Prospects for Political Reform in Hong Kong

Professor Lau Siu-kai, Professor of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 22 January 1999. This is a summary of his remarks.

Lau Siu-kai
Lau Siu-kai

The topic he had been given was a little odd, Professor Lau felt, since there was no strong demand for political reform in Hong Kong. There had been some proposals to amend the Basic Law, but the Hong Kong and Beijing Governments resisted. Political reform was not on their agenda.

However, although there was no demand for reform, the pressure on the system was rising. The political system established by the Basic Law was increasingly at odds with reality. Yet it would take time before people fully realised this.

Many of the assumptions of the Basic Law are now out of date. So there is a strained relationship between the Basic Law and the reality of Hong Kong now.

Professor Lau had been involved indirectly in the drafting of the Basic Law, and knew what was in the minds of the drafters. The problem was that many of their assumptions were now out of date. Professor Lau noted ten major assumptions behind the Basic Law.

  1. That the Hong Kong economy would continue its vibrant growth;

  2. That the fiscal reserves would remain substantial;

  3. That the Government's role in economic and social development would remain limited;

  4. That public demands on the Government would not increase;

  5. That public respect for Government and for unfettered capitalism would continue;

  6. That conflicts between different social strata would remain limited;

  7. That the relationship between the Chief Executive, Exco and the Civil Service would remain smooth;

  8. That fear of Communist intervention would lead the political forces in Hong Kong to exercise considerable self-restraint;

  9. That the introduction of directly elected elements into the Legislature would not affect the operation of the system; cooperation would remain predominant;

  10. That after the handover, patriotic and Hong Kong-loving forces would remain in charge, resulting in a united and coherent political leadership.

However, all of these assumptions were now in doubt. So there was a strained relation between the Basic Law and the reality of Hong Kong now. Professor Lau noted certain phenomena which revealed the extent of the strain.

  • There were not enough measures in the Basic Law to provide for a smooth relationship between the executive and the legislature. The Basic Law provided for the impeachment of the Chief Executive, and the dismissal of Legco, but there were no more moderate measures for day to day operation;

  • There was an uncertain relationship between the Legislature, Exco, the Chief Executive and the Civil Service, leading to unease in the political system;

  • The future status of Administrative Officers was being questioned. There had been the recent short-lived debate over a ministerial system. People were questioning the training and ability of top civil servants.

  • The role of the judiciary in constitutional affairs and public policy was increasing, which was unanticipated. The Basic Law drafters had thought that the system would be executive-led. But the strains and contradictions between the Basic Law and Hong Kong's reality made it necessary to resort to the courts for interpretation. So in a sense the courts were undermining the Basic Law by the back door. Although there was no constitutional court in Hong Kong, the ordinary courts were being called upon to resolve constitutional questions.

Apart from some dictatorships there are no close overseas parallels to the concentration of power in the Hong Kong executive.

Elaborating further on the strains in the political system as he saw them, Professor Lau noted further problems. The political system could not reconcile the interests of different groups. Since the system was executive-led, the executive leadership should play the major role to reconcile the conflicting interests. But that had not been done. Instead, there was a tendency for these different interest groups to enter increasingly openly into conflict, appealing directly to the public. The recent expressions of dissatisfaction by Li Ka-shing, and the radicalisation of some political parties, were indicators of this trend.

There was also increasing conflict between the Government and various interest groups. This trend was intensifying as the Government, far from being neutral, was increasingly itself becoming an interested party. There was the decline in public support for all political parties, reflecting the public's sense of alienation and frustration with the whole political system. And finally there was the rise of direct political actions, or unconventional political participation as it was sometimes called. The political system was incapable of absorbing political demands and accommodating political participation.

However, Professor Lau felt that the situation was not yet serious because Hong Kong people on the whole remained preoccupied by social stability.

On the utility of universal suffrage in resolving these conflicts, Professor Lau felt that it would help, but not much. The problems were wide ranging - the role of Government in society, the relationship between Government and people, the relationship between government and the economic system, the attitude of people to the political system. The ballot box would not solve all of these problems. He forsaw a bitter struggle to accelerate the increase in direct elections, notwithstanding the obvious deficiencies of the Basic Law. Unless a broad bloc of public opinion could be created in favour of universal suffrage, it would be a long road. People needed to be presented with an alternative to the current system, otherwise large scale support for change could not be mobilised.

In the reform process, China would be less of an influence than in the past. During the British era, China's suspicion of Britain put them on guard against democratisation. However, Britain was no longer a factor; moreover, China's engagement with the international community made it more difficult for her to oppose political reform in Hong Kong. So the brunt of resisting reform would be borne by the Hong Kong Government.

Were there any overseas cases that were relevant to Hong Kong? Professor Lau felt that apart from some dictatorships there were no close overseas parallels to the concentration of power in the Hong Kong executive. One major difficulty was getting Legco and the executive to work together. Legco had significant power, especially of veto and impeachment. The executive could respond to this power by not initiating anything, but this was not really an option when Hong Kong's current condition demanded legislative action. Fortunately for the executive, Legco was still heavily weighted towards Government-friendly interests. But when Legco was fully democratised, there would be trouble. The Basic Law gave no incentives for either Legco or the executive to share power. It invited conflict.

Professor Lau therefore hoped that political common sense would make up for the deficiencies of the Basic Law. However, this could not yet be seen. Public opinion could also play a mediating role, since the mass of the Hong Kong people were pragmatic and moderate. The press could help mobilise the masses and bring the political parties back to the centre.

The Hong Kong political environment was becoming more unstable, with more demonstrations. Professor Lau felt that riots were unlikely, but short term disturbances could not be precluded. How would the Hong Kong Government react? The Government would wish to take a hard line, since it would want to show its authority. But this would cost the Government popularity, and how would it then take the painful policy decisions that were needed in these times? The Government needed the goodwill of the people to create a united front.

Why was the Government not responding to the crisis by introducing more reforms, as Asian governments such as Korea and Thailand had done? Professor Lau sensed a siege mentality among Hong Kong officials. Tung had no broad base of support. However, the situation in Hong Kong was not the same as in the reforming Asian countries. Political reform was not on the priority list for most people, unless they could see that it was related to their economic problems.

For this to happen there would have to be a change in people's belief; they would have to see political reform as a necessary solution to economic problems. But people could not see alternatives to the current political system. The political parties worked on the same broad ideology as the Government: low tax, free markets, and so on. The parties were putting forward no real alternatives, just opposing unsuccessful and unwise policies.

The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.

 by Lau Siu-kai