Liberalism in Hong Kong

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Liberalism has a long tradition in Hong Kong as an economic philosophy and has become a major political trend since the 1980s, often represented in the pro-democracy camp, apart from conservatism which often constitutes the pro-Beijing camp.

Although economic freedom was highly celebrated since the establishment of Hong Kong as a free trade port under British rule, several attempts at liberal reform received little success in the racially segregated and politically closed colony. However, many western-educated Chinese who were influenced by liberal thinkers became the most vocal reformists and revolutionaries in the late Qing dynasty period, including Ho Kai, Yeung Ku-wan and Sun Yat-sen. Reformist political groups also mushroomed in the early post-war period in response to Governor Mark Aitchison Young's proposed constitutional reform.

Liberal movements resurfaced again in the 1980s in the midst of the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong's sovereignty, where the liberals demanded for an autonomous democratic Hong Kong under Chinese rule. The liberals engaged in electoral politics when the colonial government carried out massive democratic reforms towards the end of colonial rule. The liberals won landslide victories in the last Legislative Council elections in 1991 and 1995.

The influence of liberalism was curbed under the Chinese rule after 1997 due to the indirectly elected elements in the legislature. However due to the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa administration in the first years of the SAR administration, the liberal movement regained its momentum after the historic 1 July demonstration against a restrictive law on national security, which was denounced by the liberals as an act of censorship. As the Beijing government tightened its grip on Hong Kong's society, the civil movements grew larger and more confrontational in the early 2010s. The 79-day occupy protests which were often referred to as the "Umbrella Revolution" broke out after the Beijing government's restrictive framework on the constitutional reform proposal gained international coverage.

19th to early 20th century[edit]

Laissez-faire liberalism[edit]

The cession of Hong Kong under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 was overseen by then-British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston. Lord Palmerston was a prime figure of the Whig Party, the predecessor of thr Liberal Party. The aims of the Opium War was to open up the Chinese market in the name of free trade. As the British free port of Hong Kong, taking advantage as the gateway to the vast Chinese market, Hong Kong merchants, the so-called compradors, had taken the leading role in investment and trading opportunities by serving as middlemen between European and indigenous population in China and Hong Kong,[1] in the principles of laissez-faire classical liberalism, which has since dominated the discourse of the economic philosophy of Hong Kong.

Sir John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong (1854–59), disciple of liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for instance, was a chief campaigner of free trade at the time. He believed that "Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ."[2] In 1858, Bowring proudly claimed that "Hongkong presents another example of elasticity and potency of unrestricted commerce."[1] For that reason, Hong Kong has been rated the world's freest economy for the past 18 years, a title bestowed on it by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank,[3] and was greatly admired by libertarian economist Milton Friedman.[4][5]

Political liberalism[edit]

Sir Ho Kai, Chinese reformist who was inspired by liberal ideas.

Compared to economic liberalism, political liberalism remained marginal in Hong Kong. However, as the debate over Chinese modernisation got fiercer in the end of the 20th century, Hong Kong became the home of Chinese reformists and revolutionaries, namely Sir Ho Kai, who was inspired by classical liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.[6] He was an advocate of constitutional monarchy in China and sympathiser of the revolutionary cause, and his protege, Sun Yat-sen, who had studied in Hong Kong and had stated that he got his revolutionary and modern ideas in Hong Kong.[7]

One of the earliest revolutionary organisations, Furen Literary Society, was set up in Hong Kong by Yeung Ku-wan in 1892. The society met in Pak Tsz Lane, Central, Hong Kong, and released books and papers discussing the future of China and advocating the overthrow of the Qing dynasty government and establishment of a republic in China. The society was later merged into the Revive China Society.

There were little liberal reforms carried out by the colonial governance towards the end of the 19th century. For instance, Sir John Bowring proposed that election to the Legislative Council be based on property and not racial qualification. He believed that voting rights for the Chinese would "associate them with the action of the government", which was strongly opposed by the local European community and the Colonial Office.[8]

Sir John Pope Hennessy, Governor of Hong Kong (1877–93) was a liberal-minded governor who attempted to break the racial segregation in the colony, received strong resistance within the colonial establishment.[9] Hennessy also proposed to abollish flogging as a punishment, which received a widespread opposition from the community, who even held a public protest meeting against his proposal.[10]

There were voices for political liberalisation in Hong Kong from time to time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the examples was the Constitutional Reform Association of Hong Kong which was formed by expatriate British business community in 1917. Headed by Henry Pollock and P. H. Holyoak, It submitted a proposal of introducing unofficial majority in the Legislative Council to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom through member of parliament Colonel John Ward but was rejected by the Colonial Office.[11] Without any success, the Constitutional Reform Association ceased to exist by October 1923.[12]

Post war years[edit]

Young Plan[edit]

The liberal movement revived after the return of British rule in 1945, following a 3-year and 8 month Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. Governor Mark Aitchison Young announced the plan for constitutional changes on day of the return of the civil government in 1946, as "an appropriate and acceptable means of affording to all communities in Hong Kong an opportunity of more active participation, through their responsible representatives, in the administration of the Territory."[13] It proposed to set up a super municipal council which would give Hong Kong a kind of representative government through the back door.[14]

The Young Plan generated debates in the local community. Several political groups were set up to participate in the debates over political liberalisation, such as the Reform Club of Hong Kong consisting of mostly the expatriate community and the Hong Kong Chinese Reform Association consisting of mostly Chinese community in 1949. After the Young Plan was eventually shelved in 1952, the Chinese community strongly protested and demanded constitutional reforms. The Reform Club, along with the Hong Kong Civic Association set up in 1954, were the closest to opposition parties in Hong Kong during the post-war colonial period which participated in the Urban Council elections.

Self-government movement[edit]

The call for liberalisation and self-government continued in the 1950s and 60s. The United Nations Association of Hong Kong (UNAHK) formed by Ma Man-fai in 1953 demanded self-government in Hong Kong. In a proposal in 1961, the association laid out a plan for an ultimate a full direct election for the Legislative Council, in which by that time was appointed by the governor. The Reform Club and the Civic Association also formed a coalition in 1960 and sent a delegate to London to demand for direct elections to the Legislative Council but without any results.

The self-proclaimed "anti-communist" and "anti-colonial" Democratic Self-Government Party of Hong Kong was set up in 1963, calling for a full self-government in which the chief minister would be elected by all Hong Kong residents, while the British government would only preserve its power over diplomacy and military.[15] There were also Hong Kong Socialist Democratic Party and the Labour Party of Hong Kong which took a more left-leaning and socialist approach. In 1966, Urban Councillor Elsie Elliott, who was also member of the UNAHK visited London and met with the British government officials and members of parliament, asking for constitutional reform, judiciary reform and full investigation on the serve corruption among the colonial officialdom. Without any results, all the self-government parties ceased to exist by the mid-1970s.

Positive non-interventionism[edit]

Economic liberalism remained the dominant economic philosophy in Hong Kong throughout history. In 1971, Financial Secretary John Cowperthwaite coined the term "positive non-interventionism", which stated that the economy was doing well in the absence of government intervention but it was important to create the regulatory and physical infrastructure to facilitate market-based decision making. The policy was continued by subsequent Financial Secretaries, including Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, who said that "positive non-interventionism involves taking the view that it is normally futile and damaging to the growth rate of an economy, particularly an open economy, for the Government to attempt to plan the allocation of resources available to the private sector and to frustrate the operation of market forces," although he stated that the description of Hong Kong as a laissez-faire society was "frequent but inadequate".

The economic philosophy was highly praised by economist Milton Friedman, who wrote in 1990 that the Hong Kong economy was perhaps the best example of a free market economy.[5] Right before he died in 2006, Friedman wrote the article "Hong Kong Wrong – What would Cowperthwaite say?" in the Wall Street Journal, criticizing Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong who had the slogan of "big market, small government," where small government is defined as less than 20% of GDP, for abandoning "positive non-interventionism."[16]

1970s student movements[edit]

The 1970s Hong Kong was the prime years of social liberal student movements. Although the student unions were all dominated by the Chinese nationalists which largely inspired by the Cultural Revolution and personal cult of Mao Zedong in the Mainland at the time, a liberal cabinet led by Mak Hoi-wah and assisted by Albert Ho won the 1974 election of the Hong Kong University Students' Union (HKUSU). The liberals held a mild Chinese nationalist sentiment but strongly opposed the blind-eyed pro-Communist nationalist discourse and stressed caring for the Hong Kong society. Many of them also opposed the colonial rule. They participated in the social movements, such as the Chinese Language Movement, the anti-corruption movement, defend the Diaoyu Islands movement and so on, in which many of the student leaders became the backbones of the contemporary pro-democracy movement.

The rise of the pro-democracy camp[edit]

In the early years of the 1980s, Hong Kong politics were dominated by the issue of the sovereignty of Hong Kong after 1997. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of the Chinese Communist government, insisted China shall rule Hong Kong, while the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insisted that the legality of the Treaty of Nanking must be upheld. Some Hong Kong liberal intellectuals saw it as an opportunity to change the colonial status quo to a democratic and fairer society. This view was held by Tsang Shu-ki, a prominent thinker in the social activist circle at the time. In January 1983, the liberals forming the Meeting Point favoured Chinese rule with the slogan of the new Three Principles of People, "Nation, Democracy and People's Livelihood." It became one of the earliest groups in Hong Kong that favoured Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, but they also wanted a free, democratic and autonomous Hong Kong.[17]

The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 guaranteed Hong Kong would retain a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule with the preservation of the maintained Western lifestyle in Hong Kong.[18] Deng Xiaoping also emphasised the principle of "Hong Kong's people ruling Hong Kong." Starting from 1984, the colonial government began to gradually introduce representative democracy into Hong Kong. The reform proposals were first carried out in the Green Paper: the Further Development of Representative Government in July 1984 which allowed 24 seats in the Legislative Council to be indirectly elected by electoral college.[19] Direct elections were also introduced at the district and municipal levels.

During the period, many liberal political groups were formed to contest the elections in different levels. By the late 1980s, the Meeting Point led by Yeung Sum, the Hong Kong Affairs Society led by Albert Ho formed in 1985, and the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (HKADPL) led by Frederick Fung became the three major liberal political forces active in electoral politics.

The liberals also formed the Joint Committee on the Promotion of Democratic Government (JCPDG) to demand a faster pace of democratisation and to introduce direct elections in the 1988 Legislative Council.[20] It was led by the two most prominent liberal icons, Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, who were also appointed by Beijing into the Hong Kong Basic Law Drafting Committee (BLDC), to draft the provisional constitution of the Hong Kong government after 1997. The liberal demands faced strong opposition from the conservative coalition of the business elites and the pro-Communist Beijing-loyalists.[21] In the BLDC, the liberal faction, the Group of 190 also faced the conservative Group of 89, who favoured a less democratic system after 1997.

Tiananmen protests and the tide of democracy[edit]

Martin Lee, prominent figure of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

The liberals supported the democratic cause of the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and formed the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (HKASPDMC). They were shocked by the bloody crackdown on 4 June 1989. Martin Lee and Szeto Wah resigned from the BLDC as an act of protest against the Beijing government after the massacre and the relationship between Beijing and pro-democrats severely deteriorated. The democrats have held the Annual Tiananmen vigil since then and called for the end of one-party rule in China. The pro-democrats became sharply anti-Beijing while the Beijing government accused the liberals of "treason".

The widespread fear among the Hong Kong public also helped the rise of the pro-democracy camp. The liberals formed the United Democrats of Hong Kong (UDHK) in 1990 as the first major political party in Hong Kong's history. The UDHK and Meeting Point alliance and other pro-democratic independents including Emily Lau swept the votes in the first direct elections of the Legislative Council in 1991, by winning 16 of the 18 direct elected seats. To counter the liberal rise in the legislature, the conservative business elites formed the Liberal Party in 1993 which positioned itself as economically liberal and politically conservative.

The arrival of the last governor Chris Patten, the former chairman of the British Conservative Party also brought huge political changes in Hong Kong. Despite Beijing's strong opposition, he put forward the much more liberal constitutional reform proposals to enfranchise 2.7 million new voters and lower the voting age from 21 to 18.[22] Safeguarded by the liberal majority, the Patten proposals were passed in the Legislative Council after unprecedented political wrangling.

In the substantially more democratic elections in 1995, the Democratic Party, formed out of the merger of the United Democrats and the Meeting Point movement received another landslide victory, winning half of the Legislative Council seats. Many liberal pieces of legislation were able to pass in the last years of colonial rule, such as the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance. At the time, there were also new liberal parties being set up, such as the radical The Frontier, led by Emily Lau, and the Citizens Party, led by Christine Loh.

In response to the Patten proposals, the Beijing government set up the Provisional Legislative Council (PLC) which was seen as unconstitutional by the pro-democrats. The pro-democrats, except for the HKADPL, boycotted the PLC and stepped down as legislators during the last days of colonial rule. The pro-democrats ran again in the first legislative elections of the SAR period. Although the pro-democrats continuously received about 60% of the popular vote in every election held since 1997, their influence was contained and hampered by the indirectly elected trade-based functional constituencies.

1 July 2003 protest[edit]

Since the transfer of the sovereignty, constitutional reform remained the dominant political agenda of the liberals. The Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45 promised that "the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive (CE) by universal suffrage" while Article 68 stipulated that "the ultimate aim is the election of all members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) by universal suffrage". Pro-democrats demanded all along an early implementation of universal suffrage for the CE and LegCo elections.[23] The pro-democrats launched a protest on 1 July, the establishment day of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) to call for the implementation of the universal suffrage.

The Democratic Party, the flagship liberal party, suffered intra-party conflicts in the late 1990s, as the left-leaning pro-grassroots "Young Turks" challenged the leadership and subsequently quit the party. It formed the Social Democratic Forum with a more social democratic stance and later on joined The Frontier.

The historic 2003 July 1 demonstration against the Basic Law Article 23 drew more than 500,000 protesters.

In 2002, Tung Chee-hwa administration proposed the legislation of the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, an anti-subversion law. The liberals feared the proposed legislation would undermine the civil liberties of the Hong Kong people. Several legal professionals formed the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 Concern Group and raised their concerns over the legislation. Protests against the national security bill resulted in a massive demonstration on 1 July 2003. An estimated 350,000 to 700,000 people (out of the total population of 6,730,800) demonstrated against the bill, as well as failing economy, the government's handling of the SARS epidemic and the unpopular administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Secretary for Security Regina Ip who was responsible for the bill. The only protest in Hong Kong larger than this was the one contemporarily supporting the 1989 Tiananmen square protest.[24]

On 26 April 2004, the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) reached a verdict stating that the elections of the 2007 CE and 2008 LegCo would not be returned by universal suffrage, thereby defeating the democrats' appeal for 2007/08 universal suffrage.[25]

The popularity of the liberal forces rebounded after the massive demonstration. In the 2004 Legislative Council election, the Article 23 Concern Group renamed itself to Article 45 Concern Group had all four of its candidates elected. In 2005, Tung Chee-hwa resigned with health reasons and was replaced by Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang. The Tsang administration put forward the Fifth Report constitutional reform proposals but were turned down by the pro-democrats who thought it was not progressive enough.

In March 2006, the Article 45 Concern Group transformed into the Civic Party, which became the second largest liberal party behind the Democratic Party. In October, the former social democratic faction of the Democratic Party, Andrew To and former Trotskyist "Longhair" Leung Kwok-hung founded the League of Social Democrats (LSD) with Albert Chan and former popular radio host Wong Yuk-man, which positioned itself a much radical stance.

In the 2007 Hong Kong Chief Executive election, Alan Leong of the Civic Party successfully entered the race against the incumbent Donald Tsang. As the CE was elected by the 800-member Election Committee which tightly controlled by Beijing, Leong eventually lost to Tsang with about 15% of the electoral votes.

In December 2007, the NPCSC again ruled out universal suffrage in 2012 for the CE and LegCo elections, but stated that the 2017 CE may be implemented by universal suffrage.[26]

Five Constituencies Referendum and the 2010 great split[edit]

In 2009 when the government carried out the constitutional reform proposals for the 2012 CE and LegCo elections, the LSD suggested the "Five Constituencies Resignation" concept to pressure the government to implement universal suffrage by having pro-democrat legislators resign in each constituency and run for the by-election in order to create a de facto referendum. The idea was disapproved by the Democratic Party and the moderate Alliance for Universal Suffrage, which sought to opted to engage with Beijing to negotiate and parted company with the Civic Party and the LSD and created discontent from the supporters of the resignation plan.

In June 2010, the moderate democrats held a secret meeting with the representative of the central government in the central government's liaison office, the first meeting between Beijing representatives and pro-democrats on democratic development since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.[27] The central government subsequently accept the Democratic Party's modified proposals to allow ten new seats to be directly elected. The Democrats' move was seen as "betrayal" by the radical democrats. In 2011 District Council election, the radical People Power (split from League of Social Democrats) ran against the Democratic candidates to "punish" the Democratic Party. The split between the moderates and radicals became more intense which saw the emergence of Hong Kong localism in the early 2010s.

Umbrella Revolution and aftermath[edit]

A yellow banner which read "I want real universal suffrage" was hung on Lion Rock.

In 2013, legal scholar Benny Tai proposed an act of civil disobedience carried out in Central, Hong Kong to put pressure on the government if its universal suffrage proposals proved to be "fake" democracy.[28] The Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) demanded that the government proposal should satisfy the "international standards" in relation to universal suffrage with no unreasonable restrictions on the right to stand for election. It also said that any civil disobedience should be non-violent,[29] although it cannot guarantee Occupy Central will be absolutely peaceful.[30]

On 31 August 2014, the NPCSC of the set limits for the 2017 Chief Executive election. While notionally allowing for universal suffrage, the candidate would need to be nominated by a nominating committee, mirroring the present Beijing-controlled 1200-member Election Committee and must receive the support of more than half of the members of the nominating committee.[31]

In response to the NPCSC decision, the OCLP announced that it would organise civil disobedience protests.[32] The Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism mobilised students and staged a coordinated class boycott. At the same time, Scholarism organised a demonstration outside of the Central Government Offices barricade on 13 September where they declared a class-boycott on 26 September.[33] On 26 September night, up to 100 protesters led by Joshua Wong, convenor of Scholarism, clambered over the fence of the square in the Central Government Offices.[34] The police clearance of the protesters in the square drew more protesters to the scene and eventually escalated to the 79-day massive sit-in. The protests precipitated a rift in Hong Kong society, and galvanised youth, a previously apolitical section of society, into political activism or heightened awareness of their civil rights and responsibilities. The protests ended without any political concessions from the government.

After the 2014 Hong Kong protests, there were a group of young generation new faces participated in the 2015 District Council elections which were loosely labelled as "umbrella soldiers" with mixed localist factions. They had a better-than-expected results with eight of them managed to win a seat by beating some incumbents.[35] In April 2016 ahead of the 2016 Legislative Council election, the former student leaders Joshua Wong and Nathan Law in the 2014 Occupy protests announced the formation of a new party called Demosistō advocating a referendum to determine Hong Kong's sovereignty after 2047, when the One Country, Two Systems principle as promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law is supposed to expire.[36] Barred from running in the election due to the age limit, Demosistō only filled one ticket in Hong Kong Island where chairman Nathan Law was elected. Together with other activists Lau Siu-lai and Eddie Chu under the banner of "democratic self-determination", they took away about seven percent of the total votes and gained three seats, while older generation of democrats including Emily Lau, Alan Leong and Albert Ho chose to step down.

As a result of the Legislative Council oath-taking controversy and the National People's Congress Standing Committee's interpretation of the Basic Law, four pro-democrat legislators, Leung Kwok-hung, Nathan Law, Lau Siu-lai and Yiu Chung-yim were disqualified from the office in July 2017, following the two localist Youngspiration legislators Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching were disqualified earlier, over their behaviours during the oath-taking ceremony in which the court deemed as invalid.[37] Shortly afterwards on 17 August, three main leaders in the Occupy protests Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law were given prison sentences for storming the forecourt of the Central Government Complex on 26 and 27 September 2017. 13 other activists who stormed the Legislative Council Complex were also handed prison sentences during the protest against the planned North East New Territories new towns few days before.[38][39]

List of liberal parties[edit]

Meeting Point[edit]

Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood[edit]

Hong Kong Democratic Foundation[edit]

United Democrats to Democratic Party[edit]

  • 1990: The liberals united in the United Democrats of Hong Kong
  • 1994: The Meeting Point merged into the ⇒ Democratic Party
  • 2000: The left-wing faction left and formed the ⇒ Social Democratic Forum
  • 2008: The Frontier merged into the ⇒ Democratic Party
  • 2010: The young Turks left and formed the ⇒ Neo Democrats
  • 2015: The moderate faction left and formed the ⇒ Third Side

Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions[edit]

Democratic Alliance[edit]

The Frontier[edit]

  • 1996: The United Ants formed the Frontier
  • 2003: Cyd Ho of the group formed the ⇒ Civic Act-up
  • 2006: The social democratic faction left and formed the ⇒ League of Social Democrats
  • 2008: The party merged into the ⇒ Democratic Party
  • 2010: The radical faction re-registered the party
  • 2011: The party formed alliance with the ⇒ People Power
  • 2016: The party broke away from the People Power

Citizens Party[edit]

Article 23 Concern Group to Civic Party[edit]

Civic Act-up[edit]

  • 2003: Cyd Ho formed the Civic Act-up
  • 2012: The group formed the ⇒ Labour Party

League of Social Democrats[edit]

  • 2006: Formation of the League of Social Democrats
  • 2011: Members of the party left and formed the ⇒ People Power

Neo Democrats[edit]

  • 2010: Formation of the Neo Democrats

People Power[edit]

Labour Party[edit]

  • 2012: Formation of the Labour Party


Liberal figures and organisations[edit]

See also[edit]

Other ideologies in Hong Kong[edit]


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