(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 1 October 2014.)



The pan-democrats are a heterogeneous grouping that shares a common “bottom up narrative” of “one country, two systems”. The influences on their ideas and practices have three probable sources: (1) democratic ideals, (2) championing the underprivileged and disadvantaged, and (3) defending civil liberties against Beijing.


Democratic Idealism


Pan-democrats appear to subscribe to the dominant theory of democracy that the rule of law and other economic and civil liberties rest on the foundations of political liberty. This was taught in most universities after the Second World War. A broad layer of the educated elite in Hong Kong is familiar with such thinking and so is the younger generation; some embrace these ideas enthusiastically.


The “bottom up narrative” sees democracy as a political virtue to be desired, but does not always appreciate that designing good rules and arrangements for a functioning democracy is far from trivial. Political reform is often held hostage to all kinds of vested interests that make progress painfully difficult. When new rules and arrangements are adopted, they not only upset old vested interests, but allow new vested interests to form, which become a stumbling block for further reforms. I suspect the net gains from democratic reforms are probably more modest than what is promised, even in the medium to long run.


The “establishment narrative” balks at democratic reforms for this reason. Hong Kong worked well in the past, so why change to a new game? This view has focused on the divisiveness of democracy and fears of a rise of the “tyranny of the majority” and the “tyranny of the minorities.” In contrast, the “bottom up narrative” sees the diversity of minority interests as the pluralistic foundations of a democratic polity. And it sees the choice of the majority as the democratic expression of society’s preferences and its general will.


The Hong Kong experience is of course hugely at variance with the teachings of the dominant theory of democracy. Hong Kong developed a robust system for the rule of law and an abundance of economic and civil liberties, even though there was no political liberty under British rule. But this experience has not supplanted the dominant theory of democracy in terms of how people still think today.


Champions of the Underprivileged and Disadvantaged


Today’s democratic movement has its roots in the 1980s when advocates for democracy began to emerge, drawn from various non-government organizations that were clustered around the professional and labor unions and social service advocates and providers. These organizations had largely been established in the aftermath of the 1967 riots, which had exposed the deep economic and social contradictions in society brought about by Hong Kong’s rapid and massive economic transformation from an entrepôt for transshipped goods towards an export-oriented manufacturing base.  These organizations and groups grew rapidly under Governor MacLehose’s expansionary policies on public housing, social medicine, and social welfare.


The pioneers and leaders of the 1980s democratic movement were also often members of pressure groups under British rule. They shared two common characteristics: (1) they did not belong to the circle of Beijing sympathizers, and (2) their main, non-political work involved pressuring or lobbying government for support in terms of resource transfers and favorable regulatory treatment.


These leaders championed the underprivileged and disadvantaged, but seldom challenged the existing political arrangements. Instead, they served as watchdogs and critics of government actions and policies, not even able to be a “loyal opposition” since under British rule they could not have aspirations for political power. At best, some individuals gained influence with those in power. Their achievement was to bring about a more inclusive form of capitalism, to be its kinder face, and no more.


They were administratively absorbed into the governance structure, given a role to offer policy input through the advisory committees, and provided feedback from grassroots level in society; but without, however, any significant degree of power sharing. When 1997 was on the horizon, these groups began to see an opportunity to gain access to political power through the promise of greater democracy. Many future leaders of the democratic movement would come from their ranks.


These leaders have tended to limit their focus primarily to a social policy agenda. This is not surprising. The pressures of canvassing for votes, the constitutional constraints placed on their legislative powers, and their own social democratic goals have effectively defined their narrow political vision and mandate. The democratic movement therefore has been an opposition coalition built around labor and social issues.


The business and professional elite naturally fear that given their backgrounds, they could become advocates for big social welfare spending and threaten Hong Kong’s limited government and free enterprise system. The Basic Law promised democracy, but it failed to bridge the gulf between these two political narratives. The administrative absorption of politics had to end. What was to replace it was unclear.


Limited government and a free enterprise economy are enshrined in the Basic Law and present a formidable hurdle for the democratic movement to surmount. Its role as social gadfly was accepted by the British rulers, perhaps even welcomed to project an image of a more inclusive capitalism, even though further political ambitions were actively discouraged. But under the Special Administrative Region, there arose greater conflict and polarization.


Democracy pitted not only business and professional elites against the organized grassroots, but also organized grassroots organizations against each other. This is because non-government organizations supporting the democratic movement began to compete politically with grassroots organizations sympathetic to Beijing on social and labor issues, for both influence with the electorate and government funding.


Meanwhile, another massive and rapid economic transformation was taking place in Hong Kong, as it developed from a manufacturing center to a service economy. Economic globalization, China’s opening, and huge inflows of new immigrants from the Mainland presented additional challenges. At first, most residents reaped huge benefits from these changes. Free and unfettered markets provided a smooth and rapid adjustment process for everyone.


But over time, the distribution of these benefits became increasingly unequal as inflation, unemployment (during the Asian financial crisis), and escalating property prices each took their toll. Some even began to insinuate that the “establishment narrative” was an unholy whitewashing of arrangements that were the sources of deepening economic and social contradictions in society (see Poon 2005).


The middle-class pondered what was happening to the society they had grown up with. But deepening contradictions in society alone were not a strong enough reason for them to support a social democratic movement. They remained attached to a capitalist “can-do” spirit and worried about divisive politics.


Defenders of Civil Liberties against Beijing


The democratic movement reaped a huge windfall in the wake of the June 4th Incident, when one million people in Hong Kong poured into the streets in solidarity with the students at Tiananmen Square. Defending civil liberties against Beijing gave the democratic movement a new enduring base of popular support, and the “bottom up narrative” found a fresh political agenda.


The past has shown that whenever Beijing restricted civil liberties, political support for the democratic movement in Hong Kong gained ground. The precise reasons for this are not entirely clear. Civil liberties are close to the heart of many people in Hong Kong, but antagonizing Beijing appears to have been staged rather than purely spontaneous.


Opposing Beijing also became a two-edged sword for the democratic movement. Over the years the democrats found it increasingly difficult to have a dialogue with Beijing, to seek financial support, and even to have public support in the absence of fresh restrictions on civil liberties. This held true until the recent emergence of new-found support among youths and the Occupy Central movement. Opposition to Beijing also further distanced the democratic movement from the local establishment, and probably drew Beijing and the local establishment closer together over this common challenge.


The democratic movement itself became increasingly fragmented in the years after the handover, as it made less headway in the legislature. It began to turn into a street protest movement and became more confrontational, sometimes with Beijing. The radical elements have been much more willing to use disruptive and non-cooperative measures as a strategy to mobilize popular support.


All this has reflected the growing unwillingness of all sides to cooperate. The democratic coalition has been shedding the role of watchdog and social critic that it was assigned under British rule, to become a political opposition bloc that constantly tests the boundaries of political engagement in Hong Kong and with Beijing. At the same time, while the “establishment narrative” has prevailed over many major policy decisions after 1997, it has failed to gain sufficient acceptance within society.


The current predicament is the result of the failure to articulate a single political narrative for Hong Kong when 1997 arrived. Something critical was missing in the “establishment narrative” – those elements raised by the “bottom up narrative”, which the public cared about. As the two competing narratives remain divided, it has become more difficult to resolve society’s political conflicts. Those in the middle are left pondering which side they will be pushed to join – remaining silent is becoming difficult.





Alice Poon, Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, Enrich Professional Publishing, 2005

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