I [Heart] Empire: "Hong Kong Better Under Brits"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel at 2/27/2012 04:08:00 AM
Niall Ferguson probably cemented the fashion of extolling the virtues of British empire with his bestselling book from a few years back. While the British empire had its downsides alike slavery earlier on and occasional massacres of various peoples supposedly under the crown, it was, on the balance, quite "developmental." Or at least goes Ferguson's thesis on how the British empire set the stage for the modern world characterized as it is by enhanced trade flows.

Along this line of reasoning we have Hugo Restall penning a WSJ op-ed--the outlet gives away the author's orientation--that claims Hong Kong was better off as a British colony than as a special administrative region of the Republic of China. In many ways it echoes the worst fears many Hong Kong residents had about the 1997 handover. While some wealthier families obtained citizenship elsewhere (particularly in Australia and Canada which grant residency readily for those willing to invest a certain amount) to hedge against possible anti-capitalist tendencies of the incoming ruling class, most accepted the handover as fait accompli

This roundabout discussion brings us to the present time when many Hong Kong residents are complaining about the handpicked leaders chosen by the communist Party. While conveniently neglecting to mention popular current chief executive Donald Tsang, the op-ed carps about his unpopular predecessor Tung Chee-Hwa and Tsang's likely successor Henry Tang. Restall also fails to compare Hong Kong's economic performance under the British and Chinese. The latter have undoubtedly provided Hong Kong with much more additional business that complaints about mainlanders' increasing dominance are rife even as it has so much revenue that it doesn't know what to do.

Nevertheless, Restall provides a nuanced argument that skirts the comparison between a "democratic" British rule (which it wasn't) and an unfree Chinese one (which actually provides for representation, albeit in limited form). He begins with the benefits of colonial administration trying to appease a demanding populace:
The Brits created a relatively incorrupt and competent civil service to run the city day-to-day. [Former editor of the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review Derek] Davies' countrymen might not appreciate his description of them: "They take enormous satisfaction in minutes, protocol, proper channels, precedents, even in the red tape that binds up their files inside the neat cubby holes within their registries." But at least slavish adherence to bureaucratic procedure helped to create respect for the rule of law and prevented abuses of power. Above the civil servants sat the career-grade officials appointed from London. These nabobs were often arrogant, affecting a contempt for journalists and other "unhelpful" critics. But they did respond to public opinion as transmitted through the newspapers and other channels.

Part of the reason was that Hong Kong officials were accountable to a democratically elected government in Britain sensitive to accusations of mismanaging a colony. But local officials often disobeyed London when it was in the local interest—for this reason frustrated Colonial Office mandarins sometimes dubbed the city "The Republic of Hong Kong." For many decades it boasted a higher standard of governance than the mother country. Mr. Davies nailed the real reason Hong Kong officials were so driven to excel: "Precisely because they were aware of their own anachronism, the questionable legitimacy of an alien, non-elected government they strove not to alienate the population. Their nervousness made them sensitive."
Contrast them with the Chinese and their alleged role in steeping Hong Kong in cronyism:
Contrast all this with Hong Kong post-handover. The government is still not democratic, but now it is accountable only to a highly corrupt and abusive single-party state. The first chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa, and Beijing's favorite to take the post next month, Henry Tang, are both members of the Shanghainese business elite that moved to the city after 1949. The civil service is localized.

Many consequences flow from these changes, several of which involve land, which is all leased from the government. Real estate development and appreciation is the biggest source of wealth in Hong Kong, a major source of public revenue and also the source of most discontent. In recent years, the Lands Department has made "mistakes" in negotiating leases that have allowed developers to make billions of Hong Kong dollars in extra profit. Several high-level officials have also left to work for the developers. This has bred public cynicism that Hong Kong is sinking into crony capitalism.
I can see the Union Jacks waving and hear "God Save the Queen" playing in the background already as Restall calls for more democracy based on his nuanced argument:
Under the British, Hong Kong had the best of both worlds, the protections of democracy and the efficiency of all-powerful but nervous administrators imported from London. Now it has the worst of both worlds, an increasingly corrupt and feckless local ruling class backstopped by an authoritarian regime...

[D]emocracy is the only system that can match the hybrid form of political accountability enjoyed under the British.Mr. Davies ended his appraisal of colonialism's faults and virtues thus: "I only hope and trust that a local Chinese will never draw a future British visitor aside and whisper to him that Hong Kong was better ruled by the foreign devils." Fifteen years later, that sentiment is becoming common.