Democracy - Contradictory or Complementary?
The Honourable Ronald Arculli, Legislative Councillor,
was the Foundation's guest speaker on 29 May 2000. This is
a summary of his remarks.
There were many definitions of democracy, Mr
Arculli began, but the nature of business was clear. The
late Nikita Krushev of the former Soviet Union, once
addressed a group of businessmen on his visit to Britain.
"Your business is to skin the public," he told
them. "If I were you, I would leave some skin on
them, so that it will grow back, and you can skin them
again." There were some insights here, Mr Arculli
felt, from which all present could benefit.
Was business in Hong Kong so different from business
elsewhere, Mr Arculli wondered? He felt qualified to speak
to the question: his father's family had arrived in Hong
Kong from India in the 1840s, and his mother's from Canton
30 years later; he had quite deep Hong Kong roots. We
might like to think that after 150 years of colonial rule,
there were differences between business in Hong Kong and
business in its neighbouring territories. Most of these
neighbours had also been under colonial rule. But Hong
Kong was the product of British colonialism, perhaps its
most successful product. The colonial tradition had
fostered an apolitical culture, and this applied to
business too. As Hong Kong had entered the 1980s, business
had had to come to terms with democracy. The question now
was, how things were to go forward.
One characteristic of Hong Kong was the dominance of
employment by small and medium enterprises. One should
therefore not overemphasise the role of big business; the
role of the SME and the professionals was not to be
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|Britain had done Hong Kong very well in
two respects. One of these was the rule of law.
The other was the excellent Civil Service.
It was fair to say that Hong Kong had gained more democracy
from the interaction with China than from Britain. There had
been little progress towards democratisation during the period
from the 1840s to 1980. Then with the Joint Declaration and the
Basic Law negotiated with China, Hong Kong had made relatively
big strides forward. Even at this late stage the progress
towards democratisation had been delayed by Britain. The
original proposal was for direct elections by 1998. If that
proposal had been adopted, Mr Arculli was not sure whether he
would still have got into Legco in 1998. However, mistakes were
made all round.
Nonetheless, Britain had done Hong Kong very well in two
respects. One of these was the rule of law. This had played a
very important part in the development of business in Hong Kong
and in the relationship between business and government. The law
was sacrosanct, and the principle of equality before the law was
also crucial. The accountability of the Hong Kong Government to
the British Government, and that of the British Government to
its Parliament, and of Parliament to the British people, was
The other key contribution made by Britain was the excellent
Civil Service. It was perhaps stretching words to use the term,
"excellent", Mr Arculli conceded, but on the whole he
felt that the adjective was still justified.
The legislature had an important role in scrutinising
legislation, monitoring Government, forming policy and checking
public expenditure. A critical issue was the power of the
legislature to amend legislation. This power resided in Article
74 of the Basic Law, but the Government had taken a strict line
on this with the 1998 legislature, and had resisted amendments.
Another issue was the Legco-Exco relationship. Governor Patten
had severed the two bodies in 1992, and the relationship had not
functioned well since. Tung had carried on this practice, with
the exception of one person who had a place in both bodies.
Overall, there was uneasiness over Hong Kong's constitutional
arrangements, and uncertainty as to how to go forward. The
opportunity to change the composition and voting arrangements
within Legco would come in 2007. But these were not issues that
could be decided in 3 months or 6 months. There should be public
discussion, involvement of the community. Expectations needed to
be sounded out, and met. The debate should start after the
coming Legislative Council elections. If it should start before,
the debate would be muddied by politicking.
Mr Arculli supposed that it would take a few years for the
community to properly digest the idea of constitutional reform.
Was Hong Kong going to develop into a democracy as understood by
other communities in the world? For example, would the Chief
Executive be elected by universal suffrage? The Chief Executive
still had to be appointed by Beijing. One had to look at the
nominating arrangements under Article 45 of the Basic Law. Mr
Arculli suspected that the nomination process would be somewhat
like the Electoral College now. Many people might think that
once elected, the Chief Executive's appointment would be
confirmed by Beijing automatically. But the judgement was out on
that. It might be that Hong Kong people were given a choice of
two candidates, or of twenty, but they would be screened by
So going forward, one would have a Legco with the mandate of the
people but no power to amend legislation and no significant role
in Government - except perhaps appointment to various quangoes
like the Housing Authority. And one would have a Chief Executive
appointed by Beijing wielding the real power.
Mr Arculli welcomed input from the international members
present. Overseas countries had much experience with different
forms of constitution, and many were still developing. For
example, Australia was going through an interesting debate over
the role of Aborigines. And they could contribute their ideas on
different forms of election, of voting, of bicameral
legislatures, and many other complex issues.
There was no doubt that business should play a bigger role in
the constitutional debate. You could not buy politicians in Hong
Kong, in fact it was no exaggeration to say that elections in
Hong Kong were squeaky clean, so much so that it was boring. Mr
Arculli recalled that in a previous election he was distributing
leaflets on behalf of a candidate, and in one block had come
across the leaflets of another candidate sticking out of the
letter boxes. One of the group had proposed pulling these rival
leaflets out and disposing of them. But the rest of the group
had been aghast: "You can't do that; it is not fair
play." So the rival leaflets had been left as they were,
and, Mr Arculli did not doubt, his own candidate's leaflets
would also have been left undisturbed by subsequent canvassers.
As a community we had to develop a sense of participation in
public life, in government. This sense was sadly lacking at
present. Legco was not playing any great role. It tended to bury
itself in papers. Yet there were important policy questions on
which public debate should be taking place. Some current
examples were, the Financial Secretary's concern about
structural deficits, the way 3G mobile phone licences were to be
allocated, and housing and land policy - whether we should
assume with the Government that every citizen had a God-given
right to own his own home, and such homes be built by the
|As a community we had to develop a sense
of participation in public life, in government.
This sense was sadly lacking at present.
Democracy aside, Hong Kong was the freest community in
Southeast Asia. The community respected the law and the
authorities upheld the law, except in certain minor instances.
And one should remember that mishaps would happen. Sometimes
through mishaps the values of the community would solidify and
beliefs become stronger.
Would think tanks be important in contributing to informed
public debate on policy? Mr Arculli thought so. And this was a
way in which business could participate in public discussion. He
himself had been approached on the question of funding think
tanks. It would take money, but not large amounts, and not money
from the public purse. It was important for well-researched and
considered alternatives to Government policy to be put forward.
And the media had a part to play as well. Without the media,
these alternative viewpoints could not be communicated widely.
Was there an unhealthy closeness between Government and
business? The Government believed that it had religiously
abstained from this sin, Mr Arculli said. The Government entered
into commercial arrangements only in cases like the MTRC, the
Airport and Disney where the private sector was not prepared to
come forward. If one put aside instances like the 1998
intervention in the stock market, and the Housing Authority, the
issue was simple. Admittedly, in 1973/74 when the stock market
had fallen more than 90%, the Government had not intervened, but
the impact in today's economy was different.
Mr Arculli conceded that there was a perception of big business
enjoying special favour from Government. However, this was no
different from the colonial days. In those days the British
houses had the edge: the big companies more or less
automatically had a seat on Exco. Nowadays whether that would be
an advantage was a moot point.
After the elections in September, Legco would surely start the
constitutional debate. Overall, Mr Arculli hoped that the
Government would take the lead in the debate rather than be led.
There would be more chance of a fair and open discussion.
However, he feared that the Government would stick its head in
the sand. He urged members present to contribute their ideas to
The above does not necessarily represent the views
of the Foundation