Britain's questionable record in promoting democracy

Updated: 2014-07-29 06:48

By Harry Ong(HK Edition)

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Every time one of the opposition members in the Legislative Council (LegCo) throws an object at a long-suffering government official, do they realize that their abusive actions bring great satisfaction to two former senior British politicians who almost 20 years ago plotted to cause as much trouble as possible for the post-1997 Hong Kong government? A Trojan horse of sorts, you might say.

Privately, the two were bitterly opposed to the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, and so schemed to lay a minefield in the path of the former colony's new rulers. One was the then British leader, John Major (prime minister from 1992 to 1997) and the other man he hand-picked to be the last British governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten (governor between 1992 and 1997).

In the early 1990s, chafing at the thought that they had no way of undoing the joint declaration by which Hong Kong was to be returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997, the pair plotted to ensure that a political "time bomb" would be left ticking in Hong Kong that would cause ongoing headaches for its new administrators.

The weapon they slyly chose to plant here was drastic political reforms that they hoped would fester away over the years, undermining Beijing's magnanimous gesture of instituting for Hong Kong's next 50 years a far-sighted policy it succinctly termed "One Country, Two Systems".

The fact that Britain itself had withheld democracy from the inhabitants of Hong Kong for one-and-a-half centuries added further affront to this sly maneuver.

Patten, who had just lost his seat in Bath during the 1992 British general elections, was within a few months given the juicy consolation prize of the governorship of Hong Kong by his friend Major. It was the first time a political appointee had ever been given such a "plum" appointment, and Major's decision ran roughshod over both Foreign and Commonwealth Office protocol and practice.

Almost immediately upon arrival, he was announcing plans to introduce "democratization" to Hong Kong - in complete contradiction with the policies of every one of his colonial predecessors, some of whom no doubt would have favored such a move but whose hands were tied by the strictures of British colonial policy.

And so, as Major and Patten had hoped, "democratization" became the new catch phrase of many of the aspiring "politicians" then beginning to emerge from the woodwork.

Patten, with the full support of Major and his government, then began to rewrite the rules applying to the 1995 elections for the Urban Council and Provisional Regional Council. As a result, when the elections took place the Urban Council's membership - previously a balance of government-appointed and elected members - became a fully-elected body, as did that for the Regional Council in the New Territories. And most of the elected candidates belonged to various self-styled democratic political parties.

But not everybody fell into the trap. Dozens of long-serving members of both councils were so strongly opposed to the politicization of the two bodies that they did not stand for election. They included no fewer than 21 urban councilors who among them had clocked up a combined 210 years' experience in urban affairs.

Inevitably Patten's grand gesture in freeing up elections for the two councils imploded in 1999 when the Tung Chee-hwa government dissolved both bodies and streamlined and centralized all municipal services.

But just pause and consider the harm this hastily launched "democratization" campaign has caused Hong Kong over the past 17 years, exerting its pernicious influence on all three of Hong Kong's different administrations.

For example, every time a "pan-dem" angrily flings a glass, a raft of papers, a couple of bananas or some other missile at the long-suffering officials, these dupes are performing perverse acts of defiance of authority that doubtless exceed the wildest dreams of what Patten and Major hoped 15 years ago would be happening in Hong Kong today.

Additionally, every time news reaches Britain that the "pan-democrats" have launched another filibuster, staged a silly protest or got up to some other childish shenanigans in the legislative chamber, it is most likely joyful music to the ears of the two arch schemers.

It can also be assumed that equally welcome to these men are all reports of civil disobedience on our streets, especially if (as happened recently) no fewer than 500 people are arrested as a result of one incident.

How blind can the duped "pan-democrats" actually be that they cannot realize they are puppets whose strings were deviously formed 20 years ago?

Where were all the democracy lovers of Hong Kong during the 155 years when it was a British colony? Where were all the putative marchers, slogan-bearers, demanding speakers, dedicated demonstrators and impassioned protesters who have "come out" in the past 17 years? The fact is that during those 155 years from 1842 the people of Hong Kong were working to create the "Hong Kong miracle", and transform the territory into an economic powerhouse, and often not getting their just rewards because some of the profits were siphoned off to Britain.

Hong Kong's equivalent of a toothless quasi political scene in which its people could participate didn't begin to take shape until 1952 when, for the first time, elections were held for two - repeat two - members of the then Urban Council.

Altogether 9,094 members of the public had registered to vote but just 35 percent, or 3,368, actually went to the trouble of voting. So much for the first public vote ever to take place in Hong Kong!

Ah, you say, but weren't the qualifications for voter eligibility particularly strict? Correct - the British authorities made very certain firstly that the Urban Council didn't have any powers faintly touching over the administration of Hong Kong, and secondly that only a very select representation of the populace was eligible to vote.

Over the years the colonial government gradually increased the number of elected councilors until the other half comprised government-chosen unofficial members who could always be relied on to endorse the proposals of the council's executive arm, the Urban Services Department. And that's "democratization" at its best under British colonial rule!

The author is a seasoned observer of Asian affairs.

(HK Edition 07/29/2014 page9)