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UK hypocrisy about Hong Kong Democracy

by zoe Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 06:25:53 AM EST

Amid the headlines and stories about the 10 year anniversary of Chinese rule in Hong Kong, there were many calls for more democracy in the territory.  But if one didn't read carefully, one could easily have skipped the following information:

The territory was allowed to keep its capitalist economy, British-style legal system and civil liberties, though critics say media self-censorship is common. But China - like Britain - hasn't allowed Hong Kong people to directly elect their leader and entire legislature.


You might wonder how Britain, which ruled the territory for over 100 years, handled the thorny question of democracy for its Chinese British subjects.  A mere 7 years before the 99 year lease was set to expire, the British finally allowed the people of Hong Kong to vote for their representatives:

The Basic Law of Hong Kong, which would serve as the constitutional document after the transfer, was ratified in 1990. Over strong objections from Beijing, Governor Chris Patten introduced democratic reforms to the election process for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.


No, this can't be, you must be saying. Well, it's true:

Formed as a colonial legislature under the British in 1843, the first direct elections of the Legislative Council took place in 1991.


and from the same source:

In the 2004 election, 30 members were directly elected by universal suffrage from geographical constituencies (GC) and 30 were elected from functional constituencies. In the previous election in 2000, 24 were directly elected, 6 elected from an 800-member electoral college called the Election Committee of Hong Kong, and 30 elected from functional constituencies. The method of election after 2007 has not been specified. The Basic Law states that the ultimate aim is the election of all the Legco members by universal suffrage (Article 68 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong).

So, to resume:  the British were loath to give up Hong Kong because of the terrible things that would happen to its oversea territory if the non-democratic Chinese took over, but the British themselves did not allow the people to vote, until 7 years prior to the expiration of the 99 year lease, and the Chinese are using the Basic Law set down by the British themselves for the Legislature, with the goal of having the entire Leislature elected.   But the British are calling for more democracy even today although the Chinese have a better record than the British do in that regard.

The sole difference is that the head of the Legislature is now called Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai instead of:

Colonial Period
Sir Henry Pottinger (1843-1844)
Sir John Francis Davis (1844-1848)
Sir Samuel George Bonham (1848-1854)
Sir John Bowring (1854-1859)
Lord Hercules George Robert Robinson (1859-1865)
Sir Richard Graves Macdonell (1866-1872)
Sir Arthur Edward Kennedy (1872-1877)
Sir John Pope Hennessy (1877-1882)
Sir George Ferguson Bowen (1883-1885)
Sir George William Des Voeux (1887-1891)
Sir William Robinson (1890-1898)
Sir Henry Arthur Blake (1898-1903)
Sir Matthew Nathan (1904-1904)
Lord Frederick Lugard (1907-1912)
Sir Francis Henry May (1912-1919)
Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs (1919-1925)
Sir Cecil Clementi (1925-1930)
Sir William Peel (1930-1935)
Sir Andrew Caldecott (1935-1937)
Sir Geoffrey Northcote (1937-1941)
Sir Mark Aitchison Young (1941)
Colonial Secretary Franklin Charles Gimson 1944 - acting
Rear Admiral Sir Cecil Halliday Jepson Harcourt - Head of British Military Government 1944-1946
Sir Mark Aitchison Young (1946-1947, Restoration)
Sir Alexander Grantham (1947-1957)
Sir Robert Brown Black (1958-1964)
Sir David Clive Crosbie Trench (1964 - 1971)
Lord MacLehose of Beoch (1971-1982)
Sir Edward Youde (1982-1986)
Lord Wilson of Tillyorn (1987-1992)
Chris Patten (1992-1993)
Sir John Joseph Swaine (1993-1995)
First non-Governor President of LEGCO.
Andrew Wong (1995-1997)


Now what's so undemocratic about that?

Interesting catch, m. Have you spent any time in Hong Kong? I would be interested to hear from anyone else who has spent time there, and can tell us their thoughts about the changes and differences.

Thanks for this!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 07:22:49 AM EST
thanks.  No, I haven't even been to HK.  I am studying Chinese though.

I've known about this for years, but this 10th anniversary b.s. about the Chinese in HK lacking democracy is turning my stomach.

Chris Patten was rewarded for his hatchet job in HK by being made EU commissioner.

What I would like to know is how sincere are the pro-democracy dissenters in HK?  Will they be rewarded when they leave as well?  Are they  naive?  Or do they really believe that the Chinese lack a will to fulfill their promises?

Even Patten said recently that the Chinese had been on their best behaviour in HK.  

by zoe on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 08:20:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting diary, mmmm. There has been some buzz on the internet about the 10 year anniversery, but this information I have not seen and I have not been aware of it.
by Fran on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 01:24:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, "hypocrisy" doesn't even begin to describe it. Of course the ultimate hypocrisy (well, at least to me) is saying there's no democracy under China, when the UK told 6 million people they were being handed over to China whether they liked it or not.

I can't add much to your post other than: There is a dedicated pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. There is also a larger pro-democracy and pro-individual and press freedom streak in the population at large, if the protests against Article 23 were any indication. While fears that Beijing would just roll right over the Basic Law and dismantle HK haven't materialized, Beijing and Tung Chee Hwa (chosen by Beijing) were supportive enough of Article 23 that I think a lot of people in HK have remained wary of just how Beijing might try to treat them. I don't think the pro-democracy movement's being naive, but then again, I'm not in HK-- I have to rely on the news and anecdotal reports.

If anyone's lurking out there who's in HK or from HK, please, tell us how things are going.

On top of this, one of my friends, raised in HK, said a big problem was that a lot of Chinese companies doing business in HK felt they did not have to honor contracts. They'd sign them and then just ignore them. (How this situation has progressed, whether it's improved or worsened, I don't know.) While that seems like a business issue only, if it was as widespread as she made it seem, I can imagine that it did not make it any easier to trust the Chinese government.

(Disclaimer: I'm not Chinese, I've never been to Hong Kong, I'm just obsessed with it. And I will get there. Someday. I've applied for jobs there, really.)

by lychee on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 02:51:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
thank you very much for your comment.

I like a lot of things Chinese myself.  

by zoe on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 02:56:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yesterday, as it happens, I read an article in Le Monde Diplomatique for July 2007 about Hong Kong. (A l'avant-garde du libéralisme par Anne-Laure Delatte, in French).

Her article mostly deals with economic and social matters, but she points out the issue of the "functional constituencies", the consequence of which is that the parliament is not elected by universal suffrage. She sees this as an inheritance from the British that suits the Chinese government while not bothering most inhabitants of HK :

Héritage des négociations de rétrocession entre Britanniques et Chinois, ce système se comprend mieux si l'on se souvient que Hongkong est aussi une ville chinoise : le conservatisme économique va de pair avec un conservatisme politique favorable au régime de Pékin. Pour ce dernier, le risque de prolifération idéologique est trop élevé pour laisser une démocratie à suffrage universel se développer sur un territoire chinois, même autonome. Aussi, tout comme sur le continent, la prospérité économique est un élément-clé d'un statu quo politique fondé sur un postulat : le régime ne sera pas remis en cause par la population aussi longtemps que l'économie restera florissante.

Legacy of the retrocession negotiations between British and Chinese, this system can better be understood if one recalls that China is also a Chinese city : economic conservatism goes hand in hand with political conservatism favourable to the Pekin regime. For the latter, the risk of ideological proliferation is too high to let a universal-suffrage democracy grow on Chinese territory, even autonomous. So, as on the continent, economic prosperity is a key element in a political status quo based on a postulate : the regime won't be questioned by the population as long as the economy is flourishing.

My own feeling is that there is no doubt about the responsibility of British imperialism for the lack of democracy in HK; but neither do I have too many illusions about the Chinese leadership's will for democracy anywhere it holds power.

Isn't there a parallel between this and, more broadly, the profits Western capital is making in China while keeping quiet about human rights and democracy?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 09:54:38 AM EST
that China is also a Chinese city

Hong Kong, obviously!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 09:57:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have no pretensions about what the Chinese are or why they do the things they do.

It's this pretension that the Anglo-Saxons have about bringing democracy and a better life to the colonials in whatever way they are described by the English-speaking press, that I really find objectionable.  

by zoe on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 10:09:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No disagreement from me.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 01:04:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
no disagreement?  what fun is that?
by zoe on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 01:51:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I fundamentally disagree that we're here to have fun disagreeing. Agree with me or else.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 03:02:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Let me, as a non-Brit, defend the British colonial record at least a little.  I don't know much about the record on British democracy and equal treatment of colonized countries, nor will I defend the exploitation that took place as a integral part of colonialsm.  I have heard the venom spewed by quite a few former colonial subjects so I have no illusions about the lack of perfection in the system. However, I have visited many of the former colonies and based on that and what I was taught in school (which pretty much jives with what I've seen), the British left most colonies, including Hong Kong, in pretty good shape financially and with a good basic governmental organization, common law, and a system of education. Contrast the former British colonies at independence with those left by other European countries and then begin the criticism afresh.  The declines that have taken place in some former British colonies can be laid at the feet of poor governance that arose after independence.  I expect thaqt Hong Kong will continue to flourish, however, even under the new Chinese Govt.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 02:09:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you're comparing apples with oranges. Hong Kong was a rich financial centre and trading post for goods manufactured in mainland China long before its lease ran out. It was and is in good financial shape thanks to its unique situation.

But if we look at other ex-British colonial properties, I don't see the evidence for such great management. Do you think the way Britain left India was a model? Rhodesia-Zimbabwe? Kenya? Uganda? Er... Dare I mention Iraq?

Even our former American colonies don't seem to know what to do with their Constitution these days... ;)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 02:56:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For some reason, your comment convinces me even more that empires never did any favors:  Exploitation is the keyword in colonies and they were set up with the best system for exploiters, even if that meant building a railroad.  

There was government, law and education for the few of them, but not for the colony, so when the exploiters "had to leave", there was no trained, experienced people to run a foreign system:  That´s now blamed on the colony as "bad governance".  If natives had ever been educated and integrated into the system, they may have been able to adapt, but the people were disposable and the resources were not.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Fri Jul 6th, 2007 at 04:10:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I would agree partially with what you have said, but I believe it is a mistake to say across the board that empires never leave anything of benefit to future inhabitants of former colonies.  The Romans, one of the most exploitative and perennially corrupt empires still left much of benefit for the modern world. Likewise, who can deny the lasting endowments of other empires, whether intended or not.  Spain itself has a rich cultural heritage not in small part due to its conquest and occupation by the Moors.  Without doubt those who viewed the Moorish invasion and conquest at the time were loath to credit the Moors with any benefit to the conquered peoples and thus struggled (for 700 years) to remove them.  It may be, as you have said, that the failure to widely educate and incorporate colonized inhabitants into the "system" leaves the colony without a means to properly govern itself, but I have seen evidence in several former British colonies, notably Hong Kong, Guyana (now one of the poorest countries in the Americas, but not entirely due to the British colonial record), Belize, and Singapore that the British left a beneficial legacy, even if not always appreciated.  The colonial record in some other countries, as pointed out in comments above, has been of much less benefit.  Nigeria was left with a considerable money in the treasury but this was squandered on lavish buildings, statues, and a state owned shipping line and airline, and the country succumbed to religious and tribal sectionalism, coups, as well as an unhealthy dose of corruption.  Poor education of the colonials by the British?  Maybe.  At some point, independent countries have to take some responsibility for their own destinies.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Fri Jul 6th, 2007 at 11:31:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
are the residents of hong kong and the new territories.
by wu ming on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 02:06:54 PM EST
and what would they have to say, do you think?
by zoe on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 02:43:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
well, for starters, i suspect that they'd favor a legco that is 100% democratically elected, with an executive responsible to the people of hong kong rather than either corporate bosses or the chinese government. they were certainly outraged by the patriot act-esque security law when i was there last, back in 2003. mostly i'd rather that they had the final say in who governed them, and suspect that most hoing kong people would tend to agree with me there.

while i totally agree that britain has no grounds to criticize china on this point, i tend to think that all people ought to have the right to choose their government, hong kong (and china) included.

by wu ming on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 02:25:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...the Chinese are using the Basic Law set down by the British themselves for the Legislature...

The British didn't set down the Basic Law. The Chinese did.
   * The Basic Law was drafted by a Committee composed of members from both Hong Kong and the Mainland. A Basic Law Consultative Committee formed purely by Hong Kong people was established in 1985 to canvass views in Hong Kong on the drafts.

    * The first draft was published in April 1988, followed by a five-month public consultation exercise. The second draft was published in February 1989, and the subsequent consultation period ended in October 1989. The Basic Law was formally promulgated on 4 April 1990 by the NPC, together with the designs for the flag and emblem of the HKSAR.

    * Some members of the Basic Law drafting committee were ousted by Beijing following the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, after voicing their views supporting the students.

by Gag Halfrunt on Mon Jul 2nd, 2007 at 07:16:56 PM EST
the Chinese and the British designed the Basic Law together, but Patten later changed it without consulting  the Chinese.  

The Basic Law was drafted in accordance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (The Joint Declaration), signed between the Chinese and British governments on December 19, 1984.


by zoe on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 06:03:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and in the wikipedia entry about Chris Patten:

Patten's most controversial actions related to the election of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Legco members returned in 1995 were originally to serve beyond the handover, thereby providing institutional continuity across the reversion of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. Beijing had expected that the use of functional constituencies with limited electorates would be used to elect this council, however Patten extended the definition of functional constituencies and thus virtually every Hong Kong subject was able to vote for the so-called indirectly elected members (see Politics of Hong Kong) of the Legislative Council.
His measure was not surprisingly strongly objected to by the pro-Beijing political parties of Hong Kong, who suffered from the electoral changes, and he was criticized by the PRC government as an 'historic criminal/eternal sinner/sinner condemned for a thousand generations' (????). The legislative council which was elected under Patten's governorship was dissolved upon the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC and replaced by a Provisional Legislative Council which functioned until elections were held under the previous rules in 1998.
by zoe on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 06:07:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Patten changed the definition of functional constituencies, which the Chinese government no doubt viewed as a way of introducing democracy by sleight of hand, creating a status quo different from what had been agreed in the Joint Declaration.

But it's surely wrong to say that he changed the Basic Law itself, because it only came into effect after the handover and was never part of the laws of the British colony of Hong Kong. The Basic Law was drafted on the basis of the Joint Declaration, but Britain was not involved in writing it.

by Gag Halfrunt on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 11:43:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
yes he was.  

I quoted the wrong part to you, but the details were worked out by both parties, and the legislature prior to the handover was identical to that afterwards in its constituent parts, but the names were different.

since Patten was the head of the executive and the legislature at the time, and the legislature of HK was not elected, he could have them do whatever he wanted.

the Chinese knew that if they changed the Basic Law drafted by this so-called Legislature (it was not elected) but the world didn't know that because no one bothered to look into it, they would lose face.

I am suffering from just diagnosed tonsillitis right now, so I am not up on looking for the exact explanation for you, but check out wikipedia and you will see this same explanation.  I'll probably feel better in a day or two so I'll do it by then, for sure.  

by zoe on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 12:07:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I just wanted to say hi, seeing as my current home has cropped up in the conversation. It is interesting to see so many knowledgeable comments about HK, which seems to punch above its weight in interest for such a small place.

A couple of things, in no particular order. Britain is indeed extremely hypocritical about this, seeing as they ruled the place without anything that even looked like democracy until the final few years. 'Looked like' is important, because HK's system of functional constituencies amounts to a gerrymander by profession instead of locale: businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers get to vote twice (the last two categories are maybe anomalous in terms of their class awareness and possible voting preferences, but I'm sure it was figured out that these potential lefties would be well and truly out-voted by everyone else, so the sop was affordable). So, of the sixty Legco seats, thirty are chosen in more or less 'one man one vote' fashion, twenty are chosen by good solid reliable bourgeois types, and just to make sure, the last ten get picked by a small committee of business people (or maybe Mainland Chinese business people ... I can't remember.)

So the whole thing is purely for show, and even then it's rigged to make sure the show is the right one. And these were arrangements by Britain, not China. Add to that that the Legco is pretty much powerless anyway in executive terms.

I shouldn't need to point out why the aversion to democracy by both Britain and China. HK is run in the interests of its business class, and one thing that dread is the introduction of proper labour laws. If there is even a semblance of democracy, you can kiss goodbye to unpaid overtime (virtually the only type: OT means working for nothing for most people here), twelve hour shifts six days a week (e.g. for security guards and bus drivers), sacking people whenever you like, and so on.

Incidentally someone once figured out that HK's weak labour laws actually cost business and the economy some phenomenal amount of money annually,  because employers hire and fire without much scrutiny of a potential employee's real capacity, and staff turnover is high due to disatisfaction with crap working environments.But the essential insight that one must invest in personnel is lost on Hong Kong's business owners, who still live very much in the Victorian era in terms of their primitive views on productivity ('work 'em as many hours as you can every single day').

I have other incoherent things to say but I must be off to work.

Thanks for ET.

by wing26 on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 07:03:48 PM EST
You mean, they are mean enough to not let you websurf at work ? >:)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 07:31:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They mean they'll be back after their commute ;-)

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 07:34:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the info.

I saw something about demonstrations for democracy and I have been wondering about the democratisation movement in HK. Is it united? Strong? Does it run in elections (as they are) or do they organise boycotts? Has it changed with the change in overlords?

Sorry to throw so many questions at you, but I lack any clear picture, so any information you can give would be valuable.

And welcome to ET!

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Jul 3rd, 2007 at 08:35:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Welcome to ET, wing26!  Excellent information here that I may never run across.  Thanks.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Jul 6th, 2007 at 03:48:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, mmmm, totally new information for me.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Jul 6th, 2007 at 04:15:16 PM EST

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