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Hong Kong is not going to
get its promised democracy
next year



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

April 27, 2006

LONDON - When nine years ago the British lowered the Union Jack on their last remaining important colony, Hong Kong, Chris Patten, the governor, buried his face in his hands for the entire world to see and felt the profoundest sentiment a proud and ambitious politician could experience - failure.

It was indeed a personal failure to be added to his other great misfortune, the timing of elections back home in Britain that made it impossible for him to become prime minister and to fulfil his other ambition, to take Britain into the euro zone. But on that damp evening it was the people of Hong Kong, those who knew him well could tell, that pierced his conscience. The British had let them down. They were giving up a colony having unaccountably failed not to leave it a functioning democracy.

In every country except Palestine in 1948 - when the top British officials literally dropped the keys to their secretariat on the steps of the closed UN office before flying out at midnight - the British left behind an elected leadership and a popular elected legislature. Yet even when the British did this right, in almost every case, seemingly built into the decolonisation process, there was a tragic mistake that would work over time to undermine the stability that the old imperial Empire had prided itself on.

In India, the jewel of the crown, the British, thanks to a series of imperious and wrongheaded decisions made by the viceroy, Earl Mountbatten, left as hundreds of thousands of people were dying in a carnage of religious division.

In his book, "The Dust of Empire", Karl Meyer records how Mountbatten swept aside all the compromises that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of India's Muslims, would have been able to accept and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at least to swallow, and went for partition.

In Africa, the British pulled up and left even though there was still a dearth of homegrown experience in dealing with the great issues of the modern world- economic development and inter-tribal governance.

In Hong Kong it was rather different. On the one hand the British had made such a success of giving a paternal guiding hand to instinctive Chinese go-getting that there was no doubt that the deepest foundations had been dug for life ahead. But on the other hand, the British, until the time of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, seemed to think they could rule this exceptional corner of the world for ever, despite the fact that British rule rested on a fast expiring lease from China. And, even if Thatcher with her forthright common sense could see what others couldn't and that Hong Kong had to be returned to the mainland, she was as blinkered as any past generation in failing to see the importance of implanting democracy. Only when Patten was appointed governor did Britain wake up and he made a desperate, but inevitably flawed, last minute attempt to introduce full sufferage. In the end the Chinese outmanoeuvred him. China was able to create a shadow government out of the pro-Beijing capitalist barons and their supporters, and simply moved them into place as the governing class the moment the Chinese flag was raised.

Patten did leave something behind, at least on paper - a commitment by China that Hong Kong would move towards full democracy by 2007. It is this that has been the goal of massive demonstration after massive demonstration in recent years. Every time the government appears to be lurching in a more authoritarian direction the people take to the streets.

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But it's now clear that universal suffrage will not arrive next year. Beijing, waving the document it negotiated with the British, the "Basic Law", has insisted that only it can decide the timing of political change, even though China has not dared challenge the promise that democracy is the ultimate aim.

Wiser heads among Hong Kong's pro-democracy community are thinking they shouldn't push it. One influential observer, who in her sensitive position must remain anonymous, told me that "the political parties are not yet mature enough to be ready for full democracy. " An influential diplomat argued that Hong Kong was a more complex situation than Taiwan, "where unquestionably the country has the right to keep its democracy." "Voting is a more sensitive issue here, as democracy here could unsettle the evolving political process in China itself", she added. But both these people want to see, and expect China to agree to, democracy being allowed in the next elections in 2012.

Maybe they are right. We will see. The people of Hong Kong still have to live with the errors of British colonial policy.



Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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