19 January 2019
Hong Kong Economic Journal writer Lam Hang-chi (inset) says the government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is to blame for the rise of civil disobedience in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong Economic Journal writer Lam Hang-chi (inset) says the government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is to blame for the rise of civil disobedience in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ

Why Hong Kong opposes Beijing but not the British colonial govt

Why did Hong Kong people stay silent when there was no democracy under the British colonial government? And now why are they vigorously opposing Beijing’s universal suffrage proposal for Hong Kong?

Before the 1997 handover, the British government used to send a governor to rule Hong Kong with administrative power as much as that of a dictator. Fortunately, as Hong Kong governors tended not to use their power but followed the rules and laws of Britain, which is a country ruled by constitutional monarchy, the colonial government ruled the city fairly and satisfied the local people’s needs.

After the handover, what Hong Kong people want is to follow “two systems”, maintain a “high degree of autonomy” and continue to enjoy their freedoms. But the reality is that the city is ruined by the rise of the arrogant pro-communist group and poor governance of the “love country, love Hong Kong” camp.

That’s why when I saw the “civil disobedience” slogans of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, I realized that the students are really wise and have hit the main point. 

It may be true that the central government is trying to assist Hong Kong in selecting the right leader under the framework provided in a policy white paper issued earlier.

But the Beijing proposal, which provides for a nominating committee to screen the chief executive candidates, does not match the Hong Kong people’s demand for true democracy. No doubt, it caused repulsion like a mismatched blood transfusion.

Unfortunately, the government tried to suppress the people’s peaceful protests with tear gas and pepper spray.

Images of riot police acting against unarmed students have broken the hearts of many Hong Kong people. 

Since the start of the political reform consultation, Leung Chun-ying’s administration has faced persistent challenges from pan-democrats and the people in general.

But the way the government and its supporters responded, including establishing a hotline to report on those boycotting their classes, left many Hongkongers frustrated and agitated. 

In fact, the announcement of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Aug. 31, which set the tone for Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election, ignored public opinions and adopted only the views of the pro-Beijing camp.

Such a dictatorial stance obviously shows no regard for the promised “two systems”. Yet it is stipulated in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional law, that the city should have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the handover of sovereignty in 1997.

According to the law, the Hong Kong special administrative region should elect its own chief executive and lawmakers in a progressive and gradual manner.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students said it well in its slogan: “independent destiny, universal suffrage”. It is so inspiring as it shows the students have a better grasp of the issue than many of their seniors.

(Lam’s commentary on Sept. 30, 2014) 

Failure in governance system

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying should bear much of the blame for the political stalemate and chaos in Hong Kong, but the underlying cause can be traced back to the Tung Chee-hwa era.

The irony is that it seems no matter who becomes the chief executive since the 1997 handover, he’s doomed to be haunted by difficulties in governing and the lack of the people’s mandate.

Tung, the first chief executive, was ambitious and self-assertive, but he was not blessed with the ability and statecraft to lead Hong Kong’s civil servants who were well trained under British rule. He could not bear their tradition of playing by the rules and conforming to accepted practice as well as their emphasis on keeping things in line.

To shake off the fetters, Tung introduced a controversial accountability system in which he could make political appointments of principal officials within his cabinet. The new regime effectively turned the executive-led government structure into a chief executive-led one.

These changes were not easy to make but Tung, apparently backed by Beijing with the patriotic notion that Chinese can do things better than Britons, implemented his initiatives to get rid of the effective, time-honored civil service system formed and crafted over more than a hundred years of colonial rule.

In the new system, all officials became Tung’s subordinates and had to be at his heels.

In the past, there were government departments responsible for gauging people’s views on a particular matter and then compiling reports stating the pros and cons of a proposed policy after meticulous analyses. Then, only after deliberation of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council can a policy be formally gazetted for implementation.

By comparison, under the chief executive-led structure, policy-making was from the top down through administrative orders, and frontline civil servants might not be able to grasp the rationale and logic. The policy could turn out to be ill-thought-out.

The situation was a little better during the tenure of Donald Tsang who was once a civil servant and could comply with the old, established way of doing things.

Unfortunately, things have gone downhill under Leung’s leadership. The current administration no longer relies on civil servants but a bunch of Leung’s supporters, some of whom are from the left wing while others are nouveau riche. One wonders how this motley crew can govern a highly developed international financial center like Hong Kong.

The row about the territory’s electoral reform is by nature a matter about how to enhance governance.

Nonetheless, since communist ideology is in the blood of Leung and Beijing has labeled Occupy Central as an attempt to overthrow the special administrative region government and an open revolt against the central authorities, the tragedy of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut may be unavoidable.  

Bloodshed can’t be ruled out

Chang Chak Yan, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Silent Majority, a campaign to oppose Occupy Central, has a profound understanding of the crises and turmoil faced by some former British colonies like Malaysia and Singapore.

He wrote in the Hong Kong Economic Journal that during the early days after independence, Malaysia was embroiled in ethnic conflicts. The authorities were forced to resort to extraordinary measures like dismissing parliament and restraining human rights and freedom so as to ensure a smooth transfer of power from British colonists to local leaders.

Singapore faced a similar situation. Lee Kuan Yew made a purge on dissidents his top priority after the island split from Malaysia, and established anti-riot squads to forcibly crack down on student movements. Some of the leading opposition figures were put behind bars.

In this sense, Chang argues that the masterminds of Occupy Central may have to face severe consequences as Beijing and the SAR government regard them as ruthless provocateurs and must never be tolerated.

People should recall that in a televised chief executive election debate in 2012, former Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang, who later lost the election, asked Leung a pointed question: did you or did you not recommend sending riot police and using tear gas against demonstrators protesting a proposed anti-subversion law in 2003? Leung denied, calling it a smear.

In fact, given that Leung is influenced by the “genes of the red guards” of the pro-communist camp and that he has a string of hardline measures in overall governance adopted, it is reasonable to predict that he will take a hard stand against protesters.

The three Occupy Central organizers, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man, are all aware of the consequences and are prepared for the worst. Their determination to pressed ahead with the civil disobedience movement amid stern warnings and deep skepticism reflects the unswerving pursuit of genuine universal suffrage.

However, many followers and young students, who have become so accustomed to marches and protests over the years, may not have given a clear thought to the outcome.

Many participants still think that Occupy Central can be carried out in a generally peaceful manner all the way just like the June 4 candlelight vigil, the July 1 rally or other public processions. This can indeed be dangerous as the possibility of bloodshed cannot be ruled out. 

(Lam’s commentary on Sept. 5, 2013)

(Translation by Frank Chen)

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A scuffle erupts between protesters from opposing camps in Mong Kok on Oct. 3. Photo: HKEJ

Riot police stand ready to deal with protesters. An ugly outcome cannot be ruled out. Photo: HKEJ

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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