The UK, often lauded as having the “mother of parliaments,” has exported its parliamentary system to many parts of the world – but not Hong Kong, until the British rulers were about to depart.

UK Parliament
House of Commons. Photo: Flickr/UK Parliament.

London did seriously consider introducing some form of representative government in Hong Kong on two occasions. From 1945-1952, a Hong Kong Planning Unit was set up in London to explore options for introducing constitutional reform. But plans to introduce some degree of electoral democracy in Hong Kong were shelved when the newly-established People’s Republic of China seemed unready to resume its exercise of sovereignty over the city. There were also concerns that, if voting rights were given to the locals, the British-led ruling class would be outnumbered by them.

The British passed up another opportunity to introduce electoral democracy after riots broke out in Kowloon in April 1966. The unexpected, violent protests against a minuscule increase of the cross-harbour Star Ferry fare prompted London to review whether giving the people a greater role in local administration would provide a channel for them to ventilate any pent-up grievances. W. V. Dickinson, a colonial official, was appointed to chair a working party “[t]o explore and advise on practicable alternatives for the development of an effective and convenient system of local administration in Hong Kong.”

1967 riots
The 1967 riots.

Dickinson recommended establishing a network of local councils with a majority of elected members. His recommendations were never implemented because the British Hong Kong civil servants expressed grave reservations. In a note of dissent, a senior Hong Kong official expressed concern that “it is doubtful whether popular representation at the present time will be successful in bringing forward the best qualified and most widely accepted citizens to participate in local administration. There is indeed a definite risk that a system based on popular representation as determined by ballot box elections could quickly become controlled by unscrupulous or corrupt power seekers.”

For two decades, Hong Kong remained a bureaucrats’ paradise, free of populist and political interventions. Hong Kong prospered and became part of the East Asian economic miracle. A clean and open government underpinned by free markets and the rule of law ensured Hong Kong’s success.

In 1979, after a visit to Beijing, then governor Murray MacLehose learned that there would be no possibility of extending British rule over Hong Kong beyond the expiry of Britain’s lease of the New Territories in 1997. The British administrators started to make plans for introducing popular democracy in Hong Kong as a check on Beijing’s power.

basic law constitution handover
Photo: GovHK.

The British started with modest steps. Only 27 per cent of seats were open for universal suffrage-based elections in the first round of district board elections in 1982. District board members were paid token honoraria to avoid incentivising candidates who would seek elected seats for financial aggrandisement. Appointed members were not phased out until 2016.

The introduction of popular democracy to Hong Kong at both Legislative Council and District Council levels transformed Hong Kong’s political ecology. Some advantages of western electoral democracy were imported. The government became more transparent and accountable to the people. But, as the democratic system was imposed top-down at a late stage, there was little time to groom political leaders with genuine vision and competence to lead Hong Kong.

Politicians from the opposition camp learned to win elections by sloganeering and campaigning on issues that would stir up dissatisfaction with the government.

As we have seen in many electoral democracies, elected governments do not necessarily embrace democratic values of mutual respect and tolerance, non-discrimination, equality and protection of individual rights and freedoms. Campaigning on anti-incumbent agendas has caused countries to splinter, while solutions to longer-term, structural problems are kicked down the road.

district council election 2019 november 24 (15) (Copy)
Pro-democracy activist Jimmy Sham campaigning during the 2019 District Council elections at Lek Yuen Estate, Sha Tin. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The same ills of western, popular democracies have been imported into Hong Kong. At the District Council level, the small size of the geographical constituencies, comprising about 17,000 residents each, aggravated “not-in-my-backyard” tendencies among elected representatives. District councillors are captured by narrow, local interests to object to the location of “obnoxious,” but essential, public facilities, whilst campaigning for non-cost-effective facilities for their voters.

At the Legislative Council, legislators from the opposition camp stepped up their anti-government agendas and became increasingly radicalised. Knowing that the sole political cleavage in Hong Kong, given its colonial past, is about China, they had learned to win votes by stirring up fear and even hatred of anything to do with mainland China – from Chinese tourism to national security, national education, teaching of Putonghua in schools and the high-speed rail accelerating connection with the mainland China.

During the 79-day “Occupy Central” saga in 2014 (romantically dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by Western media), many opposition legislators openly flouted the law and supported unauthorised occupations of public areas.

On September 28, 2014, a protestor offers supplies outside government headquarters. File photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

In 2016, a number of newly elected legislators, including some young people with little competence, created international headlines by using the oath-taking ceremony in the legislature to insult China.

In 2019, riding on public protests against a piece of controversial legislation, many opposition legislators took the lead in calling for foreign sanctions on China. While such moves were welcome by anti-China politicians and western media, acts that incited separatism and subversion were clearly harmful to national security and the well-being of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s legislature fell into disorder and dysfunction until Beijing enacted a national security law for Hong Kong and overhauled the electoral system for the legislature. Since 2020, 300 district councillors resigned and several district councils had ground to a halt.

Similar reforms of the structure and functions of district councils are necessary to return them to their original intent as district organisations for consultation and provision of district services as envisaged in the Basic Law.

John Lee Erick Tsang Eric Chan Paul Lam
Hong Kong government officials attend a press conference on May 2, 2023 about the proposed amendments to the District Councils. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The plan to reform the district councils is not a democratic regression. The British administration never intended Hong Kong to be democratic and there was no agreement between China and Britain on the city’s democratic development. Universal suffrage-based elections constitute only one procedural aspect of democracy. Democracy scholars fully understand how hard it is for true, liberal democracy to work after mass elections have been instituted. Hong Kong’s experiment with democracy, based purely on the broadening of franchise and populist elections, had brought chaos, polarisation and economic stagnation. The ill-conceived democratic experiment has failed.

It is not for western politicians or media to tell us, Hong Kong people, what is good for Hong Kong. It is not in the interests of the city to be at loggerheads with its motherland, let alone a hotbed for separatism and subversion. Our destiny is inseparable from that of China. It is for Hong Kong people, in consultation with its motherland, to determine its democratic route. Let Hong Kong people who truly understand Hong Kong’s past and have a clear vision of its future tell the true story of Hong Kong.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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The Hon. Mrs. Regina Ip joined the Hong Kong government in 1975, rising to the position of Secretary for Security and resigned in 2003. She is a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, the chairperson of the New People’s Party and Savantas Policy Institute, Co-Chair of the Maritime Silk Road Society, and a member of the Executive Council for the fifth term of the HKSAR Government.