- Understanding the Political Culture of Hong Kong: The Paradox of Activism and Depoliticization
This is another book ironed out from a Ph.D. thesis, which won the Hong Kong Political Sciences Association Best Ph.D. Dissertation Award in 2002. It aims to demythicize the apparently widely accepted wisdom that Hong Kong Chinese are politically indifferent because they are economic animals who value family values and therefore nurture political passivity. It focuses on Hong Kong society between 1949 and 1979 and attempts to explain the paradox of political activism and the government's deliberate effort at depoliticization. The first chapter brings out the issue and challenges the assumptions and presumptions of the perception of Hong Kong society and of what political participation is, including a critique of Sydney Verba. Chapter 2 attempts to offer an alternative definition of political participation. The author argues that activities supporting the government and unlawful demands, contrary to the accepted definition, also constitute political participation. After an explication of methodology in chapter 3, chapter 4 offers a quantitative comparison between political activities in the 1980s and the period from 1949 to 1979 in order to argue that the people in Hong Kong were not politically inactive during the pre-handover decades. In chapters 5 to 7, thirteen case studies of political activism are discussed in an effort to rediscover the nature of politics in Hong Kong. This is all very impressive.
However, author Lam Wai-man cannot deny that on a yearly basis the average amount of political activity in Hong Kong was at a much lower level of frequency and intensity during the 1949-1979 period than in the 1980s. How does one explain this discrepancy if one wants to argue, as Lam does, against the position that the citizens of Hong Kong were politically passive until the 1980s, when the handover became a political issue? Chapter 8 purports to answer this crucial question by discussing how different political activities were associated with particular political discourses. Lam certainly moves along in the right direction, and I was intrigued at first because this was precisely what was in my own mind. However, I am greatly disappointed with this chapter. Lam does not seem to go beyond brief descriptions of specific issues such as equality, economic rights, and fairness. Lam does talk about the discourses of anticolonialism, nationalism, and liberalism but does not go beyond almost miniscule descriptions. To this reviewer, the more or less frequent and intense level of political activism in Hong Kong, like anywhere else, has to be put in the context of political discourse at the international level, for example the Cold War discourse during the 1949 to 1979 period and the human rights/democracy discourse since the 1980s, and in the context of [End Page 152] how these discourses set the agenda as seen through the media. For example, the protest by an estimated half million people against the Hong Kong government's attempt to introduce the national security bill in 2003 is considered political dynamite. But the content of the bill is no more draconian than the rules and regulations under colonial rule. The people in Hong Kong became so agitated because they did not trust the Chinese government, especially since the Tiananmen events of 1989; because there was a severe economic downturn after 1997 (the handover coinciding with the Asian financial crisis); because of Western support for political activity; and above all because of the democracy and human rights discourse being developed since "the End of History."
Chapter 9 and the Epilogue are really anticlimactic and, to the present reviewer, not necessary to the book. These are basically further discussions of Hong Kong's political culture that could have been embedded in previous chapters. Overall, however, this is a good book on Hong Kong's modern and contemporary political culture. Lam has done an excellent job in presenting complex issues in a timely publication in a way that is...