Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Hong Kong Democracy Axed - Half a Century Ago

Many people regard the uncertain debate on democracy in Hong Kong as a recent phenomenon. The reforms the British put into motion after the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, and accelerated after Tiananmen with the arrival of Patten in 1992, were rolled back once sovereignty in Hong Kong was restored to China in 1997.

Yet democracy, or some form of it, was on the cards as early as before the war - I highly recommend you read about it in Steve Tsang's History of Hong Kong. I was reminded of this episode by a review of a separate article written by Steve Tsang, by Norman Miners, on the web (a .pdf file). John Keswick of Jardine Matheson, Mr. A. Morse of HSBC and Mr. G.W. Swire of Butterfield and Swire all recommended Hong Kong's executive-led (by the Governor) system be replaced by some sort of Municipal Council (like the colonial system in Shanghai), whereby Europeans would be elected by a franchise of other Europeans, with some Chinese unofficial or indirectly appointed members. However, Hong Kong's 21st Governor, Sir Mark Young, had other ideas.

Sir Mark had actually been appointed Hong Kong's Governor just before the Japanese Invasion, and had been a Japanese prisoner of war throughout World War II. After the war, he was sent back to Britain to recuperate. Upon his return, he was instructed by the Colonial Office to gauge the interest amongst the local population in a broader franchise, which he apparently did unwillingly at first.

However, he discovered to his surprise, that here in Hong Kong, as everywhere in the postwar British Empire, there was a desire for greater representation. He then became extremely wedded to the idea of a broader representation with a Municipal Council, except that half the representatives would be Chinese, and of the 'European' half, one representative would be from the mixed-race Portuguese community, and one from the Indians. In short, he proposed to a surprised Colonial Office and a shocked local British population that over half of the constituents of Hong Kong's proposed strong legislature be 'Asiatics'. The British businessmen objected to the racial constitution of the proposed Council, whereas the Colonial Office wanted to see the reforms take shape a la Singapore in the form of a Legislative Council.

Why did Sir Mark propose this radical idea? He felt that by giving local Chinese the franchise, particularly recently-arrived refugees and immigrants from China, he would bind their loyalty to Hong Kong, strengthen the legitimacy of British rule (which he must have realized suffered immeasurably during the Japanese Occupation) and also create a bulwark against Communism. With his reforms very much in motion, he handed over the reins of his office to Governor Alexander Grantham in 1947. Or to be exact, Sir Alexander William George Herder Grantham.

Now Sir Alex (not to be confused with this red-nosed Scottish manager of Manchester United) was of an entirely different mindset. He was not in favor at all of the reforms Sir Mark had proposed, and went about curtailing them and limiting them over the next five years until he finally completely scuppered them in 1952. Why was this the case? As Norman Miners points out in his article I linked to above, Sir Alexander's memoirs "make clear [he] was no lover of liberal democracy."

He entirely rolled back the concept that the Chinese should be granted a wide franchise. In fact, he suggested in communiques to London, that the British position in Hong Kong could be undermined by Communist candidates running for election; Red fever was running high as Communist China was established in 1949 at the expense of the KMT. Much better, he thought, to keep a very narrow franchise, if at all, and keep it restricted to British subjects known to be loyal.

So ended with a whimper democratic reforms in Hong Kong that appeared to be so dramatic. It was not until thirty years later, after Britain had already agreed to give Hong Kong back to China, that they felt the confidence to give Chinese people in Hong Kong the right to vote. It is of course understandable why the Chinese leadership in Beijing felt such moves were cynical 'poison pills' created to make Hong Kong indigestible to the Chinese body politic.

It does make one wonder though, what if? What if Sir Mark had stayed on longer? Might Hong Kong have had a history of institutionalized democracy for half a century, enshrined in the Basic Law? Or might China, just possibly, have looked at a thriving democracy in disgust and not wanted it back? Or, might Mao in an earlier era seen the Hong Kong democratic experiment as a clear and present danger to the People's Republic of China and invaded the colonial enclave?

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