The Democracy Conundrum in Hong Kong
Rup Narayan Das

The National People’s Congress of China earlier this year, passed sweeping legislative measures which increases, among others, the composition of the Election Committee of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSR) to 1500 from existing 1200 and the strength of Legislative Council (LegCo) to 90 from existing 70. What has further inflicted injury to the democratic camp in Hong Kong was the decision of China’s National People’s Congress 30 March this year to reduce the directly elected members of the Legislative Council by 15 from 35 out of the total strength of 70. Effectively now there will be 20 directly elected members in the Legislative Council having strength of 90; others will be elected indirectly in a complex electoral system.1 This will have a bearing on the electoral system of Hong Kong, which reverted to China on 1st July 1997 after one hundred fifty years of colonial rule by Great Britain. After its reversion to Chinese sovereignty, the territory is governed under a very innovative system of ‘one country, two systems’ as envisaged in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution.2 The Basic Law retained the extant political and economic structure prevalent in Hong Kong and enshrined high degree of autonomy except matters relating to defence and foreign affairs. It also provided for a separate flag and emblem for Hong Kong .The Basic Law replaced the Governor, used to be appointed by Britain, with the Chief Executive accountable to the Central People’s government; and to be selected by election or through consultation held locally.

The reconstituted Election Committee will be responsible to select the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The election to the LegCo was due in September 2020 which was deferred for one year by the Hong Kong Government on ground of pandemic much to the chagrin of pro-democracy activists in the territory. As the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has attracted much international media attention, it is imperative to succinctly revisit the democratised narrative of the city state in the run-up to the hand over and the in the post hand-over period to put the democracy discourse in Hong Kong in proper perspective.

Hong Kong was born of the trading relations between Britain and China and the growth and development of the territory can be attributed to its favourable geographical location and economic factors. The British viewed the functions and purpose of Hong Kong was to serve as diplomatic, commercial and military post and developing the democratic institutions were not their concern. Nevertheless, they developed representative institutions to co-opt local Chinese populace in the governance of the colony and nurtured Anglo-Chinese elite loyal to them. The British during their colonial rule also developed liberal democratic institutions such as the Rule of Law, independent judiciary, civil service and a robust culture of freedom of press. All these helped Hong Kong to emerge as a leading commercial and financial city in the world.

It was only when the British realised in the late 1970s and early 1980s that reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty was a question of time that they thought of democratic reforms in Hong Kong. It was during this time that green shoots of democratic institutions started sprouting in the form of political partiesto articulate and aggregate political aspirations. What gave a further impetus to the democracy movement in Hong Kong was the Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989 in China. Its echo was felt in Hong Kong. The concerns and democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong were resoundingly reflected in the election to the LegCo held in September 1991 in when the democratic parties captured 16 of the 18 contested seats scoring 65 percent of popular vote. This rattled Beijing. What further exacerbated Chinese concerns was the constitutional reform proposal of Chris Patten, colony’s last Governor in October 1992 to increase the number of directly elected members from 18 to 20 and the provision incremental augmentation of directly elected seats with ultimate aim of achieving a fully elected legislature. China criticised Patten’s democratic package as breach of the Sino-British Declaration. In spite of China’s opposition, Chris Patten went ahead with election to the LegCo in 1995.3 In the election held in September 1995, the Democratic Party and its allies spearheaded by Martin Lee, who can be likened to Mahatama Gandhi, secured 19 out of 25 seats. China, however, threatened to derecognise the newly constituted legislature and constitute a provisional LegCo immediately after reversion of Hong Kong to China, which China did. The provisional LegCo was formally inaugurated on 1 July 1997 after Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese sovereignty.

A major challenge that the Carrie Lam faced in Hong Kong in 2014 was the popular protest dubbed as “Umbrella Movement” which was triggered by the decision of the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress to elect the Chief Executive of the HKSR by popular vote in 2017 only after each candidate is approved by a majority of the 1200 member Election Committee. This sharpened the polarisation of the electorate between the pro-Beijing conservative elements and the motley and amorphous pro-democracy activists some of whom were allegedly supported by Western Countries including the United Kingdom and the USA.

China’s major concern was that if Hong Kong was allowed to go ahead with rapid democratization, the territory would be used as a base for subversion of the communist system and the compulsions of electoral politics may seriously destabilize Hong Kong’s economy and society at large. China’s concern is not without substance in the light of Hong Kong’s role during the pro-democracy movement in the mainland in June 1989. The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and China’s attempts to muzzle it through various means including the latest measure of National Security Law has certainly eroded the tenets of the ‘one country, two systems’, as pledged under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law and in turn the efficacy of Hong Kong as an international business hub and financial centre.

Polarization of Society and Polity

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has polarised the Hong Kong society and the polity. Broadly, we can divide the citizens of Hong Kong into three categories, those Anglicized who co-opted themselves with the British and benefited from them in service or business, the immigrant Chinese who share deep loyalty to the motherland, and finally the younger generation, those born during or after Hong Kong’s handover to China. In fact these younger generation people are spearheading the pro- democracy movement in Hong Kong. Yet students from mainland China who are studying in the universities and colleges of Hong Kong are loyal to China and they are looked up on suspicion by their peers in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy movement has broken the political apathy or insularity of Hong Kong people. The unprecedented turn out in the District Board elections and the resounding victory of pro-democracy parties in 2018 clearly signalled the advent of electoral politics which Hong Kong has shunned all these years. Now onwards, the demand for direct election to LegCo for all seats will increase. Since the elected members of the District Board also having a voting share for the election to the LegCo, the number of democratic candidates will increase. But as per the revised electoral law an aspiring member for LegCo has to obtain the prior approval of China.

Although a high degree of autonomy has been guaranteed for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, doubts were raised with regard to its implementation in letter and spirit. Since the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has the power to interpret the Basic Law, critics point out that the so called high degree of autonomy is vague and is subject to interpretation by National People’s Congress, the rubber stamp Parliament of the Communist regime. The term autonomy does not mean that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, being vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial powers, including that of the final adjudication, will have the competence of final decisions in all legislative matters. This proviso also applies to the laws prevailing in force in Hong Kong, which will be reserved except those which are contrary to the Basic Law. If they are in contrast to the Basic Law, the Standing Committee of the NPC can annul them.

Fragility of Hong Kong’s resilience

Although Hong Kong in the past ever since its inception had weathered many a storms and displayed a remarkable resilience to bounce back, the developments in the territory in last 20 odd years have raised serious question marks with regard to its future stability and prosperity. The root cause of this is the congenital irreconcilability of two divergent political systems- China, a regimented communist regime and Hong Kong, a classical laissez fare economy with ethos of a liberal democracy. Like oil and water, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the two ideologies and their political systems. True, Hong Kong has survived under the shadow of a protracted civil war in the mainland China, the rise and birth of communist China in 1949, the adverse effects of second World War and its economic consequences, the power struggle during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1967-69), but the developments ever since the Tiananmen Squire incidence of 1989 and the promulgation of the National Security Law in May 2020 and China’s estrangement because of its belligerence with a number of countries including the ‘Five Eyes’ industrialized nations have greatly dented its much vaunted pride of resilience and adaptability. The Sino-US spat and the trade war between world’s two top economies amidst the COVID-19 resonated in Hong Kong, where the USA is a major stake holder. Hong Kong has been caught in some sort of an ideological cold war between the ‘Washington consensus’ and the ‘Beijing consensus’.

China’s fear: Hong Kong, a base to undermine China

Beijing alleges that the western democracies use Hong Kong as a base to undermine China. Its concerns may be true; there may not be any denial of China’s grouse. But it is also a fact that Hong Kong as an enclave of democracy will continue to be an anathema to the Communist Party of China particularly in the context of a suppressed desire for democracy and freedom in the mainland. A large segment of Hong Kong populace born after the birth of Communist China lack a primordial affiliation to the mainland and even the aged and elderly who migrated from the mainland and settled in Hong Kong grew up in the milieu of liberal democracy even if Hong Kong did not have the electoral democracy of the western variant, but it had a rule of law, a robust and vibrant media and the culture and values of liberal democracy. In fact a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong in 2011 found that the number of respondents who viewed themselves as Hong Kongers was more than the number who viewed themselves as Chinese and that bonds of identity with mainland had weakened since British relinquished sovereignty in 1997. It was in this backdrop that in February 2021 the Hong Kong government unveiled a controversial set of guidelines for schools in the territory that include teaching students as young as six about colluding with foreign forces and subversion as part of a new national security curriculum.

Can Shenzhen replace Hong Kong?

There are also developments to suggest that Beijing is now developing Shenzhen to supplement if not supplant Hong Kong. In mid- October 2020, President Xi Jinping unveiled some economic reform measures while speaking at Shenzhen on the occasion of 40th anniversary of the establishment of Special Economic Zones there. While Shenzhen has been touted as China’s Silicon Valley, this is the first time that the budding metropolis has been exhorted by supreme leader Xi to excel in financial sector and services such as accounting, design and legal arena.4

Can ‘One country, two systems’ be replicated in Taiwan?

Political developments in Hong Kong and China’s iron fist attempt to suppress and stifle the democratic aspirations of the people have raised the efficacy of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong and the prospect of its replication in Taiwan, where the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is growing strong, and even the opposition KMT sensing the people’s sentiment in Taiwan has also started distancing itself from the mainland China. China doesn’t care much about the economic wellbeing of Hong Kong; it has already started mentoring Shenzhen as an alternative financial hub. China is rather more worried that if the pro-democracy movement is allowed to grow there in Hong Kong, in the long run it will have a contagion effect on China arousing fresh bouts of democratic aspiration there.

British Legacy

Generally, a very chartable view is taken in terms of British contributions in Hong Kong for the rule of law, the civil service and an enabling business. One major criticism is that the British did not develop representative institutions and they did so half-heartedly and in a piecemeal manner in the twilight years of its rule. Beijing criticized Hong Kong’s last governor Chris Patten for trying to fast track the representative institutions breaching the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. It would be factually incorrect to say that the British didn’t introduce democratic reforms. There have been calibrated attempts of succeeding British Governors to give representation to local Chinese populace without inviting the adversarial and competitive electoral politics. More than the electoral politics the rule of law, providing a level playing field, a vibrant and independent media and finally cosmopolitanism are some of the enduring legacy of the British tutelage of the colony; albeit with the caveat of George Bernard Shaw, “An Englishman does everything on principles; he fights on patriotic principles; he robs on business principles; he enslaves on imperial principles”.

Hong Kong will not remain the same cosmopolitan city. China will continue to be haunted by vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong; the erosion of confidence in the novelty of ‘one country, two systems’ has also dampened the prospect of unification of the mainland with its estranged sibling Taiwan. The pro-democracy movement will dissipate in times to come and Hong Kong will be another Shenzhen, stripped off its cosmopolitan élan. Hong Kong is not a city alone, it is a way of life, a way of doing business, a melting pot of multiculturalism, a confluence of the orient and the occident.

  1. Ananth Krishnan, “China cuts Hong Kong elected seats”, The Hindu, 31 March 2021,
  2. Rup Narayan Das, “Hong Kong: An Experiment in ‘one country, two systems,” China Report, 29:2!993)
  3. Rup Narayan Das, “Politics of Democratic Process in Hong Kong”, International Studies, 34,4 (1997)
  4. Willy Wo-Lap Lam,” Beijing Raises Shenzen’s status at the expense of Hong Kong”, China Brief, 23 October 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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