On January 4, 2021, 1,000 Hong Kong police went out to arrest fifty-three democratic lawmakers, politicians, and activists. The event was as much a demonstration of unrestrained police power as an actual police operation. The arrested were, moreover, charged with a strange crime, namely “trying to use strategic voting to secure a legislative majority, with an ultimate goal of shutting down the government.” They had organized a primary election to produce a slate of democratic candidates for the then upcoming election to Hong Kong’s legislature. 600,000 Hong Kongers had cast their vote on that occasion. The democrats had also expressed hope that their united front might gain a majority of the seats in the new legislature. Benny Tai, one of the initiators of the event, had, moreover, suggested in a newspaper op-ed that such a majority might eventually be able to veto the city’s budget and, perhaps, even push its unloved Chief Executive to resign.
According to the city’s Basic Law “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration, and to form and join trade unions, and to strike.” It also promised that “the freedom of the person of Hong Kong residents shall be inviolable. No Hong Kong resident shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention or imprisonment. Arbitrary or unlawful search of the body of any resident or deprivation or restriction of the freedom of the person shall be prohibited.” So, how was it possible that residents were arrested for organizing a primary election, for making it their goal to gain a majority in the legislature, and for describing how such a majority might be used? In a normal democracy those activities would be considered unproblematic; How could they be illegal in Hong Kong? The answer is to be found in a National Security Law that had been impose on the city half a year earlier. Article 22 of that law declared, among other things, any person “who organises, plans, commits or participates in … seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by … the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” to be guilty of an act of subversion punishable in the most serious case by life-imprisonment. The terms of the article are obviously slippery and wide enough to catch anyone trying to mount a serious opposition to those in power.
The January 4th arrests occurred in the middle of coronavirus epidemic that occupied the attention of people both in Hong Kong and the rest of the world. It took place also as the world’s political attention was focused on the dramatic struggle of the presidential transition in the US. The arrests nevertheless evoked widespread condemnation. But broadside attacks on democratic activity had, in fact, had a long history in Hong Kong and went back to the very beginnings of the city.
The accidental city
When the British took possession of Hong Kong Island in 1841, they chose it as a trading center and military outpost. They never envisaged that they were founding a city which would one day have millions of inhabitants with their manifold economic and administrative needs and their personal and political aspirations. At the time the island was only sparsely populated, mostly by the descendants of Ming dynasty loyalists who had fought a losing battle against the incoming Manchu Qing. Over time these people had turned into pirates making their living from the sea. In 1860, the British forced the Chinese into a treaty “in perpetuity” that awarded them Kowloon, an undeveloped strip of the mainland across from the island. Almost twenty years later, in 1879, the British got China to cede them an additional area of agricultural land, “the New Territories,” on a rent-free 99-year lease. Like the original island colony, these new possessions were only thinly populated. There were numerous villages but no towns or cities. In 1851, the size of the population in the entire British area was estimated at roughly 34,000 inhabitants. Fifty years later that number had increased tenfold to 370,000. By 1951 it had grown to two million and today the Special Administrative Region counts almost eight million inhabitants. In the 180 years since the British came to the island, Hong Kong had developed from an insignificant spot in the South China Sea into a global city with a teeming population and the densest collection of high rises on earth.
These circumstances have shaped the unique political destiny of the British colony. From the start it was located at the intersection of two great empires. It was not a city with a deep history, a long-settled population, with a clear perception of its identity and traditional institutions and practices. It was never planned or even conceived to be what it has become.
The British colonialists who took the territory had no idea of what they were getting into. From their point of view the new colony was a place from which they could trade their opium and other goods more safely than from the ancient Chinese city of Guangzhou upstream on the Pearl river. The deep harbor, sheltered from the southern Typhoons, also proved a suitable stopover for Britain’s globe-spanning navy. But there were no political institutions to take over, no city or state to govern.
If you went into India, you knew that you were dealing with a country, a people, with own rulers and ancient political institutions. None of this was true in Hong Kong. And so the British ruled their colony as a possession directly from London and continued to do so from 1841 to the moment of its return to China in 1997. None of their other colonies was treated in that way. Over time, the colonial rulers advanced a variety of reasons why they persisted in this manner, even as a city was coming into existence on their territory.
The crown colony
For the British colonialists “Hong Kong’s original status as an integral part of the Chinese empire could never be discounted because the Chinese themselves refused to do so, leaving uncertain the exact nature of its standing as a full-fledged British possession.” (p. 27) The task of the first governor was thus simply to create and maintain “‘an emporium for our trade and a place from which Her Majesty’s subjects in China may be alike protected and controlled.;” (p. 38) Hong Kong – “the Gibraltar of the east’ as the British came to call it – could for this reason be only a “crown colony” – forever ruled directly from the Colonial Office in London. The appropriate form of governing the place was a “benevolent autocracy.” (p. 19)
As more people settled in the colony this policy became, however, inevitably a point of contention. When local merchants in the 1880s called for some form of accountability for the taxes they were paying, the then Governor George Bowen insisted that elections were only “an inconvenience” and impractical at that because of Hong Kong’s heterogeneous population. Chinese views, habits, and customs on social and political questions were “widely different from those entertained in Europe,” he argued, and a local council “in which the Chinese element would be largely predominant” could not be trusted to deal with “arrangements necessary for the health, good order, and general administration” of the territory. (p. 51)
Over time the authorities in both London and Hong Kong came up with ever new reasons why there could be no politics in the colony, no political representation, no elections, and no democracy. Though there had been political agitation and organizing in the territory since the beginning, the British kept insisting that the Chinese were inherently apathetic and politically indifferent. “These claims persisted, incredibly, throughout the turbulent events of China’s 20th-century history, all off which spilled over one way or another into Hong Kong.” (p. 66) The authorities also maintained that the Chinese inhabitants of the place were not really settled in Hong Kong, that they were rally only transients, and they pointed out that they were, in any case, not British subjects and hence could not be given political rights. Democracy and elections, they said, were, in fact, essentially Western and in conflict with the Confucian way of thinking. James Lockhart, the Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong, in the 1890’s was to write: “The modern idea of ‘one man, one vote’ is one which the Chinaman can hardly comprehend, and if he does succeed in grasping its meaning, it is an idea which does not appeal to him, as it is opposed to the constitution of society and the theory of government of China.” While some Chinese might be attracted to the idea of democracy, as they showed by agitating for it, such people were “not representative of the Chinese view.” (p. 74)
This attitude did not change much over time. In 1965, Alexander Grantham, another governor of Hong Kong, maintained once again that the Chinese were “generally speaking, politically apathetic. They did not regard themselves as permanent citizen and felt little loyalty.” (p. 101) Two years later, yet another governor, David Trench, wrote: “We have hitherto always been cautious about explaining publicly the basic reason why Hong Kong cannot develop fully representative institutions.” Normal self-government was not possible in Hong Kong because of its “particular relationship with China.” (pp. 144-145)
Throughout the colonial period, there had nevertheless been continued political agitation by the inhabitants of the growing city. In response, the British authorities proposed and abandoned a series of plans for reform; they took steps forwards and back, they made this or that small political concession. But at the end there were still no elections, there was no representative legislature; there were still only the English officials appointed in Whitehall. Political protests were ignored, downplayed, or suppressed. In order to maintain their control over the colony, the British instituted a multiplicity of repressive measures during the 1950s. “A new Registration Ordinance required everyone to be photographed and fingerprinted. Deportation ordinances were strengthened … The old sedition law was updated, but definitions remained expansive, being applied both to speech and the printed word, including its publication, sale, distribution, possession, and reproduction. Seditious intent was equally expansive, meaning anything from encouraging ‘discontent or disaffection’ to inciting contempt for the government… All groups were required to apply for registration. Grounds for denial included affiliations of a political nature outside the colony, as well as purposes deemed inimical to its ‘peace, welfare or good order.’ A new labor law banned strikes for purposes other than work-related disputes.” The governor was given blanket powers “to make any regulation whatsoever” in case of danger or emergency. “In rapid succession hundreds of activists were deported to China. … Deportees found themselves arrested and escorted to the border, all within hours. Dozens of social groups were also denied registration, declared, illegal, and dissolved.” (pp. 111-112) And while these policies were meant in the first place to suppress communist agitation, they extended at the same time liberally to all other political activity.
When the Chinese introduced their own tough national security measures in Hong Kong in 2020 after months of civil unrest, they could gleefully refer to these British colonial policies as the precedent and justification for their own way of dealing with dissidents. It turned out that both London and Beijing were motivated by the same idea and that was not just to control dissent and to resist democratic reform, but to stop all political activism in its track.
Political agitation came from both communist and the democratic activists. Polls show that the communists had a core constituency of about 25% of the population but could draw at times on support from more than a third of the people. This support was particularly strong among working-class Hong Kongers. The strongest labor union was n fact, firmly on the communist side. The democrats who attracted more of the middle-class could, in turn, rely on a core constituency of 30% with broader support from up to 60% of Hong-Kongers. The disequilibrium was due to the fact that many of the city’s inhabitants had fled from the mainland at some time or other after the Communist victory in 1949. Both sides were nonetheless sufficiently strong and committed to cause trouble for the authorities, first the British and then the Chinese, and the two responded to that threat with comparable measures. While the two sides subscribed to very different ideologies, the technical means for controlling dissent proved essentially the same and thus ideologically neutral. Or to say it in another way: The means of social control and political suppression are not political in that they are readily available to any political system.
An experiment in democracy
Political change had been slow in the crown colony from the time of Queen Victoria to the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. But things began to change in the 1970’s when China made clear to the British that they were demanding the return of the entire colony with the expiration of the 99-year lease of the New Territories. The British, who were keen on expanding their economic opportunities in China at the time saw no other option than to prepare for that event. They now set belatedly new policies into motion such as a public housing program and a public education and health care system all of which had been limited and in private hands until then. They also began to negotiate with Beijing the conditions of the return of Honk Kong to Chinese sovereignty.
The outcome of that negotiation was a joint declaration concerning the future of Hong Kong signed on September 26, 1984. The document declared that “the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law… Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law.” The document was less specific about the future political arrangements. It declared that the government of the new Special Administrative Region (SAR) “will be composed of local inhabitants” including Chinese, British, and other foreign nationals. It also specified that the new chief executive would be “appointed by the Central People’s Government” though “on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.” And a new Basic Law for the SAR was to be drafted by a working committee chosen by Beijing. But the joint declaration made no other promises concerning the political freedom of the people of Hong Kong.
It was at this point that the British decided to implement a series of political reforms to be put in place before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. In London, Margaret Thatcher had been replaced by the more liberal John Major who was determined to advance this cause and in Hong Kong Chris Patten, the new and last British governor, eagerly pursued the issue. Suddenly, political parties were permitted and elections were to be held for district councils and the legislature. A new openness was practiced in the actions of government. This belated move provoked, however, heated protests from Beijing. The British were not acting in line with the Joint Declaration, the Chinese complained and they had a point. Beijing’s campaign “focused its venom on London’s duplicity, on its determination to retain influence in Hong Kong beyond 1997, and on the old idea of a Western conspiracy updated for 1990’s use: Hong Kong was to become a bridgehead for democratizing China.” (p. 246) The popular Chinese press denounced Governor Patten as the “demagogue of democracy” and “sinner of the millennium.” (p. 246)
The last-minute changes in the governance of Hong Kong, in fact, brought together a curious coalition of opponents. The pro-Beijing leftists in Hong Kong concurred, of course, with the rhetoric coming from the mainland. But they gained surprising support from the conservative Hong Kong business sector. “Politically ‘conservative’ pro- and anti-communists were now discovering they actually had more in common with each other than with what they regarded as the ‘radical’ reformers in their midst.” (p. 233) And if this was not enough, a third front of opposition was opened up by conservatives outside Hong Kong.
In the Hong Kong business community the anti-democratic were strong. Hong Kong conservatives were taking their inspiration from Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman and feared above all that an electoral system would lead inevitably to welfare economics. To combat that development, the electronic manufacturer and conservative politician Allen Lee founded a pro-business party in 1993, misleadingly called the “Liberal Party,” which from the start took a strong a pro-Beijing stance. His successor as leader of that party was James Tien, chairman of the General Chamber of Commerce who “went on the offensive in 1996, targeting Legco’s new grassroots representation.” (p. 289) Tien deplored, in particular, the attempt of the new legislators to push towards “severance pay, maternity leave, gender discrimination, and disability allowances.” He looked forward, instead, to the handover and a new administration that would seek to recreate “Hong-Kong’s business-friendly environment.” (p. 289)
Such arguments were taken by others looking at Hong Kong from the outside. Murray Maclehose, a former governor, complained bitterly about the belated democratic reforms. The fact that there were different political parties with their opposing agendas was threatening Hong Kong’s stability, he maintained, and investor confidence. Lee Kuan Yew came specially to the city to warn against democracy. “He commended instead the formula he had perfected for Singapore: concentrate on economics, learn better English, and leave politics to your leaders.” (p. 250)
The economic city
The formula on which all these parties came to agree was that of Hong Kong as an “economic” city, not a political one. With this idea both the anti-democratic left and the anti-democratic conservatives could be happy. Beijing went on to accuse the British of turning Hong Kong into political city with their belated democratic reforms and announced its determination all such measures with the handover. “Colonial Hong Kong’s mix of capitalism and autocratic rule was just the sort of combination Beijing aimed to achieve nationwide, even as the West saw in Hong Kong’s economic rights and social freedoms the thin edge of a wedge, that anticipated Chinese communism’s demise.” (p. 9)
The Chinese resistance to the political city was encoded in the new Basic Law for the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong which had been worked out by a carefully selected working committee in Beijing. The Basic Law promised elections at some time in the future as the ultimate outcome of a slow, step-by-step process. “The most feared elements of mainland-style dictatorship were kept in check, but so too were local aspirations for a faster pace of democratic reform.” (p. 297) The political system was to be one of “executive-led government” not of the people or the legislature. The legislature was to have only a limited powers and an essentially consultative function. This was, in effect, the original British conception of “benevolent autocracy” all over again. What this meant became quickly clear from the figures Beijing appointed to govern the autonomous region.
The first chief executive was to be Tung Chee-hwa, a wealthy Hong Kong tycoon without previous political experience or interest. Forbes magazine estimated the wealth of the family as being at 3 billion US dollars in 2008. The son of a shipping magnate, Tung had spent several years in England and the United States. He had not been affiliated with any political before the handover, but his thinking about the city ran in perfect parallel to Beijing’s. For Tung there was an ongoing struggle between Western and Confucian values. And he perceived his task for that reason to be that of containing the dangers of Western permissiveness and politics, Hong Kong needed for this reason to tighten its rules governing civil liberties and elections. “The image his staff spun out was one of a paternalistic executive toiling from dawn to dusk and beyond on Hong Kong’s behalf.” (p. 325)
Other prominent Hong Kong tycoons found themselves in agreement with these sentiments. Ronnie Chan, the billionaire property magnate came to insist that Western style liberal democracy was imperfect, contrary to human nature, and bad for business. (p. 339) Peter Woo, like Chan a major real estate holder, argued that there was link between electoral politics and government deficits, and Gordon Woo, a Princeton alumnus and chairman of Hopewell Holdings, maintained that democracy would spell disaster because democrats knew nothing about economics. Tung Chee-hwa was, in turn, to come back to this point later on, in 2016, when he “hailed the Chinese model of democracy, while warning that competitive elections could lead to political instability and separatism.” The Hong Kong Free Press reported him at the time as saying: “We are not denying the importance of democracy, but we are definitely wrong if we consider competitive elections to be a main – or the only – component of democracy.”
Capitalism vs. democracy
It has been said again and again that there exists a natural affinity between capitalism and democracy and perhaps even a necessary relation that economic and political liberty go together. The argument for this claim has always been murky. If I want to be free to do one thing and you want to be free to do another, what we both want is, in one sense the same. But our shared pursuit of freedom may nonetheless lead us into conflict. If I want to be free to engage in an unhampered pursuit of economic gain and you want to be free to organize politically to regulate and constrain my actions, then it is evident that your economic freedom and my political freedom conflict. The story of Hong Kong teaches us, in any case, that capitalism and democracy do not necessarily go together. In the 150 years of the crown colony, autocracy and capitalism always found it easy to coexist and, indeed, to profit from each other. And when change finally came, the Hong capitalists had compelling reasons for resisting democratic reform. They have found it convenient ever since to align themselves with the anti-democratic policies of the Beijing authorities.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law was, in fact, an unstable compromise and this ensured that the conflict over democracy would continue after the handover. On the one hand the Basic Law was meant to reverse the democratic reforms that the British had finally put into place, but it also made some concessions to the demand for democracy and promised more for later. In its preamble, the Basic Law invoked the slogan of “one country, two systems” slogan and declared that under this principle “the socialist system and policies will not be practised in Hong Kong.” For Beijing this meant the coexistence of two kinds of economic system, not that of two political systems. The final version of the Basic Law had been approved in February 1990 only nine months after the bloody evens in Tiananmen Square. “Tiananmen and its aftermath may have shocked Hong Kong into an unprecedented level of agreement with liberal demands, but the shoe was no on the other foot as Beijing adopted London’s old logic about democracy’s disruptive potential.” (p. 222)
Beijing made sure for that reason that it kept complete control over the choice of the chief executive. Article 45 of the Basic Law specified that “the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.” But it went on to say that “the method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” An appendix to the Basic law then specified the composition of an election committee which permanently restricted democratic representatives to an ineffective minority. And while article 45 also envisaged that the ultimate aim was the election of the chief executive by universal suffrage, it didn’t say when this moment would come. Beijing, in other words, reserved for itself the right to control the he appointment of the Chief Executive.
Another sticking point was article 23 of the Basic Law which said: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.” But when the administration of Chief Executive Tung set out to implement such a law article 23, it provoked strong public protest which culminated in a devastating mass demonstration on July 1, 2003. The outcome was an indefinite postponement of the bill. This turned out to be deadly blow to Tung’s administration and after a series of further missteps Tung resigned prematurely in early 2005 to be followed the former finance secretary, Donald Tsang.
If this was not enough, the Basic Law also reserved for Beijing the right to “interpret” and “amend” it. (Articles 158 and 159). When it became clear after the July 2003 demonstrations, that the democrats might actually win a legislative majority in the next election, Beijing decided to step in and make use of its power of interpretation. “Beijing’s Hong Kong policy was driven thereafter by two aims: denying the goal of full democracy in 2008-2008, and preventing ad democratic Legco majority in September 2004.” (p. 370) Beijing decided to intervene in the upcoming election by denouncing the democratic leaders as “unpatriotic.” In the end, the democrats won only 25 out of sixty seats. And Beijing also ruled out any political reform for 2007-2008. Election by universal suffrage for the chief executive and the legislature were definitely ruled out.
In the years that followed, the Beijing authorities and their Hong Kong followers continued to hack away at the freedoms the Basic Law guaranteed the city’s residents. In 2019 unrest erupted over an extradition law that the administration of Carrie Lam sought to implement. The turmoil lasted for months and ended with Beijing’s imposition of a National Security Law on the city. This was in clear breach of the Basic Law which specified that it was up to Hong Kong to implement such legislation. But by that time, it was clear that the mainland authorities were set to override the Basic Law wherever they saw fit. The Chinese Foreign Ministry had had already, in 2017, dismissed the original Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong as a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning” The Declaration, so the Ministry had said, “does not have any binding power on how the Chinese central government administers Hong Kong. Britain has no sovereignty, no governing power and no supervising power over Hong Kong.” It was, of course, on this Declaration that the “rights and freedoms” of the people in Hong Kong, their freedom “of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association” was ultimately based. With the national security law of 2020, that initial guarantee of autonomy for fifty years and the promise that the Hong Kong citizens could maintain their freedom and life style in this period had lost their validity. Hong was now to be integrated into the mainland and its political culture. All the while, Beijing was insisting that the “one country, two systems” policy would be continued. But it was clear that this meant only the continuation of the capitalist market system in Hong Kong not that of its previous political structure. The upcoming elections for the legislature in which the democrats might have triumphed were postponed for at least year – due, it was said, to the coronavirus pandemic – Meanwhile Beijing was pondering a drastic overhaul of the election rules to make sure once and for all the democrats would have retain no practical influence on the selection of the next chief executive and prove unable to take control of the legislature. “As part of sweeping proposals that sources said were meant to disempower the district councillors – many of whom were protesters and activists who won their seats riding on a wave of public discontent in last year’s elections – the city’s pro-establishment members were also lobbying Beijing to get rid of five so-called super seats from the local electoral map. Again, the intent was to erode the relevance of the opposition councillors.”
The implementation of the national security law initiated a series of measures evidently designed to silence political activity. They ranged from serious to small-minded. A sample will have to suffice to indicate their nature.
Hong Kong, it was clear, was to be an economic city and not a political one. After Beijing expelled four democratic lawmakers from the legislature for being insufficiently patriotic and the remaining democratic legislators resigned, Carrie Lam, the chief executive, expressed her satisfaction. A legislature without opposition was so much “more rational” she said. “Now… with the security law, law and order has been restored. Chaos has been replaced by peacefulness.”
For almost two centuries, Hong Kong has played a pivotal role in the West’s relation with China. Much can be learned from this story about British and Western colonialism and imperialism and about China’s struggle with these outside forces. But equally important lessons can be derived from it concerning the general themes of autocracy and democracy, of capitalism and communism, and of the meaning of politics itself.
The distinction between economics and politics which both the British colonial authorities and the post-colonial Chinese and Hong Kong powers have evoked deserves our particular attention. It denies, of course, that mainstay of capitalist theorizing according to which there is an integral link between capitalism and democracy. But it is of even greater interest for the light it throws on the implied understanding of politics. The understanding is that the organization, administration, government, and maintenance of a city (or a state) is a technical and economic matter and as such apolitical. Politics, on the other hand, is a matter of giving those who are administered in the city a voice in how they are governed. As such it is inherently democratic. But as democratic it also involves debate, argument, disagreement, partisanship, opposition, and even conflict. These activities are a mere hindrance to the technical task of administering.
That there is such a distinction has been made plausible by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. In a more common usage, we tend to think of politics as embracing everything that has to do with government and the state. That formula goes back to Plato and Aristotle who characterized politics as the rule of the polis. Arendt may be right in saying that Plato and Aristotle have made us think about politics above all as establishing and maintaining order, and therefore also as crucially concerned with the making and applying of law. On Arendt’s view this has opened the possibility of a totalitarian politics committed to establishing a single, all-embracing order in the state. On this view, the most totalitarian state is also the most political one. But once we focus on the other side of politics, its participatory character, we will conclude that the totalitarian state is, in fact, the least political. The conception of a merely economic city approximates the totalitarian understanding of politics.
 “Hong Kong police say 53 were arrested for trying to use strategic voting to win election, veto budget & shut down gov’t”, Hong Kong Free Press, January 5, 2021
 Basic Law, articles 27 and 28.
 The following account draws substantially on Suzanne Pepper’s Keeping Democracy at Bay. Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform, Rowman & Littlefield, London 2008. All further references are to that book.
 HKFP, Dec. 20, 2016
 “Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong ‘no longer has any realistic meaning’, Chinese Foreign Ministry says,” South China Morning Post, June 30, 2017
 “Beijing mulling drastic overhaul of Election Committee deciding Hong Kong’s chief executive and Legislative Council to curb opposition’s influence,” SCMP, Dec. 22, 2020
 KHFP, Nov. 24, 2020