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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 5-18

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Hong Kong:
The Perils of Semidemocracy

William H. Overholt

At the time of Hong Kong's 1997 transition from British to Chinese rule, the world saw the city as a laissez-faire enclave that took care of itself, while an able but mostly hands-off civil service did minor maintenance. A successful transition would mean little more than a changing of the guard, with local functionaries replacing colonial functionaries. There was, in this widely held view, no need for any larger reform of the economy or polity.

Beijing and London, together with the local business establishment, planned a government that they all hoped would combine representative deliberativeness with authoritarian decisiveness. The byword for this was "executive-led government." The 60-member Legislative Council (Legco) would be elected but the Beijing-chosen chief executive (CE) would have power to implement needed programs. The legislature itself was a carefully engineered body, chosen through complex, multilayered procedures designed to ensure that it would be dominated for at least ten years by economic and managerial experts who would steer well clear of anything resembling economically risky populism.

Both British and Chinese officials saw powerful justifications for such a government. What holds together Hong Kong's disparate, unequal society of former refugees is its superior economic performance--its ability to give everyone a job and a chance, through hard work, intelligence, and luck, to rise from rags to riches on the model of billionaire Li Ka Shing. Beijing's willingness to tolerate Hong Kong's "peculiar" institutions and autonomy was and is completely dependent [End Page 5] on its superior contribution to the mainland's economy. This was why the Politburo had restrained Mao from overrunning it in 1949, and why Beijing chose to grant it 50 years' autonomy starting in 1997. Hong Kong has so far fully justified this view. Though it boasts fewer than 7 million inhabitants, it has invested far more in China (US$149.7 billion from 1991 to 1999) than Japan, Europe, and the United States combined.

The designers of the post-turnover institutions were clear about their goals:

  • To ensure a peaceful, turmoil-free handover of sovereignty from Britain to the People's Republic of China.

  • To preserve Hong Kong's freedoms and institutions, including freedom of speech, of the press, of British-style legal processes, and many others. The British honored these as values in themselves, while Beijing considered them essential to Hong Kong's continued economic success.

  • To preclude the emergence of a Hong Kong that would threaten the Beijing regime and arouse "antisubversive" reprisals.

  • To ensure that the executive had enough authority to implement needed policies.

  • To avert the emergence of political parties.

  • To ensure that long-range, expert viewpoints and business interests would dominate a Legislative Council that would willingly follow the chief executive's lead.

In short, the idea was to get the benefits of representation without sacrificing a certain authoritarian capacity for dispatch and decisiveness. Singapore was the leading example of what the transition's architects hoped to build.

All the peculiar characteristics of Hong Kong's current political institutions become intelligible when viewed in light of these aims. Thus the old British "governor" was to give way to the new "chief executive" because, in the view from Beijing, Hong Kong is one large business proposition. Likewise, all those (to Beijing) peculiar freedoms and institutions became acceptable not because Beijing loves capitalism and freedom but rather because they seem to have something to do with Hong Kong's economic success.

Along with geographically elected members, Legco contains "functional" representatives chosen from Hong Kong's lawyers, businesspeople, accountants, and so on--the goal being to minimize the kinds of personal rivalries and demagogic grandstanding that beset, to take one example, the Congress of the Philippines. To avert patronage-influenced mismanagement of the budget, legislators are not allowed to propose bills that affect budgets and policies without prior approval from the CE. [End Page 6]

And yet, in a departure from all but the last few years of the...


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