|The first year
af the HKSAR: changes in the political institutions
Prof. Byron Weng, Chinese University of Hong Kong, was the
Foundation'sgguest speaker on 9 July 1998. This is what he said.
Within the last month, much has been said and written about the remarkable development of
the HKSAR under the "one country, two systems" arrangement. Most observers say
that the territory's economy has suffered beyond their expectations but political life in
Hong Kong is "basically unchanged". In this short article, I shall try to
explain another point of view: changes in the political institutions of Hong Kong since
July 1, 1997 have been rather significant even though Beijing has kept its promise to
grant the SAR government substantial autonomy.
As the British colony of Hong Kong was turned into a Chinese SAR, the political system
also changed from one of "government by consultation" to one of "birdcage
democracy". Under the British system, political institutions were established to suit
both the wishes of the ruling British authorities and the needs of the colony. For a
constitutional basis, there were the Letters Patent and the Royal Instructions. London's
Minister of Colonial and Commonwealth Affairs serving under the Foreign Secretary was
responsible for overseeing the affairs of the colony and Parliament had a corresponding
Committee as its watchdog. The Crown at whose pleasure he served appointed the Governor of
Hong Kong. Actually, he was nominated by, and answered to, the Prime Minister.
For policy-making, the Governor was assisted by the Members of the ExCo on territorial
affairs and by the Political Advisor who had responsibility with regard to the colony's
foreign relations. The Civil Service, headed by the Chief Secretary, the Financial
Secretary and the Attorney General pretty much carried out the functions of the
government. As a matter of fact, the various Departments initiated and implemented the
policies, with some input by those inducted into the many consultative committees. The
role of the ExCo was relatively insignificant.
A judiciary independent from the interference of the executive or the legislative
branch was in place to uphold the rule of law. To this one could add the ICAC which was
created to deal with corruption in the police and other branches of the government. These
were institutions for which Hong Kong had a fine reputation.
As to the LegCo, it was not given the role of a real parliament or congress. Before
1991, its members were appointed. Only after 1991, did elected members begin to have a
voice different from that of the Government.Even then, the LegCo had been a very tame and
relative unimpressive institution when compared to congressional bodies in any democracy.
During the last few decades of British rule, local political institutions, namely, the
Urban and Regional Councils, and the District Boards were introduced. Through lower level
elections and concomitant services to the people, these bodies served to sensitize issues
at regional and local levels and helped to cultivate some politicians.
That, in a nutshell, constituted the picture of British colonial Hong Kong's political
institutions. One might mention the public media as pertinent political institutions since
they did help to keep the government officials honest and answerable to an extent. On the
whole, the system functioned reasonably well, judging by its output and results over the
With the retrocession, the system evolved in spite of the principle that it should
remain "basically unchanged." Conceptually, one can speak of five kinds of
changes in this regard. These are largely processes that started in the last part of the
British rule and will continue for some years to come yet. First, there has been
localization.This means not just a change in high-level policy-making personnel but also a
shift of emphasis to local, Hong Kong way of thinking over that of the Western,
particularly the British.
Second, and related to the first, is Sinicization. Chinese language instead of English
is now used in the meetings of the Central Policy Unit, for instance. The courts are doing
more and more of the trials by Cantonese. More importantly, patriotism has become a matter
of some importance in political decisions. That is surely a significant change from the
British days when patriotism was not mentioned much. A high level British colonial
official used to say,"The Hong Kong Government looks for cooperation, not loyalty
from the Hong Kong people. It looks for professionalism, not loyalty from the civil
service." That might or might not be true. The point, however, is that loyalty is now
a key concern.
Third, like it or not, one must note the gradual politicization of the entire policy
process. The Hong Kong version of party politics has been given birth and is kicking now.
The directors of the civil service departments have been going through a frustrating
experience.They can no longer have the freedom and power to conceive, initiate, formulate,
plan and put into practice government policies all by themselves. This is no doubt
difficult and can be perturbing to the principals. Donald Tsang was heard lamenting thus,
"I work as hard, in the same ways but not to the same results and get different
responses. I do not understand."The good days of "freedom from politics"
are over for Hong Kong. All must learn to adjust accordingly.
Fourth, democratization is on. This is clearly a direction of the politicization we
just referred to. Of course, it is better to have democratization rather than some other
directions if the Hong Kong system had to politicize. With democratization, comprador
elitism will be made to yield to populism through elections and other forms of popular
participation. A birdcage though the HKSAR democracy was designed to be, the inertia and
drive released by the democratic exercise of political power may, in due course, change
both the structure and the procedures of the institutions. Already, the pressure for
advancing the 2007 review of the system of LegCo elections has been mounting in the
aftermath of the May 24th LegCo elections. However, that may not be easy since an
amendment of the Basic Law will be required.
Finally, a word is due for socialization in the HKSAR. Here, I mean to say welfarism is
a form of socialism and a move toward welfarism is a process of socialization.
Laissez-faire as a policy can hardly survive for long as demands for welfare and other
government services increase. Certainly, the elected LegCo members of a politicized,
democratically oriented political system are more likely to press for a "can do"
government on behalf of their constituencies. For examples, the outcry for the government
to "do something" about the unemployment situation has been loud and clear.
Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa's housing policy, criticized as "meddling in the
market", was actually a response to similar public pressures. In recent months, even
stockholders buying on margin resorted to demonstrations, asking for government remedies
for losses on the ground that the regulating agencies were derelict in their duties.
On paper, it may be correct to say that Hong Kong's political system and institutions
have not changed since the Beijing authorities have kept their "hands off"
promise during the past year. However, that cannot be true when the five kinds of changes
outlined above are taken into consideration. Upon examination, I find the following
changes to have come during the past year.
To begin with, the system of "birdcage democracy" is different. Technically,
the British colonial government was at best minimally democratic and only so in the last
six years. The birdcage democracy is based on the "one country, two systems"
idea. In it, some of the undemocratic characteristics of the system of "government by
consultation" - central authorization, control and potential interference;
executive-led government design; elections in and by controlled small circles; emphasis on
stability and prosperity over democracy and equality - seem to remain. However, it can no
longer be an administrative regime that effectively absorbs politics. Popular political
participation can no longer be denied since political parties and lobby groups have become
a part of the landscape. The rule of law has a weaker basis and may have to weather storms
arising from cultural variances and deterioration in the quality of legal professionals.
The comprador culture may stay among the old elite for a while but the refugees will be no
more. The mass media have been censoring themselves and may not continue to play an
effective watchdog role.
The SAR institutions have qualitatively changed also. The Basic Law, formally enacted
in consultation with Hong Kong people, has become a constitutional document much more
comprehensive and visible than the Letters Patent and the Royal Instructions. A Basic Law
Committee has been created to give advice to the NPC Standing Committee on relevant
matters. While London was a colonial master foreign and external to most of the Hong Kong
people, Beijing is now "the central government" of "our country". The
Hong Kong-Macau Affairs Office of the State Council clearly does not belong to the Foreign
Ministry. It is said that "patriotic" fellow citizens will serve eagerly to
develop healthy Central-SAR relations. The parliamentary system of the United Kingdom in
the background has been replaced by the NPC system, which is hardly a comfort to the
freedom-minded. Moreover, the HKSAR is by itself "one region, two systems" where
elections of people's representatives are concerned, for the NPC deputies from Hong Kong
are elected in a different way. After all the NPC system is based on a different political
The SAR Chief Executive is now a locally "elected" long-term resident, who
can find security only if he/she has Beijing's trust at the same time. That trust, unlike
what the British Governor enjoyed, has to be earned through constant efforts. The question
of his/her first loyalty (to Beijing or to the HKSAR) shall be with us for a long time to
Under the Chief Executive, it is not clear whether the ExCo will function in the same
way it did under the British Governor. It has been pointed out that, by the Basic Law,
Principal Officers of the Executive Authorities have to be appointed by Central People's
Government (Article 45 ) but the ExCo members can be appointed by the Chief Executive
(Article 55). Yet, the debate about turning the ExCo into a de facto cabinet of ministers
has been in the public domain for much of the past year. Reportedly, Tung's first ExCo
nominations were of individuals close to Beijing and might be asked to take over
The Political Advisor's office seems to have been substituted with three institutions.
One is the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the SAR
regarding Hong Kong's foreign relations. It is called Commissioner because the SAR is not
a foreign place. Two, an informal "Special Advisor" to the Chief Executive has
been appointed to cater for the matter of Taiwan-Hong Kong relations in accordance with
Qian Qichen's Seven-Point Statement of 22 June 1995 on that subject. And three, the
NCNA-Hong Kong, the Party organ in the SAR, is to remain as the coordinator of all
Mainland elements in Hong Kong. Its mission includes the regulation and administration of
offices and corporations to be set up in Hong Kong by the ministries, commissions,
provinces and autonomous regions in accordance with Article 22 of the Basic Law.
Many observers have been concerned with the level of efficiency of the civil service
after the retrocession. The civil service cannot continue to be the sole/leading policy
maker. Soon the politicians will demand a bigger role. For such reasons, the civil service
has come to suffer a morale problem. In due course, a system different from the British
colonial system, be it ministerial cabinet or presidential, will emerge. Somewhat related
is the question of regional and district governments. Owing partly to the series of food
and health crises for which the regional governments were said to be partially
responsible, a review of such bodies for the purpose of a possible reorganization has been
The LegCo still has no effective legal power to check a questionable Chief Executive
but, once the Provisional LegCo was out of the way, the party-supported, popularly elected
members of the LegCo will no doubt voice the concerns of the people more directly.
Finally, in the judiciary, a new institution, the Court of Final Appeal, is brought
into being. So far, the court has been functioning satisfactorily.
All told, it seems the HKSAR political system is undergoing transition of a nature more
fundamental than many say or think. The old institutions - the ExCo, the LegCo, the Civil
Service, the regional and district bodies - are adjusting to the new setting and
experiencing some difficulties. The new institutions - the Chief Executive, his Special
Advisor, the Court of Final Appeal, and the Basic Law Committee under the NPC Standing
Committee - are learning the ropes and performing unevenly.
Behind these changes and adjustments are probably latent struggles between sovereignty
and autonomy and between developmentalism and democratism. Questions could arise with
regard to the relative merit of the authoritative support of the central government
visa-vis legitimacy rooted in the moral authority of democracy. The executive-led
government system will constantly come under challenge in the HKSAR by the LegCo and the
public (the parties, the media and commentators). Stability and prosperity will prove to
be not the only values for Hong Kong.
Even within the executive, the debate between supporters of a ministerial system as
opposed to the traditional administrative government may reflect a challenge by the new
time politicians against the entrenched interests in the civil service.
The Hong Kong political system must develop to meet new needs and new situation. Hong
Kong's status as the free port, the financial center, the information and communications
hub, etc. cannot be taken for granted as competition from Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan
increases. On the other hand, Hong Kong's regional roles will be enhanced by the idea of a
Southern Chinese Economic Community. The drawback there is that Beijing's interference
will be more likely. Internationalization of the HKSAR affairs will be an area of tension
as the LegCo takes the lead to enact laws required by Article 23 of the Basic Law. One may
ask whether such changes in the political institutions may have exacerbated the serious
economic difficulties of Hong Kong during the past year. But that is another subject for
The above text appeared in the July issue of the monthly Hong Kong Update,
published by the CSIS in Washington, D.C.
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