Governance in Colonial Hong Kong – Lessons from Experience

Continuing our tour of the post-colonial transitions in governance, we take a look at the unique experience of Hong Kong to see if we can add to our understanding of the relationship between governance and social, political and economic outcomes.

The outstanding feature of the political set-up in Hong Kong was its institutional longevity – it was formally the same in the 1980s as it was a hundred years earlier. “There was no election and no universal suffrage until 1982, no political party until the 1990s and still, on the eve of the handover [in 1997], no fully elected assembly.”

The question that comes to mind is why the British who were so eager to introduce electoral politics in India and Sri Lanka where the polities were rife with social cleavages, not willing to do so in Hong Kong where there was so much ethnic homogeneity?

Leaving aside this question for the moment, we note the following characterization:

The kind of society Hong Kong developed out of the above anachronistic political system is often associated with a democratic form of government. Dahl calls this a ‘modern dynamic pluralist society’. It is characterized by a high level of income per capita, long-run growth in per capita income, a high level of urbanization, a small agricultural population, great occupational diversity, extensive literacy, popularized higher education, a free market economy, and high levels of community well-being in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.

So the second question we need to ponder is how does the form of governance relate to the outcomes?

There was no overt coercion in society:

Hong Kong had more or less attained these levels of modernity by the late seventies. But more important than these was its pluralist character. Following the common law tradition, everything was permitted in Hong Kong except what was forbidden. The people enjoyed a high level of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. There were a great number of social, economic and political groups and organizations autonomous from government control.

The Hong Kong system of governance was considered so successful “that even the Chinese government has promised to keep its existing system unchanged for 50 years after China resumed its sovereignty in 1997.” (For an earlier post on Hong Kong after 1997, see And then there is China…)

The author of the article on which this discussion is based dismisses any cultural explanation based on Confucian values or ‘paternalistic Asian authoritarianism.’

In the case of Hong Kong, the romanticized view of a homogeneous and atomized society with a total absence of social conflicts and political demands is certainly a misrepresentation. Observers have increasingly realized that interest group activities and collective actions – from student activism to labour protests and environmental movements – emerged in the 1970s to become part of the political life in Hong Kong. Stability and effective rule thus depended not on the absence of conflicts, but how conflicts were managed, accommodated, or resolved. One of the reasons why the democratic form of government is closely associated with a modern pluralist society is that a democratic government offers an effective means of processing and resolving inter-group conflicts.

So the third important question in the case of Hong Kong is “how interest arbitration was undertaken and how decisions were justified in the absence of both democratic mechanisms and coercive measures?”

The alternative channel of political participation that was devised by the colonial government has been termed ‘government by consultation.’ “An elaborated advisory system was developed by the government to achieve this governing principle of government by consultation. This system provided a channel of interest representation in the absence of popular electoral participation.”

The number of advisory bodies grew from a few dozens in the early post-war years to over four hundred in the eighties… In constitutional terms, the highest policy-making and law-making bodies – the Executive Council (ExCo) and the Legislative Council (LegCo) – were also advisory bodies to the colonial Governor. A Governor, could, in principle, reject the advice of the two councils. In that case, he would have to explain to the Secretary of State in Britain about his reasons for doing so.

We will leave the discussion here. The details of how this ‘government by consultation’ worked successfully to deliver positive outcomes are provided by Tak-Wing Ngo in Social Values and Consensual Politics in Colonial Hong Kong, a chapter in the book The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia edited by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo.

We will end with two observations that this discussion triggers about Pakistan. First, in the absence of democratic rule, why couldn’t the authoritarian rulers govern by consultation? Why exile all the important representatives of political groups in society and bomb others to death? And second, was the form of governance that worked for years in the tribal areas of the NWFP a form of governance by consultation? Could that have been a model on which we could have built an indigenous system of governance with the mechanisms to resolve conflicts and build consensus?

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