Opinion Politics & Protest

Hong Kong’s rulers might have something to learn from the Habsburg monarchy

An autocratic police state run by a centralized dictatorship. A multi-ethnic empire imposing its chosen language on administration and education, trampling local dialects.

A variety of different administrative arrangements, rights and privileges in different regions, with defence and foreign affairs strictly reserved for the central authorities. Functional constituencies…

Before you jump to conclusions, I have been reading The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, by A.J.P. Taylor, a history of what became of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The book is almost as old as I am – it was first published in 1948 – but Mr Taylor was a noted stylist whose prose still gives pleasure. I wonder if the same will be said of the contemporary historians who, now that he is safely dead, are rather rude about him.

the habsburg monarchy

Photo: AbeBooks.

The story told here is a depressing one. It starts with defeat by Napoleon, and ends with Austria starting the First World War and disintegrating under the strain of defeat in it.

Beijing officials will not perhaps welcome the suggestion that, having rejected Stalin’s empire as a model, they should turn to Franz Josef’s. It isn’t exactly a shining example. Switzerland is erroneously accused (in The Third Man) of producing nothing but the cuckoo clock. What can we attribute to Vienna but a lot of classical music and some lovely pastries?

Well try this, in the account of the achievements of the “German liberals”, who briefly enjoyed a period of political prominence before normal aristocratic service resumed in 1871: “They thought it was the duty of liberalism to protect the individual from the state and could not imagine a state under popular control, least of all under their own.”

And yet “These constitutional laws … created a system of individual freedom… There was equality before the law, civil marriage, freedom of expression, freedom of movement…”

“The police state still existed … but it was a police state exposed to public criticism and confined to civilized behaviour.”

“Political affairs were discussed without restraint, and the German Austrian, at any rate, felt himself free.”

Now there are no exact parallels in history, and there is clearly one topical item missing here. The German liberals, because they spoke the imperial language as their mother tongue, had nothing to say about the language question, which was a live issue in most of the Austrian empire, where people spoke a wide variety of mother tongues.

austria

A 1868 ethnographic map of the Austrian Monarchy gives detailed statistics of the national and linguistic diversity. Photo: British Library.

Also you could say that the Hong Kong liberals approached this from the other direction. Our pioneers hoped that democracy in Hong Kong would lead to democracy in China. Contemporary localists do not imagine a state under popular control and see democracy only as a way to protect the individual in Hong Kong from the state in Beijing.

Clearly though there is an outline here of a sort of grand bargain which might, as it did in Austria, deliver several decades of comparative peace and freedom, though it will probably have to wait until the regime in Beijing, which is very full of itself at the moment, has suffered a painful collision with economics.

A lot of Hong Kong people would be prepared to settle for the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and a “police state exposed to public criticism and confined to civilized behaviour.” Nobody really wants to dabble in defence and foreign affairs, or for that matter in the numerous and difficult problems presented by the internal affairs of the rest of the Chinese empire. They want to feel free here.

If this was consistent with absolute monarchy in Vienna there is no reason why it should be inconsistent with “China’s absolute sovereignty” over Hong Kong. It just needs people to get their heads round it. Is there anyone in Beijing who can even spell “self-restraint”?

Observant readers will have noticed that I missed out one of the achievements of the German Liberals, the arrival of “civil marriage”. This was one aspect of the resumption of secular control over the Roman Catholic church. This is generally regarded as an exotic European problem of no relevance to Hong Kong, but I am not so sure. Hong Kong, as one observer put it long ago, enjoys freedom of religion but not freedom from religion.

Gay Games 9

Opening ceremony of Gay Games 9. Photo: Koji Kawano via Flickr.

This brings me to the matter of the Gay Games and the government’s tepid response to the news that this festival is coming to Hong Kong. Every columnist in Hong Kong has lambasted the government’s approach to this matter already, so I shall be brief.

If Carrie Lam feels that presiding over a festival of pink power is inconsistent with her religious beliefs nobody could complain if she sent someone else to do the opening ceremony. Not C.Y. Leung, please.

The question of how the government should handle the games, however, is not a matter of personal conscience, it is a matter of public policy. And the relevant public policy is that hosting mega events is good for the economy and the territory’s reputation so they should be supported with encouragement, money and help with booking venues.

This policy should not be abandoned in deference to the views of a minority of Godbotherers, even if the Chief Executive happens to be one of them.

Hong Kong's rulers might have something to learn from the Habsburg monarchy