Hong Kong has no politicians

April 26, 2021 09:14

To term the Hong Kong ruling class as ‘politicians’, would be a misnomer on a scale comparable to terming the Moon a planet. The Moon is a moon; the spade is a spade; Hong Kong ‘politicians’ are no politicians – they are, at best political goons, hacks, activists, and competent bureaucrats. This is by no means intended to be derogatory – it is merely a non-incidental fact of our system that it does not, and cannot, give rise to politicians that thrive at doing politics.

Beijing’s baselines are unyieldable, that much is clear – China is ruled by the unitary Chinese Communist Party, and Beijing has limited appetite or tolerance for a parallel ruling party in Hong Kong; it is, in particular, uneasy about the sprouting of political forces that threaten to supplant its overarching jurisdiction over the city – this is only understandable, given the trauma that this city has endured over the past decades, as domestic forces seek to uproot Beijing’s authority (in their eyes). The logical corollary is hence, we can have no ‘party leaders’ independent of the official party that governs the rest of the country – either one’s in the Party (with a capital P), or one must accept the political and empirical reality that one must work with the Party. There exists no independent ‘party’, even in Hong Kong, without the P. Given this, to think that there would be a need for a genuine ruling party that can wholly decoupled from the P, would be somewhat naïve.

Of course, one could reasonably object that the lack of appetite for a ruling party, need not therefore render any and all ‘politician’ anathema to Beijing’s interests. Indeed, much of the malfeasance in Hong Kong, even in the eyes of many aligned with the establishment, can be attributed to the bureaucratic intransigence and failure on part of ostensible political leaders to cut through the red tape and to the chase. Politicians that can solve problems, resolve tensions, and ameliorate mistrust or distrust in the state… surely are in high demand?

This is all fair and square, but for the fact that Hong Kong has never had, truly, a pipeline for aspiring governing talents – institutionalised or otherwise. We were a colony under the British prior to 1997 – domestic, homegrown politicos were groomed to be consultative or advisory forces, as opposed to self-governing individuals, in the run-up to the handover. London called the shots; or the Governor called the shots. Rarely, if ever, did Hong Kongers truly get a say under the shambolic pseudo-democracy that comprised large swathes of the pre-1997 colonial era.

Post-1997, the intention was to ‘keep things running as they were’. Hong Kong was to be governed by bureaucrats and administrators, folks who are well-trained and -versed in the language of the procedural and protocol, in accordance with due precedents and pre-existing tropes. Yet none of this was deemed to behoove the creation of a genuine ‘political pipeline’, under which aspirants can be groomed to one day govern the city. Instead, the ruling elite of Hong Kong had split loyalties between the landed gentry in Hong Kong, Beijing and its many representatives, and the embedded, entangled mess that comprises the unyielding bureaucracy. Those who sought to become politicians in the Establishment post-handover, soon found themselves ensnared and entrapped by a deeply unwelcome quagmire of vested interests.

Democrats find themselves shut out of a system that rarely listens, or, when it does do so (and extends a pseudo-olive branch to them), leaves them with limited maneuvering room due to the polarised and frankly unnuanced public sentiments. Many pro-Establishment politicians must repay favours and pre-existing liabilities, and hence opt for minimising risk, as opposed to maximising impact, as they go about in discharging their duties.

Now don’t get me wrong – there have been plenty of charismatic figureheads and leaders who have stepped forth, with the aim of leading Hong Kong into eras of substantive social transformation and engineering (I shall not name them here). Yet politics in this city has also always been impossible – caught between the ‘democratic aspirations’ of individuals aligned more with the West, and the ‘search for stability and elimination of dissent’ of individuals who self-identify as Beijing loyalists, the die was cast before it was rolled, with words written in black ink scattered across the crimson wall of Hong Kong’s history (a somewhat forced metaphor, but you get the point). Even the most ambitious and visionary leaders found themselves obstructed by powerful money, powerful brokers, and, above all, a population with incandescent rage towards the system.

Hence the task of governing has hence fallen upon the shoulders of the city’s professional, highly educated civil servants – including, of course, the elusive and exclusive Administrative Officers who have conventionally been entrusted with the keys to the pinnacles of administrative and executive powers in the city. Yet bureaucrats are no politicians – bureaucracy rewards those who adhere to rules and who perform in accordance with strictly stipulated, sometimes detached, at-other-times anachronistic, metrics. Bureaucrats’ remit lies with processing, drafting, and penning proposals – not pushing forward or advocating ideas through political and public-facing means. It would be deeply unfair to castigate bureaucrats for doing their job – they never had, not once, not twice, the need to engage in politics – high or low…

And hence we’re left in this impasse – a deeply politically charged city, with no politicians. Alas.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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