The Myth of Democratic, Meritocratic Hong Kong

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/09/2014 01:30:00 AM
They didn't use words like "colonial" and imperial" way back when for nothing.
I am utterly befuddled by (mostly uninformed Western) commentary that depicts protesting Hong Kong students as pro-democracy heroes decrying the slide of Hong Kong away from democracy and meritocracy. Supposedly, these new heroes are pointing out the rough, new reality of Hong Kong after the 1997 handover as PRC apparatchiks have coarsened civil society in the same way that they have in the mainland. In this version of events, things have gone downhill in terms of protecting civil liberties and that chestnut beloved by the gweilo (white people), the Horatio Alger-esque story that anyone willing to work hard can success regardless of their background.

However, if we do not look at matters through rose-tinted glasses, consider two points: First, hankering for the British colonial era as a time of widespread democracy is revisionist to the core. Sure, many of these kids protesting were but tots when the handover occurred, but surely their parents told them the governor of Hong Kong was appointed by the ruling British party? Consider the case of Chris Patten, the legendary "Fat Pang," who tried to run Hong Kong as if he were elected (and its residents tried to humor him accordingly):
Patten continued to behave differently to his predecessors; although, unlike his predecesors for many generations, he did not speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, he used to go for informal strolls in the streets, chatting to people and pressing the flesh.  In fact, he was behaving like the seasoned democratic politician that he actually was. Trouble was, Hong Kong had never seen such an animal before. As my Taipan [friend] remarked, "When will he stop kissing babies in Mong Kok? Doesn't he realise he doesn't have to get elected in this job?"
So there. Great Britain was "democratic" by Western definitions, but its overseas territories certainly were not if electoral participation is your yardstick. End of story.

Second, another fantasist's narrative I keep hearing that gets my eyes rolling is the idea that inequality is significantly increasing in Hong Kong after the handover. Supposedly, Hong Kong was previously a Don King-esque, "Only in Hong Kong" sort of place where anyone with ambition, drive and talent could get rich. Witness these sorts of sob stories:
Hong Kong, China - It used to be a place where anyone who worked hard, excelled in school and possessed an entrepreneurial spirit could rise above their parents' hardship to a better life. That was the Hong Kong dream. Today, that dream has become a mirage - where meritocracy is seen to be supplanted by business and political connections, where good jobs and university places are keenly contested by the mainland Chinese. Young people in Hong Kong fear they are losing out as the playing field tilts increasingly towards China. 
The tens of thousands of people protesting on the streets are not just fighting for democratic reform, they are also struggling for their economic survival in the former British territory returned to China in 1997. "After 1997, you have to have good connections to get a good job. This is not an equal opportunity society anymore," said 54-year-old Jason Wong, a retired investment banker. "The rich and those in power have a better chance."
Again, this is simply not true. If you look at the illustration charting inequality in Hong Kong above, the Gini coefficient was about 0.52 during the handover, and has since gone up to slightly below 0.54. Actually, the largest increases in inequality came at the tail end of British rule from 1981 to 1996 when it zoomed from about 0.45 to 0.52. If there's someone who needs to be called into account for gaping inequality in Hong Kong, then, it would be the British administrators pre-handover, not the PRC toadies who now run the show.

Bottom line: Hong Kong remains as cutthroat now as it ever was. Social safety nets are few, and it's always been a dog-eats-dog sort of place. Many people do not like the frantic pace of life, the pollution and so on, but others thrive on it. (One of the largely unspoken advantages of reintegration is that you can resettle in less hectic places on the mainland if you wish.) This ain't WussWorld, son. As I said before, Hong Kong is the capital of capitalism. Go ask Milton Friedman.