Opinion Politics & Protest

HK20: Regina Ip: Democracy & chaos, or bureaucracy & corruption? The search for the best system

A study of the British official documents pertaining to Hong Kong since 1948 in the compendium “The End of Empire – Dependencies Since 1948” shows that the British and Hong Kong Governments had wrestled with constitutional reform in Hong Kong long before 1997 became an issue.

Even before the end of World War II, a Hong Kong Planning Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had studied the possibility of introducing more representative government. However, reform proposals found little favour with local leaders. The famous “Young plan” (reform proposals of former governor Sir Mark Young) was abandoned after Governor Grantham took over.

In 1966, following the Kowloon disturbances, there was another attempt to give the people a greater role in managing their affairs. The Working Party on Local Administration recommended establishing new, representative local bodies to replace the Urban Council and the Heung Yee Kuk.

1966 kowloon disturbances

Kowloon Disturbances 1966: Report of Commission of Inquiry, 1966. Photo: Public Records Office.

British officials serving in the Hong Kong Government strongly opposed the proposals. They argued that “Popular representation determined by the ballot box on a very wide franchise would not be understood by the great majority and would not command public support and confidence. Fear of loss of face by failure at the polls would deter the best qualified and influential citizens from seeking to participate in local government.”

Drawing on their experience of serving in Hong Kong, which they described as “a society with a very different political, economic, social, cultural and historical background,” they further added that the familiar pattern of governance to which the Chinese community was accustomed was “that of strong bureaucratic control by scholars disciplined by strict moral principles…”

Now, 50 years later, the question whether the principle and practice of representative government best serves Hong Kong remains as controversial as ever. On the one hand, elections are now a reality, and voter turnouts keep climbing. Elections to the Legislative Council have given the under-privileged and young people a much greater voice, and have fostered much greater transparency and accountability.

Nathan Law 2016 legco elections

Nathan Law after winning a seat in the Hong Kong Island constituency. Photo: InMedia.

As those who have observed recent elections in Britain and Iran reported, elections around the world are the same. They are a time of reckoning for the incumbent administration, and a time for the people to bring to the fore all shapes and forms of frustrations and aspirations.

Recent electoral outcomes in Britain have plunged the country into uncertainty and turmoil. Rarely have those representing optimism and the bright side of life won the elections – unless you are young, smart and good-looking like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and President Macron of France.

In Hong Kong, the jury is still out on the success of the practice of representative government hastily launched in the 1980s, when the end of British rule in Hong Kong in 1997 became an inescapable reality.

It is as though the authorities in Beijing and the people of Hong Kong are torn on the applicability of the representative principle, just like the authors of the 1966 Working Party and the seasoned British Administrative Officers serving in the local administration.

Has the introduction of representative government, starting with universal suffrage-based elections to District Councils and the Legislative Council in the 1980s, lured the “best qualified and influential citizens,” the most altruistic and competent individuals, to plunge into political fires?

Judging from the line-up of political “talents,” whether in the legislature or in the incoming administration, it looks like such individuals are few and far between.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam’s new administration. Photo: GovHK.

Is a system of “strong bureaucratic control by scholars disciplined by strict moral principles” better suited for Hong Kong, a predominantly Chinese community? That may well be the thinking of the Beijing authorities, who have shown a penchant for choosing bureaucrats (Donald Tsang and now Carrie Lam) to lead the government.

Some Chinese officials who have long observed elections in Taiwan and Hong Kong appear to recognize some of the values and benefits of the democratic principle – above all the power of universal suffrage to give the elected officials the mandate they need to get things done.

But democratic development in Hong Kong has appeared to turn sour in the eyes of Beijing – for them, the legislature has become a hotbed for filibustering that takes away Hong Kong’s much vaunted efficiency and effectiveness of governance.

It has also become a high profile platform for casting insults on the country bordering on advocacy for independence. Possibly because of this, Beijing seems to have developed a loathing for democratic development and a preference for strong bureaucratic control instead.

The irony is that British colonial administrators and Beijing officials both  appear to favour a bureaucratic system, underpinned by the rule of law, or the rule by law on the mainland. The quandary facing Beijing and Hong Kong people is that elections are here to stay. So are the people’s aspirations for greater equality in franchise, greater social justice, and change that would re-launch Hong Kong.

vote election

Photo: GovHK.

I am personally confident that the rule of law will remain one of the strongest pillars of our society, our most distinct advantage that gives us an indisputable edge over other Chinese cities, despite some jarring notes from the China camp from time to time.

Question is: if we rely solely on a bureaucratic system, do we have sufficient scholar-officials, as envisaged by Confucian disciples, who have both competence and “strict moral disciplines” to prevent them from going astray? High profile corruption cases involving very senior local officials since 1997 suggest otherwise.

The anti-graft campaign on the mainland, exemplified by the wildly popular TV series “In the Name of the People”, highlights the difficulties experienced by the mainland in installing morally unassailable officials. As scholars and practitioners have acknowledged, the electoral system is fraught with its own risks.

Both on the mainland and in our city, there is a perpetual struggle for the best form of government best suited for local circumstances. The quest will go on.

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HK20: Regina Ip: Democracy & chaos, or bureaucracy & corruption? The search for the best system