Hong Kong – more than meets the eye

The current protests rocking Hong Kong are often portrayed in terms of freedom-loving locals defying the authoritarian initiatives of far-away Beijing. The big issue is said to be how much say the people of Hong Kong have on who is elected to rule them as Chief Executive of the HKSAR (Special Autonomous Region). As the BBC reports, “The pro-democracy protesters are angry at China for limiting their choice in Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership elections.”

But how accurate is this picture?

As recounted in a NIAS Press study published last year (Negotiating Autonomy in Greater China, edited by Ray Yep), the issue is far more complex than the franchise and goes way beyond the parochial concerns of Hong Kong’s citizenry. True, much of the volume deals with the situation in Hong Kong, exploring both the colonial period and how the HKSAR has evolved since the 1997 handover. Here, it especially focuses on issues of autonomy in its various forms (political, institutional, judicial, economic, etc.). However, the quite different situation in nearby Macau is also analysed, so too the failed attempts by the PRC to peacefully absorb both Tibet and Taiwan.

And not least all of these cases are considered in the light of the evolution of local government throughout the PRC, exploring for instance how much freedom of manoeuvre local leaders have in their interaction with provincial superiors and distant masters in Beijing.

The result is an insightful study offering a somewhat different – and nuanced – assessment of local autonomy not only in Hong Kong but also throughout the PRC.

Something of the flavour of this approach is evident in the opening pages of Ray Yep’s introduction, the first part of which is reproduced below (with footnotes omitted).


Sixteen years after the founding of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in 1997, few would concur with the doomsday argument regarding “the death of Hong Kong” advanced by Fortune magazine in 1995. There have been ups and downs in economic conditions and the territory has experienced a succession of demonstrations and mass protests, especially under the Tung Chee Hwa administration between 1997 and 2005. Yet, it is a gross exaggeration to describe the trajectory of Hong Kong in the last 15 years as a degeneration into political purgatory. Its capacity to bounce back from adversity has confirmed the vitality of the economic fundamentals of the territory, and despite the rising volume of altercation and dissent on the political scene, which has occasionally erupted into a mass protest of colossal proportions, as in the case of the 1 July demonstration in 2003, stability has never been under serious threat. Hong Kong remains as one of the safest cities in the world, with law and order showing no sign of decay since 1997, while its public finances are embarrassed by a colossal reserve of 600 billion HKD at a time when many governments in the developed world are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The government is certainly subject to growing criticism and the new administration under Leung Chun Ying has been under unabated challenges since he took office in July 2012; yet the rising pressure is ironically a testament to the vibrancy of civil society and freedom of expression in the territory. On the basis of these developments, it may be harsh to blame the optimists who need no encouragement to jump on the bandwagon of praising the success of the “one country, two systems” formula. Such optimism is, however, at best only partially substantiated. Certainly, the post-handover arrangement was designed to maintain effective governance in Hong Kong after 1997, but ultimately it is a platform for the exercise of sovereignty over the territory. An assessment without the dimension of central and local interaction after 1997 simply renders itself irrelevant in any understanding of the validity of the “one country, two systems” model.

The crux of the matter is the issue of autonomy. While most commentators agree that Beijing observed a high degree of self-restraint in not meddling in the domestic affairs of Hong Kong in the immediate aftermath of the handover, the 1 July demonstration in 2003 appears to have been the turning point. For many, the “resignation” of the hugely unpopular Tung Chee Hwa heralded a more proactive approach by the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China in handling Hong Kong. Measures of economic support and further integration coincided with the establishment of a new top-level body overseeing Hong Kong affairs, with a Politburo member, Zeng Qinghong, installed as the tsar of Hong Kong policy, and the rising visibility of officials of the Central Government’s Liaison Office on the local scene. The local community is apparently ill at ease with the “encroachment” of the Central Government. Casual comments on Hong Kong affairs by Chinese officials and cross-border infrastructure development can now easily trigger a public outcry against “pressure from Beijing”. Public fury over allegations of Beijing’s intervention in the Chief Executive election in March 2012, which resulted in the victory of Leung Chun Ying, is a testament to the common concern for the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy among the local population.

Is the autonomy bestowed upon the HKSAR being compromised? Or, more importantly, how can we assess the state of the autonomy we are enjoying? A formalistic or textual approach is one option, as our entitlements have already been enshrined in the constitutional document that is the Basic Law. Put in this light, any deviation from the relevant stipulations in this authoritative document is incontestable evidence of the infringement of the autonomy of the HKSAR. Yet, this formalistic approach is missing an essential point. Such a jaundiced view confines the analysis to the regulative aspect of the constitution only. Institution, according to North (1990), is a set of rules that is intended to make interaction possible by reducing ambiguity and conflict. Central to these rules is a formal component endorsed by an authoritative body that states explicitly commonly agreed standards and procedure, obligations for all concerned parties, penalties for non-compliance, and a mechanism for enforcement. Nevertheless, these formal rules are effective in guiding action and shaping behaviour only when they are seen as legitimate. This alerts us to the importance of the informal aspect in a constitution. Scott (1995 & 2008) further elaborates this aspect and highlights the relevance of the normative and cultural and cognitive aspects of the element of informality. The former refers to the expectations of stakeholders whereas the latter includes accepted beliefs and values shared among concerned parties. These tacit conventions are the result of repeated interaction among members of the community and affect the way they rationalize, justify and explain interactions among themselves. Put simply, it is probably more difficult to enforce rules that people cannot make sense of and find inconsistent with their values. In other words, these informal aspects can extend, elaborate and modify formal rules and redefine the constraints imposed by institutions.

Seen in this light, the autonomy of Hong Kong can also be conceived of as a process of continuous negotiation. While the Basic Law prescribes the parameters for engagement between the Central People’s Government and the HKSAR Government and the jurisdictional boundary of the latter, the flexibility of these limits is subject to decision by the former through its power to make, unmake and interpret the Basic Law. On paper, on the issue of autonomy, as pointed out by Miners, the Basic Law is generous in spirit as it simply formalizes in the post-1997 legal arrangements many conventions that regulated the relationship between London and the colony of Hong Kong. The constitutional document that was drafted on the basis of the Joint Declaration signed by the British and Chinese governments promises a high degree of autonomy in social and economic aspects. The Hong Kong administration is for example allowed to maintain its own currency, custom control and budgetary autonomy after 1997. Acceptance of the Central Government’s involvement in local affairs or “resistance” by the subordinate government is, however, not solely defined by legal constraints, but also by political perceptions of the concerned parties. Subservience by the local government is hardly preordained by the formal status of subordination prescribed in the statutory document. Hong Kong has a long history of pursuing its own path, and the colonial governors were rarely deterred by the superior status of the sovereign power when they found London’s initiatives were inconvenient or unviable from their point of view. Bickers’s work reveals that the Foreign Office was greatly irritated by Hong Kong’s pursuit of local diplomacy with the Guomindang Government between 1917 and 1927, which was in direct defiance of London’s instruction that Hong Kong should communicate with China only through the Legation in Beijing or the Consulate at Canton. Miners’s case study of the abolition of the mui tsai system, a disguised form of slavery, revealed how the local administration could defuse and resist the pressures and efforts of two foreign secretaries and the British parliament. The inhumane practice was only abolished, almost three decades later, in 1941, when a new Governor, Caldecott, lent his support to London’s initiatives. In a similar vein, Grantham’s success in persuading the British cabinet to abandon the grand plan of political reforms in the colony in the 1950s is another example of Hong Kong’s insubordination. Even local governments on the Mainland show no less enthusiasm in pursuing their parochial interests despite the unitary arrangements of the People’s Republic of China. Emboldened by the decentralization process in the reform era, various studies have demonstrated the innovativeness and robustness of local administrations in defending their positions against central initiatives when they find their interests at stake.

In short, a formalistic approach is hardly sufficient for understanding local autonomy. The exercise of autonomy is, in fact, a product of the political process of mutual learning by the sovereign and the periphery. Propriety of action and response from both sides is not judged simply on the basis of formal legal permissibility, but is also deciphered with reference to experience in previous encounters. Earlier exchanges and responses to interaction create institutional memory, protocols for action and, most important of all, limits to legitimate expectations. And it is these these “soft” elements that ultimately justify the elasticity of the formal boundary, and thus define the permissibility of central intervention and local resistance. Yet, here lies the challenge for understanding the autonomy of the HKSAR. The “one country, two systems” model is an institutional innovation without precedent. For both the HKSAR and the Central People’s Government, the new framework, through mutual adjustment and adaptation, is still in the process of being made. Nevertheless, it does not mean that they have no reference points for interaction. Their parallel experiences in handling the central and local relationship, that is, the exchange between the colonial administration of Hong Kong and the British sovereign power before 1997, and the interaction between the national government and its subordinate units in China since 1949, can, however, serve as a good basis for evaluating the interaction between the HKSAR and the Central People’s Government after 1997.

These comparisons in temporal and spatial terms allow us to understand, firstly, the logic and concerns of Beijing in handling local initiatives and insubordination, and, secondly, the expectations and strategy of Hong Kong in pursuing its provincial agenda. The accounts included in this book are not simply stories of subordination or conflict. They are rather narratives of adaptation, negotiation and accommodation between the sovereign state and the local administration. The tacit knowledge about handling the interaction uncovered in these historical episodes and contemporary accounts is thus crucial to our comprehension of the ongoing process of defining the autonomy of Hong Kong after the reunification.

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