Conventional wisdom holds that as long as the economy perks
along, the people of Hong Kong will remain satisfied and non- or
apolitical. This notion has been proved wrong time and again. Tens
of thousands still gather each year to memorialize the massacres
that took place at Tien An Men (ironically, the name means the Gate
of Heavenly Peace) on June 4, 1989. Hundreds of thousands took to
the streets in protest when, a few years ago, the government
proposed draconian anti-subversion laws. In December 2007, Anson
Chan, Hong Kong's leading democratic voice, in a by-election for
the Legislative Council scored the highest number of votes ever
Things may get dicier still this year. The economy is slowing,
and Hong Kong has made little progress toward full democracy. Hong
Kong is looking like a box with shrinking walls. To revive the
energy and optimism that made Hong Kong unique, China must grant it
more political freedom.
A Slowing Economy
The economy of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
(SAR), as it is known formally, has been doing well the past few
years, with growth rates between 4 percent and 6 percent annually.
Unemployment has been low: 3.4 percent in 2007, a year in which
inflation was only 2.8 percent. But things are changing in 2008,
and not for the better. The economy is slowing, and it is expected
that both unemployment and inflation will more than
double. Hong Kong's middle and working classes are getting
Much of Hong Kong's food is imported from China, and
prices are rising. The cost of pork has gone up by 45 percent, and
the cost of the overall food basket has risen by 18 percent. Some
of the trend is weather-related, and the mainland government is
trying hard to hold prices down. But this is proving difficult, and
Hong Kongers' expectations are that while some items in the food
basket may decline in price, the days of relatively cheap food are
Hong Kong is at the forefront of the global revolution creating
a hi-tech and financial services economy, and this has led to a
serious bifurcation in society. Top earners command very high
salaries but form only a thin crust on a large population who lack
the skills to compete in those areas. At the same time,
lower-skilled workers must compete for jobs with Chinese across the
border who will do the same jobs for less money.
Poverty in Hong Kong is officially defined as an income of no
more than HK$4,000 (about US$530) a month for a family of four. The
percentage of households at or below that figure increased from 6.7
percent in 1996, the year before retrocession, to 9.2 percent in
2006. A senior economic official in Hong Kong
told this writer that the percentage will certainly be over 10
percent in 2008. That number is equal to about 700,000 people.
Meanwhile, the Gini coefficient for employment income increases
every year. In 2006, it reached 0.488. Median household income was
lower in 2007 than in the year Hong Kong joined China.
Overall quality of life is worsening as well. Pollution has
increased dramatically, and smog is present one day in three,
according to a June 2007 report. In December 2007, air
pollution became so serious that the government found it necessary
to warn people with heart or lung problems to stay indoors. In
early March, looking out from a window high above the still
beautiful harbor, this writer could see no further than a mile or
so into Kowloon; the hills for which Kowloon is named
(the word means "nine dragons") were invisible.
The Political Front
Meanwhile, just as political reform is not taking place in
China, it is not taking place in Hong Kong. The Basic Law, which
serves as the SAR's constitution, sets out full democracy as a goal
and speaks of "gradual and orderly progress" toward election of
Hong Kong's Chief Executive by universal suffrage. At present, the
Chief Executive is chosen by 800 electors, almost all of whom are
chosen for their willingness to vote as Beijing instructs.
Democratic reformers had hoped for change by 2007, the time of
the last election for Chief Executive, but this did not happen. Nor
will it happen in 2012, when the term of the present Chief
Executive, Donald Tsang, ends. Instead, in a curious December 2007
report to China's National People's Congress, Mr. Tsang said the
(a) More than half of Hong Kong's Population wanted universal
suffrage by 2012, but
(b) the requisite two-thirds majority within the Legislative
Council would not go along with the idea, and therefore
(c) perhaps it would happen by 2017. 
Only half of the Legislative Council's members are elected
from constituencies. The other half are chosen by "functional
groups" in a method pioneered by Mussolini back in the 1920s and
applied to Hong Kong in its Crown Colony days as an effective means
of divide and rule. The functional constituency members assure the
SAR government (and China) of their ability to control the
It is interesting that the United Nations Committee on Human
Rights, whose membership is not known for concern with human rights
and fundamental freedoms, has found it necessary to criticize as
completely undemocratic the role given functional constituencies in
the Legislative Council. In its reply, the SAR government noted
that when the then-British colony acceded to the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a specific reservation was
made not to accept Article 25(b) of the Covenant because this would
have required a legislature elected by universal suffrage. One may
think of this as rather like agreeing to the proposition that
religious persecution is evil and to be avoided--except in cases
where it is practiced.
In any event, the functional constituency system effectively
renders impotent the pro-democracy group within the Legislative
Council. Nor is it likely that this will change anytime soon: Both
the SAR government and the National People's Congress have insisted
that any increase in legislators elected in constituencies by
universal suffrage must be matched by an increase in legislators
chosen by the functional constituencies.
At retrocession in 1997 and for a while thereafter, some debated
whether Hong Kong, with its freedom of press and discussion, rule
of law, and tradition of vigorous prosecution of corruption, would
influence China for the better or would come to resemble a Chinese
In 2008, Hong Kong appears more changed by the transaction than
Let us stipulate at the outset that Hong Kong as a British
colony was politically free only by comparison with what lay next
door, along with much of Southeast Asia. The Legislative Council
then was just as much a tool of government and corporate interests
as it is now. Although more democratic voices are heard within
Legco in 2008 than were heard in 1996, the governmend did not heed
them then and does not do so now.
What made Hong Kong successful was the combination of British
common law and Chinese business acumen. That is still the case
today--to an extent. British common law operates, although it can
still be manipulated by government when necessary. The Chinese
business community runs the economy, though it is tied far more
closely to China and is far more amenable to "suggestions" from
Beijing than in "the old days."
But there was an important third element in Hong Kong's
success as a British colony--a civil service marked by élan
and by a shrewd confidence in their ability to run the place and
run it well. Governors came and went, but the civil service
remained and ran the place. But since the handover, a kind of
conformity, or internal self-censorship, appears to have taken
hold: an attitude of "Don't go there; they won't like it."
This is discernable at the very top as well, for example, when
the Chief Executive sees that more than half of the people want
universal suffrage and want it early, but the mandarins in Legco
don't and neither does the Standing Committee of the National
People's Congress, so he says, in effect, "We won't go there."
Hong Kong seems to be in a box with shrinking walls. The box is
shrinking economically for most of the population and politically
because important issues are going unmentioned and certain voices
are being ignored.
When people wondered a dozen years go whether Hong Kong
would become more like Shanghai, they were thinking in economic
terms. In fact, Shanghai is moving ahead economically and with an
élan and optimism that seem to be lacking in Hong Kong
today. Where Hong Kong most resembles Shanghai is in a sense that
nothing is happening politically and that reform and reformers have
no where to go.
Harvey Feldman is Distinguished
Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The
"Gap Between HK's Rich and Poor Widening." South China Morning
Post (Hong Kong), June 18, 2007.
Ibid. The Gini coefficient measures income disparity on a scale
from zero to 1, with zero representing a high degree of equality
and 1 a very high degree of inequality.
"Hong Kong's Pulse Slowing Down" South China Morning
Post, July 8, 2007.
"Pollution Worse Since Handover: Study," South China Morning
Post, June 14, 2007.
"Hong Kong Chokes on Pollution," Reuters UK, December 7, 2007.
"2017 Acceptable, Tsang Tells Beijing," South China Morning
Post, December 13, 2007.
"Ratio of Directed Elected Legco Seats Won't Rise. NPC Standing
Committee to Reject Pan-democrats' Compromise Plan." South
China Morning Post, December 29, 2007.