Monday, April 10, 2006

The Hong Kong Democracy Debate of 1896

In 1896, one of the leading citizens of Hong Kong, and a Member of the Legislative Council, the Honourable T.H. Whitehead, sent a petition to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, asking that the form of Hong Kong's government be changed. He felt that instead of simply being a Colony with a Governor and a rubber stamp legislature, it should have a Municipal Council (similar to Shanghai's International Settlement) that would decide real matters of policy. Ultimately, he was thwarted in his bid by dissenting opinions from the Governor (William Robinson), the Colonial Secretary, (Stewart Lockhart), the head of Jardines (J. J. Keswick), and the head Director of the HSBC company (E.R. Belilios). But his words still ring true over a century after their being committed to paper:
It is a little over 50 years since the Colony was founded as a barren rock, the abode of a few fishermen and pirates. To-day it is a City and Settlement with upwards of a quarter of a million inhabitants; a trade estimated at about Forty millions of pounds sterling per annum, and a revenue of some Two millions of dollars, wholly derived from internal taxation...

Hongkong has attained to its almost unequalled commercial position, through the enterprise, skill, and energy of British Merchants, Traders, and Shipowners; through the labours of Her Majesty's subjects who have spent their lives and employed their capital on its shores; through the expenditure of many millions of dollars in Roads, Streets, and Bridges; in buildings, public and private; in extensive Reclamations; in Docks, Piers, and Wharves; and last, but not least, in Manufactures of great and increasing value. The prosperity of the Colony can best be maintained by the unremitting exertions and self-sacrifice of your Pentitioners and the valuable co-operation and support of the Chinese, and only by the continuance of Hongkong as a free port.

Notwithstanding the whole interests of your Petitioners are thus inextricably and permanently bound up in the good Administration of the Colony, in the efficiency of its Executive, and the soundness of its Finance, your Petitioners are allowed to take only a limited part or small share in the Government of the Colony, and are not permitted to have any really effective voice in the management of its affairs, external or internal. Being purely a Crown Colony, it is governed by a Governor appointed by Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen, and by an Executive and a Legislative Council. The former is composed wholly of Officers of the Crown, nominated and appointed by the Crownl the latter consists of seven Official Members, selected and appointed by the Queen, and five Unofficial Members, two of whom are nominated by certain public bodies in the Colony, while the other three are selected by the Governor, and all are appointed by Her Majesty.

The Executive Council sits and deliberates in secret. The Legislative Council sits with open doors, and its procedure appears to admit of full and unfettered discussion, but there is virtually no true freedom of debate. Questions are considered, and settled, and the policy to be adopted by the Government in connection therewith is decided in the Executive Council. They are then brought before the Legislative Council, where the Government - the Official Members being in a majority - can secure the passing of any measure, in face of any opposition on the part of the Unofficial Members, who are thus limited to onkecting and protesting, and have no power to carry any proposal which they may consider beneficial, nor have they power to reject or even modify any measure which may in their opinion be prejudicial to the interests of the Colony.


Legislative Enactments are nearly always drafted by the Attorney General, are frequently forwarded before publication in the Colony or to the Council for the approval of the Secretary of State, and when sanctioned are introduced into the Legislative Council, read a first, second, and third time, and passed by the votes of the Official Members, acting in obedience to instructions, irrespective of their personal views or private opinions.

The Legislation so prepared and passed emanates in some cases from persons whose short experience of and want of actual touch witht eh Colony's needs, does not qualify them to fully appreciate the measures best suited to the requirements of the Community.
Whitehead goes on to say that the Unofficial Members of Legco are of course the ones that have the requisite experience, given that they were mostly selected for having lived in Hong Kong for a long time and having prominent business interests there. He also cites the examples of Colonies such as Malta, Cyprus, Mauritius, British Honduras and others that have a greater amount of non-Official Members represented, including on Executive Councils.

He left the door open for interpretation, and while suggesting that Hong Kong could be made a more representative city, he stopped short of calling for elections, only suggesting that a majority of the constitution of legco be people that would be non-government officials. Yet he was rebuffed totally, with the Colonial Secretary in particular launching a vicious attack on him. My favorite part of Lockhart's rebuttal is where he says that the majority of the population was Chinese, and therefore any British unofficials could not possibly represent them, which in turn meant that representative government was impossible:
"The Chinese and the British merchants have absolutely no intercourse except that of a commercial nature."[Really? - Ed.] Between the two populations there is a gulf almost as wide as there was a quarter of a century or even fifty years ago.

"It is true that there arte more Chinese who can speak English than formerly, but the proportion they bear to the whole is infinitesimal, the large majority of the Chinese being as ignorant of our language as ther British resident is of Chinese. Under such conditions as these it is not surprising that knowledge of Chinese, their customs and their peculiar requirements should be a sealed book to the British resident, whose intercourse with the Chinese [there's the I-word again - Ed.] is of the most limited nature, being almost exclusive confined to a discussion fo markets, goods and prices carried on in a jargon called "pidgin" English. With such a medium of expression an interchange of ideas is practically impossible and is, indeed, rarely attempted. When therefore the petitioners in paragraph 8 of their petition describe the Unofficial Members as the natural possesors of "knowledge and experience," it is impossible that they can mean "knowledge and experience" of the Chinese and Chinese requirements, for, of them, it is notorious that they are very ignorant.
While it was true that the Unofficial Members of Legco were largely unable to speak Chinese, it is also true that democracy and representative government has always started somewhere, and that franchise of only British residents was probably going to be the one most likely to get any approval from London. While Lockhart on the one had decried the racism of the proposal, he also shuddered at the thought of Chinese having representation.

Jardine's Keswick evidently agreed, for he also wrote a letter against the petition, despite being an Unofficial Member: "If this prayer were granted it would be necessary in common justice to give the Chinese adequate representation based either (a) on numbers, or (b) on taxation. In either case the Chinese must indisputably be given their full weight, in the case of (a) in respect of their numbers, or in the case of (b) in respect of the taxes paid by them. In either case where would British interests in Hongkong be?"

Basically, because the Chinese were a majority, and because they were the largest taxpayers in Hongkong, the thought of even trying representative government in Hongkong horrified the local establishment. Which was correct, too, because it would keep power in the hands of Britain and the local magnates - as long as Britain could maintain sovereignty in Hong Kong. But it may shed light today on why no democratic experiment was ever begun sooner...


Muninn said...

As always, really interesting materials. I wonder if you might consider giving us a little more info on the sources and where we can lookup these quotes when you do these wonderful postings? It would make it even more useful for us graduate students and other scholarly wannabes

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Muninn, thanks for the positive comments! I must thank the heavens for the wonderful resource Hong Kong University has put on the web, which is .pdf versions of their very extensive Hong Kong collection. you can find it on the web at this site: and other than that, I often refer to Eitel, occasionally use Endacott and Norton Kyshe. By far, though, the excellent search functions on the HKU website make for a wonderful resource.

Hope that helps!