Home / Articles / The Hong Kong Experiment: A Peek into the Laboratory
“Pay attention!” That was the message I heard on a recent visit to Hong Kong. In one form or another, it was the message from government officials, business community boosters, as well as political leaders critical of the current leadership and trends within what is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China. It is a message worth heeding, as I suggest below, not only because many China scholars have given Hong Kong short shrift in recent decades but more importantly because events in Hong Kong may well contain lessons about the future of China.
First, however, a caveat is in order. My observations are modestly offered as the impressions of a first-time visitor. Yet, I think it is fair to assert that they constitute something more substantial than casual impressions. My Hong Kong hosts generously helped arrange an extensive series of private meetings with a broad cross-section of the local elite. I not only met with representatives of the SAR government and leading officials in several of its key bureaucratic divisions, but also with politicians, journalists, and others who are some of the regime’s most outspoken critics, as well as with scholars affiliated with universities and independent think tanks, and leaders in the business community. I detected no attempt to tailor my agenda in order to convey a particular message — unless my host’s purpose was to demonstrate the remarkable diversity of opinion in Hong Kong. The usefulness of my visit was further enhanced by its timing. My schedule fortuitously put me in Hong Kong just as the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) issued its ruling on Beijing’s power to have the final word on a controversy about the “right of abode” for the offspring of the SAR’s local residents. The debate this ruling provoked provided a useful springboard for discussing many important and sensitive issues in each of the series of 45-minute meetings my hosts arranged.
Hong Kong ignored?
I suspect that among analysts who study China, especially those younger than 50, I have not been alone in my relative ignorance about Hong Kong, for both practical and intellectual reasons. With the opening of the PRC in the 1980s, Hong Kong lost its distinctive advantage as a perch for observing ”Red China”. Unlike more senior China watchers, the post-Mao cohort that could undertake research in the PRC was much less likely to learn about Hong Kong by living and working there. In addition, during the 1990s, although the research agenda of China scholars expanded to include areas of “greater China” beyond the PRC’s borders, it was Taiwan rather than Hong Kong that received most of the attention. Analysts developed a growing interest in Taiwan’s democratization as well as the island’s cross- straits relationship with the mainland. For China scholars, after a focus on the PRC and Taiwan, Hong Kong was usually an ever more distant third. True, in the period just prior to Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997 there was a flurry of interest. Would Beijing really live up to the letter and spirit of its “one-country, two-systems” policy? But when nothing dramatic followed the July 1 ceremonies, few maintained a close focus on events in the newly created SAR of the PRC. For many, Hong Kong again receded into the background and only briefly re-emerged when extraordinary events made it hard to ignore (such as when the shock wave of the Asian financial crisis hit its real estate and stock markets).
Perhaps I offer too broad a generalization about the level of interest in Hong Kong. Certainly some with special professional or vested personal stakes there have continued to pay careful attention; the US Congress requires the State Department to make annual reports to it on the situation in the SAR. But judging by scholarly output and media coverage, it seems fair to say that for many China watchers at the turn of the century Hong Kong is something of an afterthought. That blunt observation may well bruise the egos of Hong Kong’s proud residents. Regardless, my suggestion that China experts and policy analysts would be well advised to heed their plea to pay closer attention to what goes on in the former British colony is not designed to salve the locals’ wounded pride. Instead I offer a set of unsentimental reasons why analysts interested mainly in developments in the rest of the PRC can profit from more closely following developments in Hong Kong as it carries out its experiment with the one-country, two-systems formula.
Hong Kong’s new significance
1. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Beijing’s fear of democratic politics
Over the past decade, Taiwan has captured the attention of China scholars and others impressed by the rapid flowering of democracy in a formerly authoritarian regime. Commentators not only contrasted Taiwan’s liberalization with the political retrenchment on the mainland after the 1989 crackdown on demonstrators, but also pointed out the way in which Taiwan’s experience confounded assertions that Confucian Chinese societies could not sustain democratic politics. The most significant barrier to democratization in the PRC, however, has not been culture but rather the monopoly power of the Chinese Communist Party. Because events on Taiwan had unfolded in a setting well insulated from the power of the CCP, it was reasonable to wonder about the relevance of the Taiwan experience for the mainland. Still, some analysts have suggested that socioeconomic changes in the PRC similar to those that had occurred in Taiwan after the 1960s will inexorably give rise to similar pressures for political reform conducive to democracy (competitive electoral politics, an independent judiciary, and a free press) once these come to be seen as the only reliable way to check the disease of corruption, a chronic problem in authoritarian developmental states that threatens their economic health. But for such pressures to bear fruit as they did on Taiwan, and for the CCP to embrace political reform, the leaders in Beijing will have to believe that the benefits for continued growth greatly exceed the costs of diminished political control. In this regard, Hong Kong’s experience could prove important for the rest of China.
Because Hong Kong is a Chinese community experimenting with democracy, yet not insulated from the CCP’s control in the way Taiwan was, events there may well provide a better guide as to whether the CCP will ultimately be prepared to accommodate political liberalization. To simplify greatly, one might think of Hong Kong as China’s “special political zone,” much as a handful of cities within China proper served as “special economic zones” after Deng Xiaoping initiated his reform program in the early 1980s. Those SEZs were designed as experiments in economic reform that the CCP expected to be kept safely separate from the rest of the country. As their success became apparent, however, pressure grew both at the top and the bottom of the political system for the CCP to permit other areas to adopt similar policies. Beijing permitted the diffusion throughout China of the bold sort of economic arrangements first limited to the SEZs not because of abstract theoretical beliefs (on the contrary, the free-market essence of the approach and the unavoidable social costs were highly controversial among the party’s top leaders) but because of economic results. If Hong Kong’s prosperity demonstrates the compatibility of democratization and economic development, or more accurately their complementarity, and in so doing discredits the CCP’s professed claims/worries (ie, that political liberalization is a dangerous course, alien and inappropriate for China, and likely to result in instability and the “Russian disease”) the hand of political reformers within the CCP will be strengthened. Village level elections in China, as others have noted, are serving as one venue for the PRC to experiment with elements of democracy; Hong Kong’s distinctive status permits even bolder experiments, and in the sort of urban setting that will be key to any serious commitment to political reform within the rest of China.
2. Hong Kong and the looming challenges after democratization
Democratic Competition. Hong Kong also may carry several lessons about the challenges to be faced in China after democratization, whether that process is managed from the top down, or is forced from the bottom up. One such lesson is that democratic activists cannot take for granted that their personal political popularity prior to, and in the opening moments of, the democratization drama will ensure their continued success during the protracted, tough political competition that follows. Success demands both organization and the ability for that organization to offer messages that attract the support of a constituency large enough to win elections. In Hong Kong’s most recent round of voting, several of the leading democratic political organizations and personalities that established their credentials as guardians of Hong Kong’s liberties in the run-up to restored Chinese rule, faltered either because they were out-organized or because they were out-maneuvered on bread-and-butter pocketbook issues their rivals had captured. If Hong Kong’s democrats are to thrive politically, they cannot lean so heavily on their reputation as protectors of the SAR’s autonomy and its democratic values. Their principled position on these matters is both right and necessary, but it is not sufficient to win elections when constituents have practical and immediate concerns that they expect leaders to address. This is especially true as the outrage over the 1989 crackdown in Beijing fades and the initial anxieties about the meaning of Chinese rule diminish among Hong Kong’s voters. While some have continued to focus on whether political parties in Hong Kong are pro-Beijing or not, in the December 1999 local elections that was not the salient cleavage; it also seems unlikely to be the main dividing line in the more important 2000 elections for the Legislative Council. Given changes in the electoral rules and district structure after July 1997 (that already worked against the democrats in the previous Legco voting) expanding electoral appeal will be a crucial ingredient for success.
Economic growth, environmental degradation, and the quality of the education system are the sorts of issues that have risen to the top of the political agenda in Hong Kong. Resentment about the failure adequately to address such matters has in fact led residents to direct their unhappiness toward the SAR government and to view democracy as a means for holding local political leaders responsible. The foremost public opinion research project in Hong Kong (The Transition Project under the leadership of Michael DeGolyer) clearly reveals that Hong Kong’s citizens’ are now more critical of the Chief Executive of the SAR than they are of the leaders in Beijing. This polling also reveals a trend towards residents focusing on practical local concerns, rather than loftier political principles and constitutional arrangements. The implication for Hong Kong’s democratic activists who cut their political teeth in the last years of British rule is clear: they cannot remain a “one-trick pony” and expect to thrive. That conclusion may seem harsh and unfair, especially to those of us who prize liberal democratic values and understand their importance as the foundation for many of the practical advantages of modern life, but politics like life can be harsh and unfair. This experience of Hong Kong’s democrats serves as a useful cautionary tale for China’s democrats whenever their opportunity for genuine political participation arrives in the rest of the mainland.
The Rule of Law. A second, related lesson from Hong Kong about a problem likely to arise in a future democratic China, concerns the complexity of establishing the rule of law and an independent judiciary even in circumstances where the Chinese Communist Party’s grip is relaxed. As noted above, my visit to Hong Kong coincided with the Court of Final Appeal’s (CFA) decision to uphold the right of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing to interpret the Basic Law, often referred to as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The Court’s ruling was the last in a series of steps undertaken to address the ”right of abode” for the offspring of Hong Kong residents. Experts I met sharply disagreed with one another about the complex legal, constitutional, and practical issues, but seemed agreed on one point: Both the Hong Kong government’s advocates and the judges comprising the Court had exercised poor judgment in turning this matter into an early landmark case to delimit the legal powers retained in Hong Kong and those reserved by the sovereign authorities in Beijing.
Some of the most sophisticated analysts, citing other countries’ early experience (Marbury vs Madison featured prominently in one of the more nuanced op-ed articles; T K Chang, “Hong Kong’s Judicial Blunder,” Asian Wall Street Journal, Dec 6, p 3) suggested that building an independent judiciary with the authority to offer constitutional interpretations requires not just precisely worded and carefully argued legal positions, but also political savvy. Such care was lacking in the series of missteps that characterized the handling of the right of abode case: The Hong Kong’s Chief Executive unnecessarily precipitated a mini-constitutional crisis by directly challenging the Basic Law’s liberal guidelines for residency rather than seeking its amendment or discovering some compromise solution; in January 1999 the Court of Final Appeal struck down the Chief Executive’s policy on formal legal grounds even though they knew it had strong political support in Beijing and among the citizens of Hong Kong, an act that also bluntly challenged Beijing’s ultimate sovereignty over the SAR; the Chief Executive then sought redress in Beijing, again eschewing the option of devising a local solution acceptable to all parties (something that Beijing urged as the best way to go) and instead requiring the PRC to issue a precedent-setting decision about its right to exercise sovereignty over Hong Kong; in June China’s NPC Standing Committee quite predictably overturned the CFA ruling; on December 3 the CFA brought the constitutional crisis to a disturbing close when it issued a new ruling on deportation orders asserting “that the Standing Committee’s power to interpret the Basic Law ‘is not restricted or qualified in any way.’”(Asian Wall Street Journal, Dec 6, p 3).
While legally defensible, the CFA’s second ruling was politically disastrous. Rather than gradually attempting to carve out and perhaps expand a space within which it could act with a measure of independence, the Court’s stunning reversal of its boldly defiant (and, some argue, unnecessarily sweeping and provocative) January position raised doubts about the finality of any decision it rendered, and perhaps more troubling, raised the specter of Hong Kong judges handing down decisions with one eye on the preferences (expressed or surmised) of the CCP and its supporters on the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing. Is the damage to judicial independence in Hong Kong as serious and irreversible as pessimists fear? Or, as optimists argue, will an accumulation of rulings on lower-profile cases re-establish the stature of the courts and demonstrate that the pessimists’ concerns are overwrought? The cliche applies: only time will tell. But the “right of abode” controversy in Hong Kong already contains a broader lesson about any possible future expansion of the genuine rule of law within the rest of China. As with the lesson about party politics in a young democracy, successfully promoting the growth of an independent judiciary in China will depend on charting a politically practical course and not simply proclaiming high-minded principles. Rather than indulging in self-righteous boasting about our own experience, Westerners concerned about the rule of law ought to encourage advocates of legal reform in China (and those most interested in preserving the rule of law in Hong Kong today) to closely study the long-running, and admittedly checkered history of interaction between politics and the courts in other countries (including the US) where it has most impressively been played out. A review of that history will also serve as a reminder that in the United States it took decades, not years, just to begin defining the proper role of the courts as an arbiter of constitutional disputes, and that our courts have never been completely impervious to political pressures. Finally, it is worth mentioning that if the bad news from the “right of abode” case is obvious, perhaps the less obvious good news is that it sparked a vigorous, relatively sophisticated, debate about the rule of law in Hong Kong and even faint echoes in Beijing where some are advocating a more open, court-like setting as an alternative to the NPC Standing Committee for hearing any future appeals.
Center-local relations. Hong Kong’s experience may carry a third lesson relevant to China’s future, one that bears on the relationship between local and central governments. The degree of authority granted to the local Hong Kong government under the one-country, two-systems formula is unprecedented in the PRC’s history. Although there are other, ethnically distinct “autonomous regions” in the PRC, they are misnamed; like all subnational levels of China’s political system, they are part of what the CCP (with a historically rooted fear of disunity reinforced by the unraveling of the former Soviet Union) insists must remain a unitary state. Yet many observers during the past two decades have argued that China is simply too large, diverse, and populous a country for a system with authority so centralized in Beijing to be workable. In practice, Beijing’s reach has always exceeded its grasp; some have even suggested that the post-Mao relaxation of political control and the shift from a centrally planned to a market economy has resulted in a sort of de facto federalism in China. But for center-local relations in China to become more than the grudging acceptance of local discretion, leaders in Beijing will have to become convinced that the devolution of authority over local affairs can be both effective and safe. To the extent that Hong Kong’s SAR thrives while enjoying genuine autonomy on a wide range of matters while still maintaining its allegiance to Beijing as China’s sovereign on foreign, defense and security issues, the imagined dangers of relaxing central control and the practical benefits from doing so may be more readily grasped. Of course, Hong Kong’s special historical circumstances mean that its extreme independence cannot serve as an exact model for local governments elsewhere in a federal China. Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s special relationship does provide an opportunity for Beijing to gain experience with political arrangements other than its increasingly unwieldy system of formally centralized control.
A final note
Bold speculation about the future based on limited knowledge about the present is a risky business. Perhaps, as some of the more pessimistic observers I met suggested, the novel elements of democratic Chinese politics in Hong Kong are destined to erode slowly as the leaders in Beijing reveal their intolerance on one matter after another. If so, then Hong Kong would become “just another city in China,” a fate almost everyone I met saw as unacceptable. Indeed, such a course has been predicted by those who expect China’s one-country, two-systems pledge of noninterference to last only as long as its self-interest in preserving Hong Kong as an economic golden goose and as a political role model to lure Taiwan. Even most of the pessimists, however, have been pleasantly surprised at the latitude Hong Kong has thus far been afforded, and worry mainly about an uncertain future. At the turn of the century, Hong Kong’s press remains feisty, its elections are still hotly contested, and the courts, despite recent missteps, have not thrown in the towel. As the Hong Kong experiment continues, China watchers would be well advised to keep closer tabs on its progress and to consider its possible implications for the future evolution of the PRC.