From Parliamentary Politics to Authoritarianism: A Reflection on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

Ahead of this evening’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, Evan Fowler, associate fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge, recaps his paper on the Hong Kong special administrative region from our previous session on 22 January…

Hong Kong has changed since reverting to Chinese administration in 1997. My talk focused on understanding the change, from where Hong Kong stood politically during colonial times through to the current political set-up of the Special Administrative Region.

The talk itself presented a general overview of Hong Kong’s pre- and post-handover political systems. This meant highlighting the 4 main characteristics of Hong Kong’s colonial political system, and considering how the risk of deep-seated potential friction arising from these characteristics was in some measure minimised.

Firstly, an executive-led political system that concentrated power with a governor appointed by Whitehall was nevertheless accountable to parliament and British public opinion, and all people in Hong Kong had recourse to appeal directly to British parliamentarians, as indeed they did — most notable (and known) being the actions brought by the late Ms Elsie Elliot. 

Second, a relatively powerless legislature (Hong Kong’s Legislative Council) was nevertheless based upon a system of adversarial politics that respected, philosophically and subconsciously, the role of criticism and of a political opposition.

Third, the administrative absorption of politics by the colonial government was tempered by the conscious and ideological need for a popular mandate. The colonial administration, whilst legally sovereign, was aware that it did not govern either on historic or moral foundations, and governance needed to be legitimised.

Fourthly, Hong Kong, as a port and then refugee city, was characterised by its weak sense of civil society. Whilst more recent scholarship is increasingly raising questions as to how much this point may accurately be stated, there is little doubt that with the start of the Sino-British negotiations in 1982 the local Hong Kong community, looking forward to the prospect of Chinese Communist Party Rule, did realise both a unique political and social identity.

Framing these points are several increasingly overlooked facts: that Hong Kong’s Chinese identity is principally ethnic, traditional and cultural in nature, and moreover a secondary identity; that this Chinese identity is not homogenous, and that Hong Kong was and had long been a highly diverse “Chinese” community; that since the end of the Qing empire Beijing had rejected Britain’s legal claims to sovereignty to Hong Kong, which it viewed not as a city or a people, but as a territory — only historic claims mattered, not moral or legal ones, nor indeed claims of competent administration; and that British colonial policy and governance of Hong Kong was restricted by what Beijing would tolerate, any form of political development of what is a predominantly Chinese people being considered dangerous.

Also stressed was the critical role of freedom of expression and assembly, and a free press, in making socially bearable an unrepresentative colonial political system — a system which, it must again be stressed, was demanded by Beijing, contrary to the wishes of both the UK Parliament and Whitehall. The various Chinese perspectives, historic, cultural and political could thus be expressed openly and without fear around mahjong tables, and represented in local community papers. Far more worrisome than a foreign colonial government was the enemy within, both communists and nationalists. Indeed, the enactment of colonial era public order ordinances, today being used to lock up pro-democracy protestors and politicians, and long decried by the United Nations as a potential source of oppression, was done not to protect the colonial system but to facilitate decisive action to ensure that fundamental splits within the Chinese community would not result in bloodshed.

Finally, my presentation covered the actual structure of Hong Kong’s political system pre- and post-1997, and the changes that there have been since, including those proposed by the 2014 constitutional reform package. Statistics presented included the changing make-up of the Legislative Council, in both geographical and functional constituencies, charting first the splits within the democratic camp and its slow popular decline, then the more recent rise in support for independent and localist parties.

In addition, a map of Hong Kong’s geographic constituencies along with voting patterns, clearly showed that whilst most urban areas have historically been pro-democratic, and to an extent remain so, pro-Beijing establishment support is predominantly drawn from rural areas, many of them bordering on the Mainland, where tribal clans dominate. It is also these latter areas that have traditionally been associated with vote rigging, including the busing in of illiterate voters to polling stations and the paying of red money packets, for which there is good evidence.

The talk ended with a brief description of the nature and rise of Hong Kong’s own version of political localism. Far from being a nativist movement, I argue that Hong Kong localism is merely an understandable expression of a nationalist sentiment arising from a community who remain, in fact if not on paper, a colonised people. Beijing’s insistence on the maintenance of a colonial power system that prevented Britain from reforming Hong Kong’s old colonial administration (and in so doing prevented the establishment of a genuine political class), should have been a clear indication of the type of political system Beijing would allow to develop in Hong Kong post-1997. Indeed interviews with retired FCO mandarins and recently declassified documents suggest this was understood within Whitehall during and after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. However the picture presented to Hong Kong people, and to the world-wide public at large, of ‘Hong Kong People running Hong Kong’ and of a transition to a representative electoral system whereby both the executive and legislature would be selected by universal suffrage, as outlined in the Basic Law, was at best naive and misleading. In this regard the people of Hong Kong have been let down by bad faith on the part of their former colonial and current national governments in London and Beijing respectively.


Click here for the full schedule for the Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar.

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