As long as Hong Kong’s economy is booming, calls for democracy will remain on the backburner

When Google stopped complying with China’s censorship laws, users could still access the Hong Kong site, where they could see unfiltered results, including ones about Tiananmen Square and Tibet. This was a victory for the former colony, a reminder of why Hong Kong still has much to offer even as its neighbors begin to catch up in economic growth. While China’s economy is still hampered by concerns about the rule of law, Hong Kong’s solid legal system and history of productivity sustain an environment that is ideal for attracting investment. But economic progress has not translated directly into political freedom, as many might have expected. Indeed, Hong Kong’s uniquely vibrant economy may be leading to excessive patience, or complacence, when it comes to political progress.

Freedom and Prosperity

Hong Kong has flourished as the economic crown jewel of the developing Chinese nation, with considerably higher income levels and standards of living than other Chinese cities. In 2007, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita reached $42,000, compared to the mainland’s $5,400. Still, China has enjoyed unprecedented growth rates since opening its markets, and recently some Chinese cities have been catching up to Hong Kong.

Shanghai, for instance, just surpassed Hong Kong’s economy in GDP. But, rather than creating a threat to Hong Kong’s dominance, this reflects little to no change in the economic landscape. As Harvard political scientist Roderick MacFarquhar explained, “The population of Shanghai—14 million—is almost exactly double that of Hong Kong. It was inevitable that it would overtake Hong Kong.”

Moreover, Hong Kong maintains a major advantage over Chinese cities: a reputation for quality control and safety that stems from its long history of British oversight and regulation. “China’s rich come down to HK to buy property because the property rights and laws are so clear. Chinese parents come to HK to buy milk powder because they know it’s not tainted here,” said Harvard senior and Hong Kong resident Alexandra Chen.

Furthermore, investors are confident that their assets will be secure in Hong Kong, given its British common law system and strong commitment to property rights. With these unique advantages, Hong Kong is seen as the default choice for hosting financial transactions. Until the mainland establishes an equally strong legal regime, it will forfeit to Hong Kong an advantage that will become increasingly significant as the Chinese economy becomes more complex and prone to legal disputes.

Long March to Democracy

Since decolonization in 1997, Hong Kong has been ruled as a “special administrative region” of China under a “one country, two systems” policy, which has granted Hong Kong considerable economic freedom and some political autonomy. Hong Kong’s political system retains its British traditions of semi-direct democracy, with an article in its constitution, the Basic Law, that promises universal suffrage at some point in the future.

But, as of now, that democratic promise is only partially realized. Half of the 60 seats in Hong Kong’s legislature are voted on by the population, and half are chosen by a smaller electorate of corporate bodies and special interest groups. And the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive is even less democratic—he or she is chosen by a 400-member election committee and then appointed by the Central People’s Government in Beijing.

Pressures to Democratize?

Although the central Chinese government promised universal suffrage in Hong Kong by 2007 under the original Basic Law, Beijing has not followed through. It has postponed direct elections twice, first to 2012, and then to 2017. Beijing also continues to condemn pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong residents have made some noise over this apparent failure to live up to the Basic Law. In 2005, some 80,000 citizens protested for direct elections outside the central government’s office. In February, hundreds of protestors flooded the streets to call for the release of pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, convicted by the People’s Republic of China for “subverting the state.”

And in another dramatic push for democracy, legislators from each of Hong Kong’s five electoral districts resigned suddenly this past January, forcing special by-elections—a sort of referendum on universal suffrage—throughout Hong Kong by the end of the year. The protests on Liu’s behalf and the resignation of the five legislators earlier this year represent growing demands for Beijing to stop dragging its feet. But these rumblings of discontent hide a surprisingly widespread conservatism and cautiousness among the general population of Hong Kong.

Popular Contentment

Despite the agitation earlier this year, Hong Kong as a whole has been noticeably muted in calling for democracy. The referendum triggered by the five legislators will, in fact, turn out to be less of a statement than the pro-democracy parties had hoped: the moderate parties and the leading pro-Beijing party have refused to take part, rendering the election meaningless, as the pro-democracy candidates will retake their seats uncontested. Chief Executive Donald Tsang seems poised to strike a deal between all of the parties, not satisfying the pro-democracy legislators’ calls for immediate democracy.

Furthermore, the public seems to favor a gradual, cooperative approach to the implementation of reform. As Peng Qinghua, head of China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, said publicly, “This [referendum] is a total violation of mainstream public opinion that wants stability, harmony, and development.” Almost half of the elected officials in Hong Kong are from pro-Beijing parties, not the more staunchly pro-democracy parties. This representation reflects a fundamental contentment among the people of Hong Kong with their semi-democracy.  “As long as the government is relatively efficient and clean—which it is—most people are only concerned about their pocketbooks,” said Chen.

The gradualist sentiments expressed by government officials and by the public seem to indicate that popular attitudes towards democratization are far less urgent than recent events might suggest. Rather, calls for immediate democracy emanate from an activist political minority; the general attitude is more cooperative and even patient.

Growth Versus Rights

Although recent, highly publicized political events seemed to indicate full-throated support for democracy, many Hong Kong residents pay more attention to their economic well-being than to their political rights. Legal rights in the city provide a level of sufficiency for daily life, and citizens feel secure with their property and livelihoods. Combined with the promise of continually rising incomes and standards of living, the political status quo stalls any real push for free elections.

Given its legal structure and its tradition of freedom of expression, Hong Kong will continue to attract the businesses and investments that propel its economy. As long as the risk differential between the Chinese and Hong Kong economies exists, Hong Kong will flourish and its population, complacent with its relative wealth, will favor a gradualist approach toward democratization, waiting on promises of political freedom made years ago.

Tiffany Wen ’11 is a Staff Writer.

Photo Credits: Flickr (Trodel, Ed meister)

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