage for the chief executive election from Beijing in 2014, to be followed by the same for Legco, either in 2020 or thereafter.

I will leave out the question of whether the pan-democrats were right or not to have vetoed the electoral reform package in Legco in 2015. Few people doubt the package was flawed; but could Beijing have offered anything better, and whether it wasn’t far better than what is being imposed by the central government on Hong Kong today? Perfectly reasonable arguments – both for and against – have been advanced by both sides.


Instead, I want to draw attention to what I think is undeniable progress over two decades in political-electoral reform, at least until now, and the backwardness or stasis of all the other social policies that most directly impacted people’s lives. That was the main theme of the late Leo Goodstadt’s Poverty in the Midst of Affluence: How Hong Kong Mismanaged its Prosperity, published in 2013, a year before the “yellow umbrella” anti-government protests. It was a shot across the bow from a very competent and knowledgeable British colonial adviser and so was completely, if politely, ignored in local government circles.

The public perception is that political reform to full democracy was moving too slowly and the reality of a lack of progress or improvement in all the other social policy areas contributed directly to the unprecedented 2019 unrest that rocked the city to its very foundation and provided a perfect excuse for Western interference led by the United States. Here’s a classic international relations lesson in how local chaos can be exploited by an antagonistic global hegemon or great power.

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The violent unrest was for the central and local government officials what Victoria Hui and other political scientists have called “a perceptual shock”, an event that suddenly makes decision-makers aware of the cumulative effect of gradual long-term trends, in this case, the systemic deterioration of people’s living conditions and prospects because of, not in spite of, long-standing government policies, which might have served their purpose in their days but are in desperate need of overhaul and reform.


Such slow cumulative trends are difficult to detect, especially if you yourself have had a direct hand in perpetuating them, thinking you are doing well – until the whole edifice that looked so secure only yesterday comes tumbling down on your head. Seen from some traditional matrices as taught to colonial-era civil servants, that official perception was not entirely wrong.

Age expectancy, growth in gross domestic product and government budget spending on essential services have all vastly expanded over two decades, while the public coffers – or fiscal reserves – are among the largest in the world. Public expenditure rose from HK$234.8 billion in 1997 to HK$567.6 billion in 2018, HK$647.6 billion in 2019 and HK$773.1 billion in 2020.

In the financial year 2007-08, total education spending was just HK$53.8 billion, social welfare HK$34.9 billion, and public health services HK$33.6 billion. Today, their respective total public expenditures are: HK$100.7 billion, HK$105.6 billion and HK$95.8 billion.

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In absolute terms, the local government has been spending more to enhance public welfare. It’s not hard to see why top officials trained in the colonial civil service tradition thought they were doing a good job. Even today, some of them still cling to that illusion.


There was an almost tragic moment towards the end of his political tenure when Tsang, the former chief executive, confessed he thought making sure the economy and the government coffers grow had meant for him a job well done when social malaise and discontent had been building up all along.

As Goodstadt has shown from public statistics, mostly compiled by government departments themselves, the delivery of public services, from education and housing to welfare for the elderly and low-income families and public health, especially in specialist services, have deteriorated.

The queue for public housing is now the longest in more than 20 years, with an average of 5.8 years. The share of housing expenditure to total public spending over the past 24 years has halved to just 5.5 per cent in 2021-22.

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Yet, a 2019 government analysis shows provision of public rental housing is equivalent to granting average monthly cash benefits of HK$4,100 to each recipient family, helping to reduce local poverty rate by 3.7 percentage points. This far outstrips welfare payments, which help reduce the poverty rate by just 2.2 percentage points. The failure of the government housing policy translates directly into the rise in poverty and economic inequality.

Housing is only the most obvious policy failure. In practically every domain, there has been a marked deterioration in the civil service’s and policy bureaus’ responses and reforms. The local government looks increasingly unfit for purpose. Unrest, discontent, rebellion and malaise have been the results.

The ending of one country, two systems during the first century of the Han dynasty is illuminating for the present. Hui wrote: “Over the course of several generations, Han emperors cited rebellions – actual and fabricated – as excuses for eroding the autonomy of the principalities and turning them into prefectures and counties.”

The historical parallel to Beijing’s hard line in Hong Kong today is too obvious to need spelling out.