Sunday, November 05, 2006

Lord Palmerston and Hong Kong Democracy

I have written in pages past about Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Minister of Great Britain in 1839 when the United Kingdom embarked on the Opium War against China. Although he disparaged Hong Kong as a 'barren rock', he was the chief government architect of a policy that gave life to Hong Kong.

I have read recently some snippets of exchanges between Lord Palmerston and a young rising star in Parliament at that time, William Gladstone. Gladstone, who famously insisted as a Liberal that Britain should only uphold policies that are morally correct, was a furious opponent of the Opium War. But Gladstone also held views that were very radical at the time, including universal suffrage.

As I read Lord Palmerston's exchanges with Gladstone, I could not help but think of the similarities between Palmerston's positions then and those of Hong Kong's conservatives now. Here is just a flavour:
Lord Palmerston to Gladstone after the latter's speech in the House of Commons in favour of parliamentary reform (12th May, 1864):

I read your speech and I must frankly say, with much regret, there is little in it that I can agree with. You lay down broadly the doctrine of universal suffrage which I can never accept. I deny that every same and not disqualified man has a moral right to vote. What every man and woman too have a right to, is to be well governed and under just laws, and they who propose a change ought to show that the present organisation does not accomplish those objects...
In every way, similarities with DAB and the reactionaries that make up most of Hong Kong's representatives to China. The people are too stupid to know what is best for them, best we keep the voting population to a small, predictable elite.

Hong Kong was set up in the Victorian age when such sentiments were common. Sadly, while many improvements have been made in governance in Hong Kong, political reform has not been an arena that has actually seen tremendous improvement. More from Lord P:
Lord Palmerston, letter to William Gladstone (11th May 1864)

No doubt many working men are as fit to vote as many of the ten pounders, but if we open the door to the working class the number who may come in may be excessive, and may swamp the classes above them. The result would arise not merely from the number let in, but also from the fact that the influx discourages the classes above them from voting at all; and then these working men are unfortunately under the control of trade unions, which are directed by a small number of directing agitators.
Sound familiar? That's because Hong Kong's conservative parties believe this too. Introduce democracy, and suddenly Hong Kong will become a welfare state.

Interestingly, Lord Palmerston also got his start in rotten boroughs that allowed his election by a very small set of interests - one, a Lord that owned a 'pocket borough' on the Isle of Wight. How different really from our functional constituencies?


Anonymous said...

It appears that while some people have allowed their minds to accept new ideas, some other people have not really evolved at all. If Lord Palmerston were alive today in Hong Kong, he would probably be shocked to see that there are people (particularly those lawmakers calling themselves Liberals) would oppose democracy not so much out of ideological reasons, but simply out of blatant rapacity.

Dave and Stefan said...

I'm not entirely sure that was not the case during Lord Palmerston's time, but I do very much agree with you that the motivations for the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong are never really guided by misguided altruism, but rather unenlightened self-interest.