Hong Kong’s Endless Road to Democracy

Hong Kong has always been an anomaly even in the context of the very diverse systems by which Britain ruled its numerous territories around the globe. It began and ended as unique despite appearances of being just another small Crown Colony.

The very word colony was a misnomer from the start. As the report of an 1847 British House of Commons Select Committee into Commercial Relations with China noted, it was more “a post for general influence and the protection of the general trade in the China seas than a colony in the ordinary sense”. It was not a place for Britons to settle, just a post for trade, a free port open to the trade of all nations. Thus it has, by and large, remained for 170 years.

It was also unique in another sense. Its pre-British takeover population was tiny so that there was no existing administrative structure which the British could use to run a territory which almost immediately attracted thousands of Chinese newcomers, traders and coolies alike, as well as sundry British and other opportunists.

The result was an early history of disorder, of governors attempting to govern with officials of dubious backgrounds and in the face of the interests of the big merchants who not only had money power but were appointed to the Legislative Council.

The first effort to broaden the legislative base came with a proposal by Gov. John Bowring in 1856 for a council of 13 members, 5 of them officials, two appointed by the governor and six elected by those paying land rent of £10 sterling a year or more. This was to be regardless of race. Bowring, a radical politician, free trade advocate and literary figure, argued that voting rights for Chinese would “associate them with the actions of government” and encourage more Chinese merchants to settle there. Under his proposal at the time, 69 British, 42 Chinese and 30 other nationalities would have had the vote.

However, the proposal was rejected by London with the Secretary for the Colonies, Henry Labouchere, writing that the Chinese “while endowed with much intelligence were very deficient in the essential elements of morality on which social order rests.” Labouchere also did not trust a transient population of British merchants to deliver just rule to an alien population.

The council was expanded in 1858 to nine members, four appointed unofficially, but none were elected. Bowring opened sessions to the public but otherwise a die had been cast which would remain for 130 years. During that time various alterations were made in the size and powers of the council but nothing fundamental was to change despite the rise in Hong Kong size and prosperity.

It was not till 1880 that John Pope-Hennessy, another governor with relatively radical ideas, appointed the first Chinese to the council in the teeth of opposition from a foreign community, already irritated by the governor’s humane policies towards Chinese. Opposition was led by William Keswick of Jardines. The appointee was Ng Choy, the first Chinese to be called to the English bar but who served only three years before being replaced by a Calcutta-born Jewish merchant who was chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp.

Under Pope-Hennessy’s successor, George Bowen, in 1884 the council was enlarged to 11 including five unofficials, one each chosen by the Chamber of Commerce and by the Justices of the Peace (of whom only seven of 79 were Chinese) and three by governor, one of whom was to be Chinese.

There were also suggestions at the time to develop the Sanitary Board, which advised on efforts to improve environmental health, into a Municipal Council to be partly elected by ratepayers to oversee water supply, sanitation, etc. But as Chinese were by then constituted 75 percent of ratepayers it was deemed unwise.

The Legislative Council was however given control of rates on the basis that the official majority “should not be used to control a united unofficial minority, especially on financial questions.” This enlarged the power of the council but its composition remained very narrow and tended to oppose any taxation for public benefits.

A mini-step towards representative government might have come with the appointment of unofficial members to the Sanitary Board which advised on improving cleanliness and reducing epidemics and from 1887 two were allowed to be elected by ratepayers. However as unofficials there and in the Legislative council they, led by the Chinese member Dr Ho Kai who said the government should not “make the mistake of treating the Chinese as though they were Europeans,” resisted long-needed legislation to .create more air space and reduce overcrowding as infringing on property rights.

The acting governor complained that such rights should not “very heavily handicap every effort of government at sanitation,” but the draft ordinance was emasculated anyway to accommodate the property interests and supposed Chinese housing customs.

Several colonial officials were indeed alert to the dangers of unbalanced representative government being used to promote narrow interests. In 1894 ratepayers led by leading businessmen including Ho Kai, Thomas Jackson of HSBC. T.H. Whitehead of the Chartered Bank and Sir Catchick Paul Chater, the Calcutta-born Armenian who founded Hong Kong Land Company, petitioned London for free election of the majority of Legislative Council members.

The catch was that only British subjects be allowed to vote. London immediately saw this as a move to set up an oligarchy run by the British merchants and that the interests of the majority of inhabitants would be better served by the existing system, which in principle made no distinction of race, than one where the non-British vast majority would be wholly unrepresented.

London was not unaware of the rapacious and racist attitudes prevailing in its colonies. Instead of the accepting the business elite’s views agreed to enlarge the Legislative council, including one more Chinese, and appoint two unofficial members, including Chater, to the Executive Council. London’s quest for honest paternalism was also indicated by a ruling that no official was to hold land or property in the colony other than for his own use, nor engage in commercial pursuits or buy shares in local companies. Imagine trying to impose that rule on today’s official elite!

For the next 30 years almost nothing changed in constitutional arrangements. A Constitutional Reform Association was created in 1917 to push for more representation but only in 1926 was there a tiny advance with the first appointment of a Chinese to the Executive Council as the third unofficial. Three years later the Legislative Council was expanded, two more unofficial, making eight of 18 members, of whom two were Chinese.

In the uncertain world of the 1920s and 30s – particularly in China itself and later with Japan’s expansion – the constitutional status quo was deemed sufficient. Greater local Chinese involvement in middle level administration and education was not reflected in a static power structure which combined colonial office paternalism with the interests of the leading merchants, a few of them Chinese.

Despite periodic labour unrest Hong Kong was largely exempt from the growth of anti-colonial movements in Asia in the 1930s, partly because of its commercial priorities but also because the main enemy for Chinese was now Japan.

The underlying attitude of London was that Hong Kong was a place of impermanent people, Chinese and foreign, mostly concerned with their own immediate interests rather than those of a community, let alone a nation which could look towards self-government, as even the British in India were recognizing that as the future.

It naturally took a couple of generations before families saw Hong Kong as home rather than a temporary convenience. Some never did as shown later by the 1949 elite refugees from Shanghai who were reconciled to exile among the Cantonese and hence became Beijing’s favorites after 1997.

The weakness of a sense of either Hong Kong or Chinese identity – despite the patriotic efforts by some notables – was illustrated during the next period of its history – almost 40 months of Japanese occupation.

Hong Kong histories tend to see this as a period of Japanese barbarity, people exodus and general deprivation – all true enough. But it also showed many in the mercantile community to be more concerned with its commercial interests than patriotism towards either China or Britain. The extent of their collaboration with the Japanese was quickly airbrushed away after the war.

In 1945 when British rule resumed despite threats from a Kuomintang-ruled China and US ambiguity on the sustainability of colonial Hong Kong. The British were back but the world had changed, Britain included.

A Labour government was in power in London committed to de-colonization, starting with India. Orders went out for moves towards representative government. These were quickly followed up by a restored governor, Mark Young, whose constitutional plan provided for a 48-member Municipal Council, one third elected by non- Chinese, one third by Chinese individuals and one third by Chinese institutions.

This was a gigantic leap forward. But by the time enabling legislation was ready China’s KMT government was on the point of collapse and conservative forces in the territory asserted themselves, abetted by Young’s successor as governor, Alexander Grantham. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce was in the forefront of opposition to “dangerous” democratic tendencies, as was the only Chinese trusted by Grantham, Sir Man Kam Lo.

Grantham argued that direct elections would “result in the dominance in Hong Kong of Chinese politics.” He proposed instead that some seats for the Legislative Council be elected – but only by British subjects, who totaled 16,000, of whom only 4,000 were Chinese. In the event, the refugee influx and Korean War further ended any significant constitutional development.

The embargo on China during that war undermined the local economy, which also unnerved the government. And Britain’s US ally shifted from focus on the need for de-colonization to anti-communism.

There were now to be just a few minor changes in the composition of the Legislative and Executive councils for more than 20 years. The foreign office in London, the big business interests and colonial bureaucracy in Hong Kong, were more than happy with the status quo.

Any possibility of change was also opposed by Beijing. In 1958, at a time when de-colonization was proceeding apace, even in Africa a British interlocutor with Zhou Enlai passed on to prime minister Harold Macmillan Zhou’s concern that: “A plot, or conspiracy, was being hatched to make Hong Kong a self-governing Dominion like Singapore. This had the approval of several members of the British and Hong Kong Governments. He wished Mr Macmillan to know that China would regard any move to Dominion status as a very unfriendly act. China wished the present colonial status of Hong Kong to continue with no change whatever.”

Zhou saw constitutional change in Hong Kong as an American plot. The status quo was useful to China and Britain should not upset that.

So Hong Kong’s political development remained in limbo, while the business community believed that rising prosperity was due to their qualities rather than the underlying factor – an influx of eager refugee labor and Hong Kong’s free trade and investment status at a time when world trade, and Asia in particular, boomed.

The only small democratic shift was in the Urban Council. This new name for the former Sanitary Board acquired its first elected members in 1952 and by 1956 half were elected by a narrow franchise, comprising about 10 percent of the adult population, based mainly on education.

Neither the so-called Star Ferry Riots in 1966, with their strongly anti-colonial undertone, nor the Cultural Revolution riots the following year did anything to end complaisance.

The conservatism of the colonial bureaucracy In Hong Kong continued to combine with that of a foreign office with its agenda for sustaining relations with China.

Thus when Foreign Office man Murray MacLehose became governor in 1972 he focused reform efforts on social issues such as housing and police corruption rather than representation. For these efforts he earned much respect but his only constitutional move was the minuscule one of in practice reducing the number of officials appointed to the Legislative Council, in theory giving the unofficials more say.

After MacLehose left in 1982 came the two and a half years of Sino-British negotiation in which Hong Kong itself had no direct role even though Governor Edward Youde was a former ambassador in Beijing who could attend only as part of London’s team. Youde for sure pressed Hong Kong’s interests with his less determined colleagues in London, passing on the fears of the Hong Kong elite. The final result, the Joint Declaration in late 1984, was greeted with some relief but not much enthusiasm in Hong Kong.

The Joint Declaration stated that the legislature would be constituted by elections and the executive accountable to the legislature. But when Youde tried to take steps to put this into practice he ran into a wall of opposition from both Beijing and a Hong Kong mercantile elite never reconciled to democratic ideas even when they might have helped protect other freedoms. A Green (consultation) Paper suggesting direct elections for a mere 12 of 57 legislators, gradual increases in the directly elected component thereafter and for legislators eventually to choose the executive council was succeeded by a (policy) White Paper which mostly accepted the elite’s views.

The White Paper scrapped direct elections. Instead, 12 seats would be chosen by an electoral college of existing power holders and 12 by narrowly based “functional constituencies” It merely envisaged a few directly elected seats being available in 1988. Beijing meanwhile indicated that it viewed even modest advance as contrary to the Joint Declaration and would be against the Basic Law, which had yet to be formulated.

The likelihood of the British showing any spine in pressing for representative government was further dashed with the death of Youde and his replacement by David Wilson, another sinologist and of middle rank in the Foreign Office, far below that of Youde and a nobody to British politicians. As Beijing could see, he was the embodiment of the need for “convergence” with a yet-to-be-settled Basic Law.

A 1987 Green Paper vaguely convolutedly suggested direct elections as one possibility for 1988. The public responded with a massive demand for direct elections, whereupon Wilson, egged on by his Foreign Office colleagues, contrived to present the result as opposing direct elections.

This transparent and dishonest manipulation of opinion showed Britain at its worst. The British governor had become, it transpired, a tool of United Front tactics which joined the Communist Party and the business elite.

But even Wilson’s desire to appease Beijing could not wholly survive June 1989. Tiananmen events created an upsurge of demand in Hong Kong for more democratic government. The Executive and Legislative councils jointly agreed to demand that 20 be directly elected in 1991 and half in 1995 but this was opposed by a London Foreign Office urging that it was against “understandings” with Beijing and the Basic Law – though that was not finalized till 1990 – that the number be kept to 18 out of 60 in 1991 rising to 30 in 1997 and half in 2003.

Finally in 1991 the Legislative council got its 18 directly elected members – mostly Martin Lee’s United Democrats – but still vastly outnumbered by appointed and functional constituency members. Thus things might have continued but for Wilson’s next role – along with Cradock, persuading prime minister John Major to become the first major western leader to visit Beijing after Tianamen in order supposedly to settle various matters including the proposed new airport.

But little was achieved and Major felt humiliated. He, and even his ex-diplomat foreign secretary Hurd, whose role had been at times ambiguous, determined to put a politician not a diplomat in charge in Hong Kong when Wilson’s term, was up in 1992. The job was then offered to Patten when he lost his seat in parliament in the 1992 UK election.

Thus opened the frenetic last five years of British rule as Patten sought to leave enough of a democratic legacy to salve British conscience, give meaning to “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” and perhaps provide a system better capable of preserving Hong Kong’s liberties under an illiberal sovereign state.

Patten’s problem was how to achieve a substantial advance towards the representative government to which he believed Hong Kong’s population was entitled. The “understandings” between London and Beijing, plus the Basic Law, now ruled out speeding up the increase in directly elected seats. Instead he focused on vastly enlarging the numbers who could vote for the other seats. Existing functional seats had their franchises enlarged – for example, all directors of companies which were members of the HK General Chamber of Commerce could vote rather than just the companies themselves.

New functional constituencies were created with much larger numbers of voters than existing ones. And the 10 seats decided by the Election Committee were indirectly democratized by making District boards fully democratic. Patten’s package also included removing all official members and not allowing Legislative councilors to serve on the Executive council.

China’s violent reaction to Patten manifested itself with use of phrases like “strutting prostitute” and even negotiator Lu Ping, Head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs department of the State Council, describing him as “the criminal of all time” in the history of Hong Kong. Its wrath was based partly on Patten not following the past practice of prior secret discussions with Beijing, and partly because any democratic progress undermined Beijing’s political influence via appointees and business groups.

Patten’s position was undermined by not having been shown earlier correspondence with Beijing which gave China some reason to complain loudly that the proposals were contrary to “previous understandings” with Cradock and other foreign office officials regarding consultation with China on major Hong Kong domestic issues.

In any event Patten believed that any such implied commitment made him hostage to China. The diplomats’ soft option that challenging China was impossible was quite contrary to the interests of the Hong Kong for which Britain was responsible.

Patten also faced open hostility drummed up in Britain by the collection of arrogant, self-regarding ex-ambassadors to Beijing headed by Cradock, men with known contempt for Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations and eager themselves, not their political masters, to be the decision makers in secret talks with China.

This class of sinologist is alive and well in a British foreign office often cowed by Beijing’s threats, with junior diplomats often preparing the ground for becoming business consultants in China. In the Patten case the threat included not proceeding with the new airport, but the bluff was called and the airport was built.

British business interests also entered the fight against Patten, causing even the mild-mannered Foreign Secretary Hurd to comment acidly: “There are people who stay at the Mandarin Hotel and listen to a few people and think they know Hong Kong.. They don’t see that what is actually happening inside that amazing society is change. And when it is put under their noses they don’t like it because life would be much easier if everything went on as before and there were no politics in Hong Kong. There are politics in Hong Kong and ministers have to take account of that the way that taipans don’t have to”.

Despite the barrage of abuse and the strenuous efforts of Hong Kong tycoons to undermine the proposals, Patten’s proposals for the 1995 elections squeaked through the legislature. They were implemented despite China’s insistence that they would be undone in 1997. The 1995 elections saw 2.7 million people eligible to vote in the functional constituencies and overall pro-democracy legislators slightly outnumbered the rest.

But the result, with pro-democracy candidates winning all the directly elected seats, reinforced China’s desire to change the system and rely more on United Front tactics to sustain its influence.

Despite all the abuse from Beijing, most of the other threats dissipated in time as China could only go so far in alienating Hong Kong people before the “glorious” return to Chinese sovereignty. The airport was built, albeit a little late. And though the democratic process was reversed in 1998 it dramatically raised expectations for broad based representative government of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people and explains why, 20 years later, Patten remains a much admired figure.

The 1995 Legislative Council was removed at the handover and a provisional one of appointed members set up which enacted a return to the previous system. But such was the popular support for democracy that Beijing was only able to make a partial retreat. It maintained the 20 directly elected seats (out of 60) but changed the voting system towards a proportional representation one with multi-member constituencies in place of single member constituencies.

This change initially helped pro-Beijing candidates but was later to enable radical anti-Beijing candidates to get elected. The Patten democratization of the indirectly elected seats was reversed, restoring the pre-1995 system almost intact.

The total number of legislative seats was increased to 60 for the 2004 and 2008 elections, but remained evenly split between direct and indirect. For 2012 it rose again to 70 -- 35 direct, 30 functional and five were added by which all those (3.2 million) not eligible to vote for a functional constituency could for candidates nominated by district boards. Pro-democracy candidates won three of these. According to the NPC, although election of all legislators by the universal suffrage principle is the ultimate aim it can only happen with Beijing’s approval and after Chief Executive has been so elected.

This brings us to the Chief Executive election procedure, the immediate cause of the recent stand-off.

In British days the Governor was simply appointed by the government in London. Mostly they were career colonial officials but after the colonial office was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1966 the next three governors (prior to Patten) were diplomats with no direct experience of governing anything bigger than a government department.

The Basic Law introduced the idea of a form of selection, which could be competitive, for the equivalent post of Chief Executive. This person was required to be a patriotic Chinese but also a permanent resident of Hong Kong. Selection was in the hands of an Election Committee, initially of 800, mostly representatives of business, professional and occupational groups plus bodies such as the Legislative and Executive councils, the NPC and the CPPCC. It was a suitably pro-government committee. In 1997 it chose Tung Chee-hwa, clearly Beijing and the business sector’s favored candidate, against two other worthies – businessman Peter Woo, son-in-law of late shipping magnate Y.K.Pao, and a former Chief Justice T.L. Yang.

Tung was reappointed in 2002 without opposition, and likewise his successor, Donald Tsang appointed on Tung sudden early retirement in 2005 was similarly reappointed without challenge. It was only in 2012 that a real contest erupted between two establishment candidates, Henry Tang, at first the favourite, and C.Y. Leung. For this election the number of electors rose to 1200, with 150 votes needed or nomination and hence the actual ballot.

Tang’s campaign imploded in the face of revelations about illegal construction and Leung won easily. There was also a pro-democracy candidate, Albert Ho leader of the Democratic Party. But his meager 6% of the vote indicated just how conservative was the committee’s membership.

For 2017 there is a long-standing commitment by Beijing to “universal suffrage”. But the version as laid down recently by the NPC provides minimal choice to the people. It provides for a nominating committee, with membership similar to that of the previous Election Committee, to consider candidates and put forward two or three for the final decision by the electorate. However, each of these candidates must have the backing of at least 50% of the Nominating Committee. Thus only pre-approved persons can stand and the likelihood is assumed to be a result similar to that in 1997 where the second and third candidates were there just to give the appearance of choice.

Opponents argue that that is a betrayal by Beijing, helped by the Leung administration, and denies Hong Kong not only genuine universal suffrage but even the right to choose its electoral system within the limits of the Basic Law. Hence the anger on the streets.

So, 158 years after the first proposal for modest moves towards democracy were put forward, Hong Kong still has a very limited form of it. At various times London, and notably the Foreign Office, has been the obstacle, at others the colonial administrators and their expatriate colleagues in Hong Kong. Since 1949 the Communist party government in Beijin has been, and remains, the main obstacle. And at all times the big business establishment, whether the opium traders in the 19th century or the property tycoons of today have stood against representative government – other their own representatives. Today this is reflected in the contrast between Hong Kong’s abysmal performance on social, pollution, income distribution and other issues affecting the general public compared with almost the whole of the developed world and particularly with prosperous democratic Asian societies, South Korea and Taiwan.