Posted:  Dec. 28, 2009


Hong Kong’s present-day democracy movement dates its birth from the early 1980s with good reason.  At that time, Beijing announced its intention to resume sovereignty in 1997; the colonial government lifted its customary bans on local politicking; and the general public was finally allowed to participate in elections.  The present generation of democracy partisans built their reputations and defined their new identities in relation to those changes, with the aim of establishing safeguards against the political hazards of mainland Chinese rule.  Achievements of their lobbying and agitation include the guarantees Beijing and London wrote into the formal transfer documents, and the 60% majorities that pro-democracy candidates continue to win in local legislative elections.

In one respect, however, the movement’s success is responsible for what has become its greatest handicap.  Supporters and detractors alike are well aware of the movement’s many defects and deficiencies.  Supporters do their best to compensate and detractors to exploit. But one handicap is more dangerous than others because supporters do not recognize it whereas adversaries do. Hong Kong’s democracy movement seems to have no conception of political time, meaning either its pre-1980s past or a future beyond the guarantees their activism helped achieve in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law constitution that governs Hong Kong for a 50 year transition period from 1997 (Dec. 10 post).


          For all practical political purposes, Hong Kong democrats are suspended in transitional time unable think beyond the promises written into those two documents whereby Hong Kong’s pre-1997 “way of life” will remain unchanged for 50 years.  That Beijing sees the one-country, two- systems promise as a temporary arrangement designed to finesse the transition to full integration within the mainland body politick is sometimes acknowledged but never discussed.  This is evidently because Hong Kong democrats have still not moved beyond their pre-1997 assumptions that by 2047, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have gone the way of its European counterparts. The rousing sound-bite from the 1990s can still be heard today:  democracy cannot be achieved in Hong Kong until China itself has become democratic, the assumption being that China is on course to follow the global democratization trend.

Failure to contemplate a future when the CCP and its Hong Kong adherents might be stronger, more confident, and more defiant of Western political values than in 1997 means democratic activists and opinion leaders have had no incentive to adjust their pre-1997 assumptions.  As a result, they cannot anticipate possible future scenarios inspired not by Western democratic ideals but by a different century-old tradition of one-party mass-based dictatorship, otherwise known as democratic-centralism, that was designed to entrench communist revolutionary power.  All told, Hong Kong is currently being asked to make decisions on the government’s latest political reform proposals and the electoral arrangements contained therein (Nov. 23 post) without the information necessary to assess either their historic antecedents or long term political implications.

The public consultation period on these proposals still has two months to go, however, and democratic activists are just beginning to conclude that Beijing has no intention of allowing genuine Western-style universal suffrage elections in Hong Kong.  Hence the intensifying public debate may yet begin to focus on long-term prospects and there will be time enough to record its progress.  Meanwhile, we can set the stage with another dimension of their movement that democrats also never discuss, namely, its pre-1980 foundations.

Had the earlier political reform campaigns been acknowledged before 1997, pro-democracy partisans might have been able to learn from their mistakes and much more.  The 1980s movement would have been able to defuse one of Beijing’s angriest charges against them, namely, that their movement was nothing but an artificial anti-communist construct deliberately fostered by the departing British in an otherwise politically apathetic community after Beijing demanded Hong Kong’s return.  Beijing still argues that the aim was part of a Western “Trojan horse” conspiracy to subvert post-1997 Chinese governance in Hong Kong and eventually in the rest of China as well.

Carrying the argument further, Beijing also maintains that since the people are sovereign in Western democratic systems, calling for Western-style elected government in Hong Kong is tantamount to asking for independence.  This is because sovereign authority in China is represented by the unified party-led people’s dictatorship as exercised through its people’s congress system and Hong Kong is now part of China.   Had they acknowledged the pre-1980 popular activist foundations on which they built their movement, local democrats might have anticipated this independence allegation and done a better job of rebutting it since their predecessors had 30 years of experience in doing just that.


          In September 1984, activists claimed their Ko Shan Theater rally marked the first time in Hong Kong history that 1,000 Chinese residents gathered to demand democratic political reform (Dec. 10 post).  In fact, it was only the first time a wholly Chinese-led crowd of that size had made such a direct demand.  But no one chose to remember the December 16, 1964 meeting when 1,300 mostly Chinese supporters of the Reform Club led by British expatriate Brook Bernacchi packed the City Hall auditorium for their 15th anniversary general meeting.  The club had been founded in 1949 to promote elected representation and was in the forefront of a renewed effort that supporters assumed in 1964 was at last on the verge of a breakthrough.

There has actually never been a time since the earliest days of British rule when someone in Hong Kong was not discussing the merits of elected representation.  But democratic partisans today regard everything before 1980 as pre-historic British colonial whereas a clear break with Hong Kong’s political pre-history occurred in the late 1940s, after the 1941-45 Japanese occupation.  Hong Kong’s present-day democracy movement can be traced in a direct line of descent from the first glimmerings of opposition to unreformed autocratic government that took hold at that time.

The immediate post-World War II story is well-known.[1]  Concerned about perpetuating the old-fashioned   “benevolent autocracy” of pre-war days, and mindful of post-war pressures to give Hong Kong back to China forthwith, the returning British governor announced plans in 1946 for a partially elected city council.  The idea was to give more local people than the small accepted circle of wealthy Anglicized Chinese some stake in local public administration.  The colonial establishment procrastinated until 1949, when it countered with its own proposal, whereupon the community suddenly sprang to life.  The idea of elected representation in government gained a public following at that time and interest was sustained with varying degrees of intensity for the next three decades.  A few key episodes illustrate both the continuing demand and the excuses used to deny it.

In 1949, two new groups took up the cause.  The Reform Club had a mixed expatriate and Chinese membership with English as the common language.  The Chinese Reform Association had primarily Chinese members and used Cantonese.  Their efforts culminated in a meeting on July 13, 1949 attended by 400 people from 142 registered Chinese civic associations. These represented a good cross section of the Chinese community and claimed a total membership of 141,800 people.  The organizations also sponsored a petition that was far more ambitious than the governor’s original 1946 plan and promoters proclaimed their effort to be historic since no large body of Chinese residents had ever before raised such demands.

After more procrastination, the colonial establishment including both its British and Chinese components finally prevailed and killed the project but by then, in 1952, there were extenuating circumstances.  The effects of the CCP’s 1949 victory in China were making themselves felt:  anti-communist refugees were pouring in; a local pro-communist agitation was taking root; its sympathizers were taking over the Chinese Reform Association; and enthusiasm for reform had cooled.  The Hong Kong Standard, previously a supporter of reform, caught the changing mood. Czechoslovakia had gone the way of other European satellite countries by simple parliamentary process, noted the paper’s December 10, 1951 editorial, “and who can guarantee that Hong Kong may not share the same fate from an overdose of parliamentarianism?”

That fear underlay decisions on political reform through the 1970s, but too sensitive to elaborate openly, officials and other conservatives usually relied on excuses harking back to the beginning of Hong Kong colonial time.  The most common was that Chinese, who have always constituted around 95% of Hong Kong’s population, were politically apathetic and preferred leaving government to the professionals.  Alexander Grantham, governor from 1947 to 1957, used both arguments in his 1965 memoir. [2]


After a few painful years, however, the colony settled down along Cold War lines of accommodation based on an understanding:  the pro-Beijing community would be left alone as long as it did not challenge the colonial government’s authority.  This understanding held until the 1967-68 leftist-led riots that scuttled the next major reform initiative.  Meanwhile, non-leftist veterans of the failed 1949-52 effort may have been drifting in the wilderness but they never abandoned their cause.

The most articulate by far was Ma Man-fai who soon broke with his left-leaning friends in the Chinese Reform Association.  Ma was an incongruous figure famous for his traditional Chinese attire, long wispy beard, detailed knowledge of British colonial constitutions, and fluent English, which he used to mock Hong Kong’s Cold War “showcase of democracy” boast.  On the difference between Western democracy and its Chinese communist namesake, he liked to say that the latter was of and for the people, but not by them.

Momentum began to revive in the late 1950s.  One new voice was that of businessman Hilton Cheong-Leen, a leader of the new Civic Association.  In 1960, he and Reform Club representatives pioneered what would become standard practice by flying to London where they met British officials and sympathetic Members of Parliament and lobbied directly for political reforms.  Ma Man-fai was joined by another new voice, Elsie Elliott, who was destined to antagonize many generations of Hong Kong authority.  Their 1960-61 reform proposals were so radical that the haughty South China Morning Post dismissed them as “downright nonsense” because they included, among other things, a road map for Legislative Council elections by universal suffrage.[3]

Official resistance was nevertheless easing and the government even allowed groups to start calling themselves political parties.  Claiming to be a Hong Kong first, the Democratic Self-Government Party began organizing in 1963.  It was in this new atmosphere of optimism that the 1964 Reform Club meeting attracted such a large crowd.  In May 1966, Elsie Elliott flew to London, financed by thousands of individual supporters who contributed to a “Dollar for Elsie” fund.  Afterward, the fund’s surplus was used to help pay expenses for dinners, meetings, and Hyde Park forums where Ma Man-fai did the translating during exchanges that gave local Chinese audiences their first chance to put questions directly to British politicians.  One dinner was hosted by 40 different political and civic groups.  On another occasion, Member of Parliament John Rankin responded to the many group leaders he met by advising them to unite and form a single political party for more effective action since they were all demanding the same thing.

When the government’s long-delayed Report of the Working Party on Local Administration appeared in February 1967, it received much the same response as the Hong Kong government’s just released 2009 reform package.  The 1967 plan envisaged no elected legislators and only partially elected district bodies, all quietly forgotten after the 1967-68 leftist riots.  Reform advocates tried to carry on in the 1970s, just as their predecessors had done in the 1950s.  Elsie Elliott’s supporters collected 53,000 signatures on a petition in 1972, asking the governor to appoint her to the Legislative Council as its first ever workers’ representative.  He ignored the petition but its populist message pointed the way forward as 1960s political activism was channeled into other mostly “non-constitutional” social issues. [4]

Just before the government did its 1980 about-face on elections, a strange episode illustrated how anachronistic Hong Kong’s crown colony rule had become. Still fearful of communist infiltration and most other kinds of disruption as well, the government had set up in the late 1970s, a secret Standing Committee on Pressure Groups (SCOPG).  After its cover was blown, also in 1980,  activists enjoyed reading the security risk assessments attached to the most “threatening” of the many social action groups that had grown to fill the void in Hong Kong’s political life.   SCOPG records also illustrate the link between 1960s political activism and its 1980s revival via the 1970s watch list.  The sponsors of the first September 1984 Ko Shan Theatre rally, organized to call for directly elected legislators in 1988, included most of the groups and individuals given pride of place on SCOPG’s list.


That the 1980s generation should have wanted a clean break with the colonial past is understandable; that their movement should have ignored the experience of its predecessors is not.   The resulting disconnect has deprived Hong Kong’s democracy movement of three important talking points in what has now become a major confrontation with Beijing.  First, their movement is not an artificial construct but the natural result of an ongoing agitation that was already three decades old in 1980.  Second, far from being created by Britain, London and the colonial Hong Kong government did everything possible during those 30 years to contain and discredit demands for elected representation.

The third point concerns the matter of popular sovereignty.  From the start, pre-1980s reformers were sensitive to the link between elections and independence.  They took care to acknowledge that since it actually belonged to China, Hong Kong could never become independent like all the other colonies that were democratizing their legislatures in preparation for that end.   Reformers’ arguments were instead always based on the simple proposition that local people like everyone else had an inherent right to elected representation with the practical aim of achieving more responsive government.

Local democrats are, of course, not wholly to blame for this lapse since London used the independence excuse as late as 1967 to reject demands for even one elected legislator.  Britain then did its about-face on elections in the 1980s without explaining the contradiction and Beijing not surprisingly cried foul.  But Hong Kong’s new generation of democrats failed to confront either Beijing or London with some critical straight talk based on the earlier experience.

Local democrats have also failed to overcome the handicap that was already apparent in 1966.  Many other sympathetic observers both local and foreign have reiterated John Rankin’s advice to no avail.  Hong Kong’s miniature democratic parties are still operating in small-group activist mode.  They do unite on major political reform issues but otherwise jealously guard their separate identities and constituencies despite the obvious consequences.  Months of tedious negotiations were needed, for example, to coordinate candidates for the last District Councils election in 2007.  This was necessary to keep democratic candidates from competing with each other and ceding seats to their opponents.  Yet everyone now knows the latter are guided by a different activist tradition that long ago mastered the lessons of unity and discipline.  Pro-Beijing partisans have self-consciously adapted that tradition and skillfully used it to build majorities on all but two of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils — where democrats casually conceded their last remaining chairmanship in 2007 to the cause of factional infighting.

[1] Steve Tsang, Democracy Shelved (Oxford, 1988).

[2] Via Ports:  From Hong Kong to Hong Kong (HKU Press, 1965), pp. 111-12, 195.

[3] Pepper, Keeping Democracy at Bay (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), pp. 136-37.

[4]  Lam Wai-man Understanding the Political Culture of Hong Kong (Sharpe, 2004).

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