A book review of: A City Mismanaged, Hong Kong’s Struggle to Survive, by Leo Goodstadt.
There is a common narrative in Western circles that Hong Kong was offered a bad deal.
During the handover negotiations, they were supposedly promised that would keep their way of governance, their economy, and the general political system after 1997 once their sovereignty was transferred to the Chinese. It was said that there would be no serious changes for at least fifty years. After that, the narrative goes that China inevitably strongarmed the cities’ successive Chief Executives, eventually politically castrating them, and leading to a decline in democratic accountability, and a loss of Hong Kong autonomy.
The most glaring surprise in this book how flawed this narrative is.
In reality, there were few positive political aspects to keep in Hong Kong in the first place post handover, because Hong Kong never was, nor did they aspire to be, a free democracy.
During the period of administration by the UK government, the colonial authorities appointed a governor, and there was no real representation. During the handover, there similarly were few concrete promises made regarding a timetable for democracy. The institution of the basic law theoretically allowed for some semblance of democracy, although this was actually more symbolic than practical.
In the new system that has been in place since 1997, a Chief Executive presides over the city, carrying out the majority of their administrative and political decisions neither collectively, nor with any substantive form of legislative oversight. Their election is not through universal suffrage. Instead, a small council of the wealthy, business executives, corporations, and representatives from professional organizations come together to select the leader, of whom now, the choices are handpicked by the CCP in the mainland. The essence of this structure is that for a city of over seven million people, just over one thousand were actually permitted to cast the votes to choose the executive, the singular holder of power in the city.
Members of their legislature are now popularly elected, but the Legislative Council, as it is called, is essentially powerless, possessing a veto power alone with no ability to draft new legislation.
Further, the book makes clear that the procession of Chief Executives in both their demeanor and action are hostile to the notion of representative democracy, using their power to support the interests of business and their personal notions about the superiority of “small government” over the good of the city and the promotion of social stability or provision of essential social services, or furthering the promotion of a democratic system.
The book provides a litany of policy miscalculations and mistakes made by the Chief Executives, and where they fail is precisely in the place where their insulation from the population differs from other semi-autocratic city-states. For instance, Singapore, an example of the classical developmental state model, is frequently noted for the distinct power separation between industry and government officials. In Hong Kong, the anti-democratic nature of their selection of the Chief Executive has led to the opposite of insulation. Instead, the privileged classes possess undo political influence, and the selected Chief Executives are politically distant from the problems faced by the larger population. They are responsible only to their electors, the heads of professional organizations, large businesses, and financial institutions. It more resembles the electoral college in the United States, or the House of Lords in the UK, an antiquated un-elected group of already-successful and markedly un-common leaders who form a regime to oversee the supposedly demagogic masses.
We often think of Hong Kong as the bastion of equitable wealth, or of a healthy competitive well-functioning state with a relatively free market. What was made clear by the book is that the opposite is true. The healthcare system, education system, even real estate market were all formerly heavily subsidized by the colonial government. After accession, when the free marketeers allowed money to be pulled out of the system to lower overall expenditures, the cracks showed. The Chief Executive’s request for Hong Kong to be included in China’s five year plan system is the most clear example of the fact that free markets, administered without careful planning and regulation, have led to administrative failure. Residential building collapses, an increasingly undereducated workforce, an unsustainably poor quality while at the same time overpriced real estate supply, and rampant graft lay testament to this.
This should serve as a reminder that free markets themselves do not constitute an adequate form of government any more than that which exists in Somalia. There need be regulation to prevent malfeasance with an administration that can act above business interests, in order to prevent corruption, safety and health crises, and monopolistic tendencies. There need also be redistribution in terms of providing equitable access to the most basic goods to prevent social upheaval, including healthcare, housing, and old-age unemployment insurance. There need also be a modicum of vision and democratic representativeness to ensure that when social problems do arise, they are adequately addressed under the force of social pressure. Without these integral aspects, there will be fissures in every form of government.
Staff writer: Ari B
Photo: Kristy Chen, Hong Kong