East Asia | Is Hong Kong less free now than under British colonial rule?

Is Hong Kong less free now than under British colonial rule?

Ken Moak April 11, 2017 1:51 AM (UTC+8)
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The Western media, particularly Anglo-American, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activists would have the world believe that democracy, human rights, and other liberal-democratic ideals have deteriorated under the “one country, two systems” principle.

The governance system (designed for Taiwan and first coined by China’s Marshal Ye Jianying but attributed to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping) was meant to preserve Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status for 50 years — although longer if need be, as the end date was intentionally left ambiguous. It is with this in mind that the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, was crafted and agreed to by the mainland Chinese and British governments.

The “one country, two systems” compromise is not perfect but it recognizes the economic, political and social development gaps between Hong Kong and the mainland. Being a British colony for more than 150 years, Hong Kong’s economic, political and social institutions were not only more developed but also westernized. For example, the rule of law, freedom of expression and enterprise were firmly entrenched in Hong Kong, albeit without universal suffrage. Since mainland China was at the “early stage of socialist development,” its economic, political and social institutions were less mature, requiring time to catch up to those of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong under British colonial rule

The British government instituted a unique governance architecture, which I call the “comprador model.” This allowed the local Chinese freedom of enterprise, unleashed their hardworking ethnic and entrepreneurial spirit, resulting in the colony becoming a prosperous and developed economy. Being a colony, Hong Kong land was turned into “Crown” land, allowing the UK government to lease it back to the local population. The British instituted the “Chinese rule Chinese” system, employing comprador collaborators (local Chinese who were enriched and empowered by working for the British government and businesses) to control the Chinese. The British colonialists in Hong Kong just “sat back and enjoyed the wealth” without having to deal directly with the local Chinese population.

The “comprador model” served the UK and the “first British families” (Keswick, Jardine, Swire, etc.) well. A prosperous economy coupled with land-leasing revenue allowed the UK to repatriate huge sums of money back to Britain. The “first British families” in Hong Kong were awarded virtual monopolies in the colony’s most profitable businesses: land development, transportation, and China trade just to name a few. For example, the Keswicks, Jardines, and Mathesons were major owners of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Hong Kong Land and other business interests in the territory. The Swire family controlled large parcels of property in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong’s only transnational airline), just to name a few.

The British colonial government also spent on low-cost housing, health care and other social programs. In doing so, it helped establish social stability.

The comprador collaborators enjoyed positions of prestige, wealth, and power. The most loyal ones were knighted and even made members of the British House of Lords. Less important individuals were awarded titles such as justice of the peace, Queen’s counsel, etc. However, upon returning Hong Kong to China, the British government lost a “cash cow” — the fortunes and privileges of  the “first families” and comprador collaborators diminished, if not evaporated.

Governance in the two decades before 1997

The two decades before the handover to China in 1997, the British government changed how it governed Hong Kong. It encouraged the establishment of democracy-promoting political parties. Students taking Chinese history found it harder to earn high marks, leading to a significant drop in enrolment. Some complained that this made future generations less “Chinese.”

The promotion of democracy intensified under the last governor, Chris Patten. His methods prompted Lu Ping, the mainland official in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, to label him the “sinner of a thousand years” for “laying a political time bomb in Hong Kong.” Patten’s strategy was said to be responsible for the establishment of pan-democratic groups — Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement. Patten was also called a hypocrite by some in Hong Kong because he was not elected but was appointed by the British government.

Pan-democratic leaders such as Martin Lee and the trio that founded Occupy Central neither demanded universal suffrage under British colonial rule nor traveled abroad to ask foreign powers to pressure the government to adopt democracy. As a result, many in Hong Kong are questioning their democracy credentials, labeling them “traitors.”

Majority oppose pro-democracy activists

The Umbrella Movement protesters who accused Beijing of suppressing human rights in Hong Kong and demanding universal suffrage were not supported by the majority. Indeed, most Hong Kong people (more than 65% according to local polls) accused them of disrupting Hong Kong’s economy, civil government, and society under the guise of democracy. Most of the people also complained that the “pro-democracy” activists were “fakes” because they used “undemocratic” measures such as vandalism and violence against those who opposed their activities.

The Western media accused the Hong Kong and mainland governments of stifling press freedom. For their part, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments complained of Western media bias, interviewing only dissidents and reporting only negative events. For example, the BBC and CNN only interviewed student activists during the Umbrella Movement protests. And they did not report on the more than two million Hong Kong citizens demanding police remove the protesters, but prominently reported the 100,000 protesters’ story.

Whether Hong Kong is less free today than under British colonial rule is unclear. But the fact that pan-democrats and Umbrella Movement protesters are allowed to continue criticizing the government, holding protests, and traveling abroad to solicit support from foreign governments without political repercussions contradict the “pro-democracy” activists’ claim.

Indeed, many in Hong Kong say the territory is freer now than under British colonial rule, suggesting that had they gone abroad to solicit financial and political support to replace the government they might be charged with treason. Moreover, the chief executive is elected by functional constituencies, representing the major sectors of Hong Kong — more democratic than colonial rule by a governor appointed by the British government.

The majority of Hong Kong people also wonder whether the “pro-democracy” movements were instigated by foreign powers to destabilize the mainland. Chinese-language newspapers asked who funded the hundreds of millions of Hong Kong dollars to finance the protests. Some student protesters were said to be paid, those who fought the police received HK$2,000 and the less brave got HK$500.

Ken Moak
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact (Palgrave McMillan, 2015). His latest book is titled, Developed Nations and the Impact of Globalization and it will be published by Palgrave McMillan Springer in 2017.
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