08 May 2018
Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping praises outgoing Hong Kong leader's contributions to defending national sovereignty

Decolonizing Hong Kong

Hong Kong's government elite needs to be "decolonized" to correct wrong concepts and thinking, and misguided attitudes and values, left over from colonial rule, writes Wing Yin Yu.

Despite strenuous efforts by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government to paint a roseate picture, President Xi Jinping said it all at the Inauguration of the New SAR Government on 1 July 2017, when he pointed out that “traditional strengths have relatively weakened, but new economic growth points have yet to take shape”.1

The IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook hailed Hong Kong as number one in competitiveness.2 The fine print indicated that the result was based on an opinion survey. In the Global Competitiveness Index Rankings of the World Economic Forum, Hong Kong rebounded to sixth place from ninth in the previous year.3 However, analysis based on hard economic data by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed Hong Kong’s competitiveness slackening behind Shenzhen.4

Hong Kong has the most severe rich and poor disparity among developed economies. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient has risen to 0.539,5 and is surpassed only by South Africa and two least developed countries.6 As a prosperous economy, Hong Kong’s high Gini coefficient can only be the consequence of wrong policies. This is a contradiction. Some senior officials belittle its significance, brushing it aside as inevitable in the course of economic development. It is a deep contradiction.

Inadequate investment in education and R&D

Hong Kong’s public expenditure on education accounts for barely 3% of GDP,7 and is lower than mainland China’s 4%.8 It is also lower than Malaysia (5.0%), Thailand (4.1%) and India (3.8%).9 Publicly funded university places have practically not increased for over 20 years and now account for 20% of university participation rate.10 Together with the provision by for-profit units, the total university participation rate is about 30%, which is less than half the OECD average of 68%.11 Many countries adopted small class teaching and learning in the last century, but the Hong Kong government still refuses to implement small class teaching, claiming its efficacy has not been demonstrated.

The new SAR Government pledged to increase education expenditure by HK$5 billion,12 but this would mean only an increase from 3% to 3.2% of GDP. The following is an illustration of government priorities: in 2013 the government spent HK$10 billion as a subsidy to induce truck drivers to switch to a less polluting model of vehicles, when education expenditure was HK$60 billion in that year.13

According to official statistics, Hong Kong’s gross expenditure on R&D is a dismal 0.73% of GDP,14 far below the average for low and middle income countries (1.36%),15 and quite a distance from the 2.07% of GDP spending in the mainland.16 Among the adult population, only 28% have received tertiary education,17 compared to 38% in Beijing.8 Thus by all accounts, Hong Kong is not a knowledge society. These figures bode ill for a busy city. A city with high living standards which has not yet transformed to a knowledge society in the 21st century will have serious social problems. Hong Kong has ample resources and fiscal reserves, yet the government refuses to increase investment in education and science, giving all kinds of excuses for not doing so. It is a contradiction, and a deep contradiction.

The contradiction has to be understood in the context of Hong Kong’s colonial history. When the colonizers built universities, the original intention was to produce local people who could speak and write English so that they can help with the governance of the city. Education makes people more governable, but more education will make people think for themselves. The colonies were captured markets. Some science and technology help develop the market, but more science and technology will turn them into competitors. Colonial governments were thrifty about education and had always liked to emphasize vocational training. Science and technology were almost a luxury for colonial governments; many African states were not even given science education.

In the case of Hong Kong, have the portfolio of education and the portfolio of science and technology made the transition from the colonial mode to a normal mode? Unfortunately not! The British always had justifications for their policies so that everything looked reasonable. These contained half truths as well as specious arguments. It is not clear whether the administrative officers actually believe in these arguments or are just giving lip service to them. It is inconceivable that they are still taking instructions from the British Commonwealth Office, but many administrative officers appear to embrace colonial objectives and have been inventing arguments of their own to justify these objectives.

The following are some examples of specious dictums: education takes up over 20% and the largest share of the budget; therefore education expenditure cannot be increased.13 More university graduates will make it more difficult for them to find jobs. High-tech is high risk; it is better to do something which is sure win and requires less investment. We can free-ride on the R&D in the mainland; Hong Kong will play the shop front.

In the peculiar design of the budget, infrastructure works, housing and other items are excluded so that the budget consists essentially of education, medical services and social welfare. Many former British colonies still use the same design of budget. For example, education expenditure takes up 36.7% of the budget in Ghana.9 In a static deduction, more graduates will mean more competition in the job market. But a dynamic analysis will show that a sufficient number of graduates will constitute the critical mass necessary to start up new companies and bring in new business, and thus, more employment as well. The high risk, capital intensive and long-range nature of technology investment is precisely the reason for government support and intervention; it is not an excuse for inaction. We need to develop a sufficient scientific and technological capability before we can benefit from cooperation with the mainland. Such capability is also necessary for the marketing of technology-related products and services, and Hong Kong now has little advantage over the mainland which is often even better connected internationally.

Causes of rich and poor disparity

There are three main causes for the serious rich and poor disparity: (i) housing is very expensive; (ii) the economy is not sufficiently diversified; (iii) provision of higher education is insufficient.

Firstly, the stifling housing situation derives from the British high land price policy started in the 70s. The standard colonial dictum was: “Hong Kong is a barren rock. Government is prudent and obtains revenue from selling land in small pieces to fetch a good price.” The high cost of housing weighs heavily in every citizen’s livelihood. It is also a stumbling block for business and industry development. Actually less than 10% of Hong Kong’s total area has been developed and used while 41.8% is zoned as country parks,18 which is an unusually high proportion for a city. Thus the difficulty of finding land is not due to physical constraint but is solely a man-made problem.

The high land price mindset has grown into land-based policy-making. Thus allocating a piece of land for hospital use is considered a medical policy. Allocating a piece of land for school construction is considered an education policy. In other countries, this would just be zoning or town planning. Recent reviews of hospital service uncovered weird scenarios: the land grant to a private hospital made 30 years ago laid down requirements for a certain percentage of third class hospital beds. It is rather difficult for anyone to foresee the exact need for hospital bed provision in 30 years’ time, and even more so for someone from the Lands Department!

Secondly, the Hong Kong Government has never applied itself to developing or diversifying the economy, justifying it with the dialectic of “positive non-interventionism”.19 After the return of sovereignty, this dialectic was officially abandoned, but administrative officers immediately resurrected it as “small government, big market”.20, 21 In this form, it became even more ubiquitous, and appeared to have gained theoretical propriety.

Some people claimed that small government is specified in the Basic Law, and some even claimed that Article 107 of the Basic Law provided that the government budget should be 20% of GDP. Article 107 says: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall follow the principle of keeping expenditure within the limits of revenues in drawing up its budget, and strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficits and keep the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product.”22 A wildly mathematical interpretation of the word “commensurate” could be taken to imply that government expenditure should be locked in some ratio to GDP, but that would be pseudo scientific. Even if such interpretation were taken, there would be no reason why it should be fixed at 20% and not 30% or 40%. The average for OECD countries of government budget as a percentage of GDP is 45%.23 What Article 107 actually means is that the Special Administrative Region should be responsible for its own expenditure and should be prudent. Of course, it goes without saying that the SAR should not overspend and cause the central government to foot the bill.

Under the false ideal that small is beautiful, the SAR Government is slimming itself to a level that endangers its vital functions in a case akin to anorexia.

The real reason is that administrative officers are generalists and most of them have no specialist knowledge of the economy. A do-nothing strategy would be most convenient to them, as their control of government would be unchallenged.

At the meeting with the officers of the new SAR Government on 1 July 2017, President Xi Jinping gave the admonishment that “an official who shirks issues should be ashamed all his life”, quoting from the scholar Yuan Haowen of the late Jin and early Yuan dynasties.24 It is a direct rebuke of the “non-interventionism” or “small government” dialectic.

Thirdly, education is the ultimate key for citizens to open opportunities and transform their destinies. Education is the only effective tool to combat intergenerational poverty. Sufficient education can equip citizens with the job mobility to overturn the adversities of an undiversified economy. But the government has chosen to deprive a good proportion of deserving young men and women the benefits of a proper university education.

Diversification of the economy necessitates the development of high value-added sectors, which are knowledge-intensive or technology-intensive, and are predicated on an adequate knowledge capability and a sufficient pool of local talents. Inadequate provision of education seriously hinders diversification.

Divide and rule

Divide and rule is standard colonial practice. Hong Kong society is deeply divided. People have been thoroughly conditioned to mind their own business rather than to be concerned about the common good. In other countries, businessmen sitting in public committees would contribute their experience towards the solution of public issues. In Hong Kong, they tend to protect their private interests and the interest of their sector, and they are expected to do so. For instance, Hong Kong has yet to legislate standard working hours. As long as the government leaves the matter to the employers and employees to work out themselves, there is no sign that legislation will ever come into being, because employer associations are thoroughly set to protect their members’ interests.

A thoroughly cynical society where everybody is insisting on his/her own interest would find it very difficult to come to a consensus on any social issue. This is not a problem for colonial rule where the slightest opposition would be crushed with high pressure tactics, but it is a serious hindrance to the SAR Government, which has no such tactics at its disposal.

The colonial divisive force not only breaks up Hong Kong society, it also drives a rift between Hong Kong and the mainland. China bashing at Hong Kong universities is more rampant than in the U.S. The most serious opponents to traditional Chinese medicine are not in the West but are among the Hong Kong doctors who have trained in Western medicine. Hong Kong people are so obsessed with the thinking that Hong Kong money should serve Hong Kong people within Hong Kong that officials had never been able to participate constructively in cooperation arrangements in the Pearl River Delta Region.

The individual visits scheme was intended to help Hong Kong’s economy to restart after the SARS outbreak in 2003. Unfortunately, the government did not apply itself to developing the economy but instead allowed the reliance on peddling consumer products to mainland visitors to grow, and asked for more and more mainland visitors. This led to abnormal developments such as streets full of drugstores, and traffic congestion. Shopkeepers make money but to many citizens on the streets, it is an inconvenience or sometimes a nuisance. This exacerbates the Hong Kong-mainland relationship, which is already strained by disillusionment and resentment. Hong Kong people are disillusioned to find the economy stagnant and resent mainlanders doing better than themselves.

Many people were unenthusiastic about Hong Kong’s return to China. A crucial question for them is whether the governance of Hong Kong has deteriorated since the reversion of sovereignty. As Hong Kong celebrates the 20th anniversary of its return to the motherland, the answer to the above question seems clearly in the affirmative: economic performance has slackened; social dissatisfaction is widespread; rich and poor disparity is serious; and society is deeply divided. Perhaps an even more critical question is why the governance of Hong Kong has deteriorated. The reasons are several.

Colonial trained administrative officers are at a loss when left to themselves without their colonial masters. While they might be diligent implementers, many of them have yet to acquire the wisdom to think through policies. Colonial era elites have monopolized governance through ring-fence personnel criteria emphasizing experience. Locked in an inbred pool, they think they are doing very well by their own internal standards. Some of these so-called elites, however, are not particularly capable, but have earned their positions as servile yes-men.

Under colonial rule, citizens were given little information, expressions of disagreement were suppressed, and opposition to policies was met with reprisals. Such high pressure tactics are no longer available and government is now considerably more open and transparent. But sometimes perceptions can be deceptive. For example, during colonial rule, there was no such thing as patient rights. Patients had little information, and did not know what to complain or how to complain. Medical services are now much more open and transparent. There are much more complaints than before, so outsiders might think there are more problems, but actually the level of medical services has improved greatly.

Hong Kong people have never had as much freedom as we do now, yet many people do not appreciate it because they harbour unreasonable expectations. Generations of Hong Kong people have lived under colonial tyranny. It takes time for them to get used to their new liberty. They have to learn that one’s freedom should not infringe on others’ freedom and rights.

Nowhere in the world enjoys as much freedom of expression. Because there is no censorship to complain about, detractors cry “self-censorship”, claiming people feel constrained to say what pleases Beijing. But isn’t there such “self-censorship” in any country? Self-restraint is precisely the hallmark of civilized society. China bashing was encouraged under colonial rule. It still goes on but decency and self-respect tell one to refrain from excessively derogatory remarks; after all Hong Kong is part of China!

That the governance of Hong Kong has deteriorated is the after effect of colonialism. It is not that colonial rule was superior. It is also not a question whether the Chinese government has been incompetent, except inasmuch as allowing the colonial influence to continue.

A related question is what positive contributions should be attributed to colonial rule. India is grateful to the British for bringing in the English language. British rule gave Hong Kong a head start in modernization over the rest of China. In over 150 years of colonial rule, the British built schools and hospitals, and set up institutions, but these were the things any government would do in order to govern and to derive benefits from the colony. They were not intended especially for the benevolence of the Hong Kong people. Even if they were, they were not more than any government would have done under similar circumstances. On applying these tests, hardly anything can be considered a positive contribution by the British. Nevertheless, there were serendipitous bright specks, which might have motivated Li Ruihuan to make the enigmatic allegory of an old teapot; the stains on the pot can contribute to the aroma of the tea.25

Need to develop national identity

Hong Kong is one of the few colonies which were returned to another country. Many colonies have gone through decades of struggle and revolution, and fought bitter wars before gaining freedom from colonial suppression. Those were difficult times involving many sacrifices, but the struggle against colonial repression was also an opportunity for the former colonies to re-develop their national identities. Hong Kong was spared a war but never had the opportunity to develop a proper national identity. Many prejudices instilled under colonial rule are still intact.

To undermine nationalism, colonizers inculcated a false internationalism. Hong Kong people were led to believe they can get the best in the world without regard to national identity. But the real world is divided into countries, and every country is saying theirs is the best, while Hong Kong people say they want the best thinking naively that they will actually get the best. There is globalization of commodities, but people and talents are a different matter. Top policy management positions in any country are seldom open to non-nationals; Hong Kong people would hardly have any chance to garner experience from a foreign country. But top positions in Hong Kong are openly recruited internationally, and local talents are disadvantaged by a lack of opportunities for experience. Hong Kong would likely get mercenaries who have no commitment to the development of the city. More importantly, they block the emergence of indigenous talents.

Since Hong Kong’s Basic Law was enacted by the National People’s Congress, its interpretation naturally lies with the National People’s Congress; indeed Article 158 specifically provided that “The power of interpretation of this Law shall be vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.”22 As a newly promulgated law, fine tunings can be expected. However, a significant portion of the legal profession including the judiciary is against interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress. They mounted protest marches chanting “rule of law”. Perhaps for some people “rule of law” means rule of British law!

The former Chief Justice claimed in a newspaper article that the judge has no master.26 The power of laws springs from the country; common law in Hong Kong does not have a legitimacy in its own right but derives its power from Article 8 of the Basic Law. Every judge in the world knows his/her master is the country, who is not a micro-managing boss, but some Hong Kong judges say they do not have a master! It is a misinterpretation of the principle of “one country, two systems” to ignore the country as the basis; there must be “one country” before there can be “two systems”.

The vitality of common law lies in its ability to evolve with society. It is a serious problem when the law is not evolving with society, but is sometimes moving in an opposing direction. Some expatriate or colonial trained judges may not embrace the aspirations of the country. Emigrant expatriate groups tend to be conservative and can be more British than the British. For instance, contingent fee arrangements used to be illegal in the U.K. but are now usual in many common law jurisdictions; even the U.K. has to a large extent accepted it in the last decade.27 But it is still very much a no-no in Hong Kong, and the government runs TV ads demonizing the practice!

Need for decolonization

Many problems now confronting Hong Kong are caused by thinking implanted during colonial rule. Indeed, many former British colonies have similar problems. The insidious thinking appeared correct and reasonable at first sight; it is only upon deeper examination that the thinking is shown to be biased or not giving the complete picture, leading to implications not beneficial to society. These thinkings led to deep contradictions. For example, it is a deep contradiction for an economically well-developed city with high living standards to spend only 3% of GDP on education. At a shallow level, officials will say that education expenditure is already 20% of the budget and should not be increased. Poking deeper, one would find that for decades the government has been referring to education expenditure only in terms of percentage of budget, and never as percentage of GDP. Other countries use percentage of GDP but Hong Kong people were guided to disregard international comparison, and were led to think arrogantly that Hong Kong is special. There are many accountants in Hong Kong. Why can’t they spot the peculiarity of the design of Hong Kong’s budget? Public economics is very different from business accountancy. Very few people have seen the budgets of other countries.

In 2005 Premier Wen Jiabao told then Chief Executive Donald Tsang that there were deep contradictions in Hong Kong which needed to be resolved.28 In the past decade, the effects of some deep contradictions have surfaced, but the contradictions were nowhere near resolution. The protest against national education, the “occupy central” disturbance, and the independence rhetoric were exemplifications of deep contradictions. Hong Kong must resolve these deep contradictions and move ahead. Since the contradictions are the consequences of colonization, their resolution is to be found in decolonization. Hong Kong needs to be decolonized.

In 2012 students protested against the syllabus for national education. The government not only acceded to their demand to change the syllabus but also promised not to implement national education at all during its term of office.29

The bone of contention of the “occupy central” disturbance in 2014 was election nomination procedures. In any election, short-listing is inevitable. Influence from foreign governments should be screened out. Nomination procedures serve these purposes but the government never brought out the point. Protesters occupied and blocked main thoroughfares threatening to paralyze the economy, claiming it was an act of civil disobedience. The standard definition of civil disobedience is to disobey an unjust law.30 The classic example was Gandhi running into the sea to make salt to protest against the British colonial government’s prohibition against salt making. However, the government never pointed out that it was not civil disobedience in the usual sense and was in fact tantamount to an act of terrorism, but allowed the protesters to remain on moral high ground. For a significant part of the 79-day occupation, there were only a handful (less than 50) of protesters in Causeway Bay, but they were allowed to block up the main thoroughfare. Was it incompetence, lack of moral courage or collusion?

A small group of young people clamoured for independence. The sanctity of the integrity of the country is enshrined in Article 1 of the Basic Law, which states that “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.”22 Independence for Hong Kong is also generally considered impracticable and impossible, but these gestures got on the nerve of the central government. As Hong Kong and the mainland are “one country”, there is no longer need for independence in water and electricity supply. But the government made budget allocations for the construction of a seawater desalination plant,31 which would be expensive and impractical, and two power companies are allowed to operate in Hong Kong’s small area, although they still use coal furnaces and cause 40% of air pollution.32 These subtle encouragements of independence are roots of deep contradictions to ponder upon.

Tasks of decolonization

The tasks of decolonization are to correct wrong concepts and thinking as well as misguided attitudes and values, which are left over from colonial rule. These thinking and attitudes were subtly implanted over a very long period of time. They appeared at first sight correct and innocuous. As a result, they are not easy to detect, and are even more difficult to eradicate. For this reason, the development of many former British colonies is still hampered by thinking and attitudes implanted during colonial rule although these countries have gained independence for over forty years. It is not easy to uncover deep contradictions, and it is another uphill battle to resolve them. Most resistant to change are vested interests, which would wish to perpetuate themselves. The local elites under colonial rule constitute the staunchest vested interest group wanting to hold fast to the status quo so they can maintain their privileged positions. The British colonial government groomed a privileged cadre of administrative officers to become the ruling class. As they would want to hold on to their privileged positions, the administrative officers are fervent defenders of colonial dialectic in the post-colonial era.

Some people tried to ridicule the subject and asked whether decolonization meant painting post boxes green instead of red. Of course it does not matter. It is immaterial whether the statue of Queen Victoria should be removed. Names of streets need not change; there can still be King’s Road and Queen’s Road. Decolonization consists in removing the negative influences of colonial rule, the wrong thinking and attitudes in the minds of people.

There is need for the promotion of positive attitudes towards knowledge and scientific and technological development. A recent international comparative study showed Hong Kong’s primary four students ranking second in the world in mathematics, and fifth in science.33 However, the study also found students expressed negative attitudes towards these subjects showing dislike and diffidence despite their high scores. The young students were influenced by the negative attitudes prevailing in government and society.

To heal dissension, society needs a vision that people can identify with. When citizens see meaningful objectives, they would find it worthwhile to strive towards common goals and not insist on individual interests. To resolve the division between groups, there must be a greater and more meaningful direction worth pursuing so that they would agree to set aside differences.

The monopoly of governance by colonial cronies must be broken so that there can be fresh talents and new ideas. Personnel criteria should not excessively emphasize experience, but give proper recognition to knowledge and expertise. Protectionist ring-fence personnel arrangements should be replaced by an open meritocracy.

Role of central government

There was a view that Hong Kong was a hen that laid golden eggs. Not knowing the intricacies of nursing the mother hen, all old hands must be retained. Stability above all! Twenty years after Hong Kong’s reversion of sovereignty, it becomes clear that it is not a hen that lays golden eggs, but is merely the fox walking in front of the tiger.34 There is no miracle of laissez faire, Hong Kong was merely in a rent seeking position to derive benefits from the huge development of the motherland. However, the retention of colonial era elites not only delayed the decolonization process, but allowed vested interests to become entrenched.

Article 2 of the Basic Law states: “The National People’s Congress authorizes the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to exercise a high degree of autonomy…”22 Mainland officials have interpreted this as a minimum of interference. For instance, ministerial officials have to obtain authorization from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office before visiting Hong Kong, making it sometimes more difficult than going to a foreign country. Hong Kong used to take directions from London. Beijing has not taken over the role left vacant by London, but leaves Hong Kong to fend for itself. With hindsight, it was an overly optimistic assessment of the situation, but given the central government’s understanding of the colonial system of government at the time, things could not have been otherwise.

It is stated in Article 5 of the Basic Law that “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”22 It does not mean the colonial way of doing things cannot be changed to better and more equitable ways, only that it should remain capitalistic, but vested interests would wish to interpret this as a blanket authority to maintain the status quo. It is not easy to distinguish between colonial practice, normal capitalist practice, and best capitalist practice. With a less than thorough understanding of the Hong Kong situation, leaving everything as it was seemed the safest strategy, it would at least maintain stability. For most invasions, things will eventually revert to normalcy by themselves after the invaders leave. However, British colonialism is much more subtle. Vested interests have incentives to perpetuate the system and it will not recover if left to itself.

Young people are perceptive. They realize the colonial system is exploitative and unjust. When they see the system remains unchanged after reversion of sovereignty, they wonder whether instead of British colonialism, Hong Kong now has Chinese colonialism, especially when they see streets overwhelmed with mainland visitors.

A characteristic of British colonialism was that there was no direct transfer of revenue from the colonies to the U.K. government. Instead, the colonial government gave favourable contracts to British companies, especially in the areas of public utilities and infrastructure construction, and the money and benefits went to the British firms. This way of doing things began over 400 years ago with the East India Company. In recent times, some contracts were shared with other Western companies so that the process appeared more proper. While the contracts were favourable to the companies, they were not so favourable to Hong Kong citizens! However, after the change of sovereignty, the Hong Kong SAR Government, through ignorance or inertia, maintained similar contractual arrangements. The places vacated by British companies were sometimes taken over by Chinese companies. As a show of support for Hong Kong, the Chinese thought they should come in where the British left.

Meanwhile, the young people see these all too clearly: before the handover, people were exploited by British companies; now they are exploited by Chinese companies. Some jump to the conclusion that instead of British colonialism, it is now Chinese colonialism!

In 2015 the Chief Executive in his Policy Address35 referred to writings in the student magazine Undergrad36 advocating self-reliance and self-determination for Hong Kong, which was seen by many as the mettre le feu that ignited the independence rhetoric, which was hitherto confined to a few and was virtually unknown. The articles in the Undergrad had a recurrent theme: they deplored that the inequitable system and exploitative practices remained unchanged after the handover; they inferred that Chinese colonialism has taken over from British colonialism, and to resist this colonialism, Hong Kong needs to be independent.

Inattention to decolonization is an important contributory cause of the independence furore. Many people are disenchanted and disappointed when inequities are not redressed and unconstructive policies from the colonial regime taken over en masse. They are demoralized to see turncoats retained in their positions in the false pretence of maintaining stability. The bad things are left over from colonial rule, but because nothing is done about them or even to point out that they are bad, these ills become associated with the new master.

Prolonged neglect of the development of patriotism has allowed anti-China sentiments to grow. When it culminated in overt acts of disrespect to the country, the response is draconian measures such as the regulation of the oath of allegiance to the country37 and more recently the promulgation of the national anthem law.38 However, behavioural regulations are beside the point. Patriotism should come from the heart, whereas specific behaviours are only superficial.

A stitch in time saves nine. If there has been diligent attention towards the upbringing of children in the family, they would behave well by themselves. On the other hand, if there has been years of neglect, rebellious behaviour would be getting out of hand. The sudden imposition of a curfew will not put things right but will only spark cries of interference with liberties.

Has Beijing exercised undue interference in Hong Kong’s affairs? Hong Kong’s autonomy derived from an ex gratia authorization from the National People’s Congress; the “high degree of autonomy” is subject to variation. “One country, two systems” should not be a pretext for condoning unpatriotic activities. For many years, Beijing took a completely hands-off approach, kept a very low profile, and was even apologetic when it was merely exercising its constitutional rights to interpret the Basic Law. The anti-China media were quick to nail it as the norm, and anything above this baseline was immediately protested as interference. Politics is perception. As expected, the draconian measures turned out to be public relations disasters! Beijing’s intervention in the management of the “one country, two systems” relationship has actually been too little, too late, and in the wrong place. If from the outset Beijing had taken a firm lead and had responded unequivocally to Basic Law interpretation challenges, it would have maintained a position of ascendancy.

President Xi Jinping now emphasizes patriotism as the key to the success of “one country, two systems”.1 Indeed, Deng Xiaoping has envisaged that Hong Kong should be run by people who love the country.39 Can colonial collaborationists be patriotic?

It is not easy to understand colonialism. It takes considerable international experience working with former British colonies to comprehend the subtleties of colonial rule. Hong Kong people generally do not understand it because most people have never experienced anything else and have no way to compare. Colonialism is a taboo subject in Africa even at international meetings. There can be vicious reprisals from local elites. Colonialism does not appear to be the forte of Chinese diplomats. In a recent article, the Spokesperson of the Office of the Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong made the unconventional remark that since Hong Kong was removed from the UN watch list of colonies in 1972, Hong Kong is not a colony!40 The Belt and Road initiative will bring China into contact with many former British colonies, and the learning curve will be steep.


1. Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong, 2 July 2017.

2. International Institute for Management Development, IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook, Lausanne, 2017.

3. World Economic Forum, Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018, Geneva, 2017.

4. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Chinese Cities Competitiveness Report, Beijing, 2017.

5. Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong SAR Government, Thematic Report on Household Income Distribution in Hong Kong, 2017.

6. GINI index, World Bank data, World Bank website.

7. The 2017-18 Budget, Hong Kong SAR Government, 2017.

8. National Bureau of Statistics of China, China Statistical Yearbook 2016, China Statistics Press, 2017.

9. Education indicators, World Bank data, World Bank website.

10. University Grants Committee website, Hong Kong SAR Government.

11. OECD, Education at a Glance 2016, Paris, 2016.

12. “Government announces measures on new resources for quality education”, Press Release, Hong Kong SAR Government, 5 July 2017.

13. Chief Executive’s Policy Address, Hong Kong SAR Government, 2013.

14. Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong SAR Government, Hong Kong Innovation Activities Statistics 2015, 2016.

15. Science and technology indicators, World Bank data, World Bank website.

16. National Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Science and Technology, China Statistical Yearbook on Science and Technology 2016, China Statistics Press, 2017.

17. Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong SAR Government, Hong Kong Annual Digest of Statistics, 2016.

18. Planning Department, Hong Kong SAR Government, Land Utilization in Hong Kong 2015.

19. Policy of Positive Non-Interventionism promulgated by Financial Secretary John Cowperthwaite in 1971.

20. Tsang, Donald, “Big Market, Small Government”, Press Release, Hong Kong SAR Government, 2006.

21. Friedman, M., “Hong Kong Wrong”, Editorial, Wall Street Journal, 6 October 2006.

22. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

23. OECD, Government at a Glance 2017, Paris, 2017.

24. Yuan Haowen’s “si ai shi, li qin shu”, Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong, 2 July 2017.

25. Li Ruihuan, Chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, speech on 13 March 1995.

26. Ming Pao, Hong Kong, 15 August 2014.

27. Kritzer, H.M., Risks, Reputations, and Rewards: Contingency Fee Legal Practice in the United States, Stanford University Press, 2004.

28. Sing Tao Daily, Hong Kong, 29 December 2005.

29. Ming Pao, Hong Kong, 9 September 2012.

30. Thoreau, H.D., Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, Dover, 1993.

31. The 2016-17 Budget, Hong Kong SAR Government, 2016.

32. “Power plant emissions tightened”, Press Release, Hong Kong SAR Government, 21 October 2016.

33. Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Foy, P., and Hooper, M., TIMSS 2015 International Results in Mathematics and Science, 2016.

34. Chinese parable: The fox boasted that he was supreme and the animals were afraid of him, and showed it off by walking in front of the tiger. Indeed, the animals fled on seeing the tiger behind, and the tiger was duped into believing the fox.

35. Chief Executive’s Policy Address, Hong Kong SAR Government, 2015.

36. Undergrad, Hong Kong, February 2014; Undergrad, Hong Kong Nationalism, Hong Kong University Students’ Union, 2014.

37. Xinhua News, Beijing, 7 November 2016.

38. “Anthem law to be enacted”, Press Release, Hong Kong SAR Government, 4 November 2017.

39. Deng Xiaoping, speech on 23 June 1984.

40. Ming Pao, Hong Kong, 24 October 2016; and Wall Street Journal Asia, 16 November 2016.


Dr Wing Yin Yu is a Senior Advisor at the Asian Century Institute.
Tags: china, hong kong, xi Jinping

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