Since I am a metaphor junkie and wrote a whole dissertation on metaphor and Hong Kong politics, I eventually came up with what I call a “meta-metaphor” to describe Hong Kong’s democratisation process.

On a visit to Camden in London watching a canal lock operate, I immediately saw the relevance to the Hong Kong political situation in which democratic choice is permitted but is carefully constrained by structural and other means by certain “gatekeepers.”

What is a Canal Lock?

A lock is a device for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. The distinguishing feature of a lock is a fixed chamber in which the water level can be varied. Since Hong Kong is the “well” (an artificial construct of “One Country, Two Systems” to the Mainland’s “river”), a water metaphor seems a suitable choice, since the “embankment” between the two can be raised or lowered largely at Beijing’s will.

Hong Kong as canal lock
Hong Kong as canal lock. Photo: HKFP.

How a Lock Works

  1. A boat comes to the top of the lock and wants to go to the downstream side.
  2. The gates on the upstream side of the lock can easily be swung open because the water inside the lock is the same elevation as the water on the downstream side. So the lock keeper turns the cranks that open the gates to let the boat in.
  3. The boat floats into the lock
  4. The upper gate is closed.
  5. Valves are opened on the downstream side of the lock which lets water out of the lock.
  6. As the water drains, the boat floats down.
  7. When the water in the lock matches the water level of the downstream water, the gates can be opened and the boat can move out.
How canal locks work
How canal locks work. Photo: Rideau Canal.

How the Hong Kong (democratization) Lock Works

  1. The boat (Hong Kong) comes to the lock (the democratization process) and wants to go downstream (towards universal suffrage).
  2. The gates (Basic Law, Task Force Reports, Interpretations, Decisions and directives from Beijing) can be swung open or not according to the lock staff (Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress). The locks are opened by appointment only or at set times. But the Hong Kong Boat is unsure of the lock keeper’s schedule.
  3. The boat (Hong Kong) has often floated into the lock in 2004 but the lock keeper decided not open the lock in 2007. It was stuck in the lock. There was a possibility that the lock might be raised a little in 2005, but fighting on board about how long it would take to navigate the river (having no timetable to reach the ultimate aim); the navigation charts (roadmaps) also had problems.
  4. In 2007, there was some movement by the lock keeper. While the upper gate remained closed, valves would be opened slightly on the downstream side of the lock (minor changes to the system, but the same ratio of functional constituencies to geographical constituencies had to remain) but this would not happen till 2012.
  5. If all goes to plan and the boat and the lock keeper both agree to the rules and regulations of the 2012 lock opening, the water will drain with some hiccups and special deals with the lock keeper (but slowly and gradually), the boat floats down (but remains in the lock).
  6. When the water in the lock matches the water level of the downstream water (to universal suffrage), the gates can be opened and the boat can move out. Despite the lock keeper making this a promise for 2017, the lock keeper decided to make some even more onerous conditions before the water can rise up to the desired level in order to move on.
  7. The Hong Kong boat is unable to move in the near foreseeable future in out of the lock proper and can only rock back and forth in its narrow stretch of water in between the two gates.

It’s really a Multi-lock System

The above describes a single-lock system. In fact, Hong Kong’s democratization process could be said to be a series of metaphoric “locks” (such as the two principles in the Basic Law increased to three, then nine over the previous decade).

Jennifer Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since 1997, is a policy committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project. Her PhD analyzed how Hong Kong talks about democracy through metaphor. She is a teacher of English and linguistics as well as researcher and editor.