The Transfer of Power. The model of Hong Kong

We commonly distinguish regimes by how they are ruled – or, rather, by the way we say they are ruled. Thus, a democracy is a regime in which, as we say, the people rule. In reality, “the people,” of course, never rule. It would be more correct to say that in democracies someone rules with the approval of the people. But even that is usually only a euphemism since the people get only ever so often a chance to express their approval or disapproval. Of monarchy we say similarly that it is a system in which a monarch rules when it may be in reality a powerful minister who does the ruling while the monarch provides a pleasing façade.

It is more helpful to distinguish regimes by the way power is transferred. We can then say that democracies are regimes in which power is transferred on someone by the approval of the people. A transfer of power can, of course, take a variety of forms. In democracies, for instance, it may be brought about through regularly scheduled elections. In a monarchy that transfer may, on the other hand, be regulated through a system of inheritance. If the king does the actual ruling, this may involve the transfer of power to his oldest son. If the king’s minister did the ruling, the transfer may be still be effected through the system of inheritance but in an indirect fashion. Power is transferred from one minister to another through the system of inheritance that elevates the oldest son of the king. There is, of course, also the possibility that no actual transfer of power occurs, if the old king’s minister stays on with the new one.

The transfer of power takes on a particularly interesting form when it involves a change of regimes not only one that exchanges those operating within a regime. A transfer of power from one political party to another in a democratic election is one thing, the transfer of power – e.g., from a monarchical system to a democratic one – is something quite different. We then often speak of a “revolution.” The event may even involve some violence. But not always and the regime-transformation is not necessarily a revolutionary one. Regimes also change though processes of slow attrition. A democratic regime may thus turn by stages into an autocracy; elected leaders may slowly become a ruling family. The façade of the earlier form of regime may hold up for a while, even as the system of power behind it and the way power is transferred is changing.

I have been particularly interested in recent years in the hybrid political system of Hong Kong adopted in the handover of the British colony to China in 1997. The agreement struck between two countries was supposed to guarantee political autonomy to Hong Kong for the next fifty years under the formula “One country, two systems.” One weakness of the agreement was, from the start, that it never specified the exact nature of the distinctive Hong Kong “system.” The other one was that the agreement had nothing to say about what would happen at the end of the fifty-year period.  For the British government the hope was, probably, that in those years China would adopt a more democratic system and that there would be eventually an easy merger of the Hong Kong and Chinese political systems. But China has, in fact, remained firmly in the control of its Communist Party. And so we are left with the question of how the transfer of power in Hong Kong is to be reconciled with the Chinese one. In mainland China that transfer is not effected by the will of “the people” but by secretive maneuverings in the higher echelons of the party. That has left the question of the ultimate relation of Hong Kong to China at the end of the “one country, two systems” period wide open. Would the political autonomy of Hong Kong be re-affirmed at that point by the Beijing rulers, as some have hoped? Would the People’s Liberation Army one day march into Hong Kong and overthrow its political system?

The National Security Legislation that has recently been imposed on Hong Kong by the Beijing authorities provides some answers. The first thing to note is that this legislation may not have the support of the citizens of Hong Kong, but it has definitely been accepted and even hailed by the supposed rulers of Hong Kong. That class, which had never been elected in a genuinely democratic fashion, had obviously already been coopted by Beijing. We can only speculate on their motivations. Had they always been silently adherents of Chinese Communism? Had they cynically calculated that Beijing would, in any case, eventually take over and that it was in their own best interest to go along with this? Did they see themselves perhaps as being no more than helpless driftwood on the stream of historical inevitability? Or were they calculating that Hong Kong could maintain and perhaps even increase its economic wealth by politically giving in to China?

For all its political limitations, Hong Kong has until now had many of the trappings of a liberal democracy: the right of people to express their views freely, a colorful, free press, the right to demonstrate, a variety of political parties. The puzzling question (certainly for the powers in Beijing) was always: how do you integrate such a system into the one-party, heavily controlled system of China? The new National Security Law is meant to provide tools for achieving that end. By means of threatened and actual punishments it is meant to limit the expression of public and democratic opinion. Certain things can no longer be said; certain political candidates may no longer be active; certain rebellious individuals are to be silenced.  Changes in the education curriculum are to produce a more pliant generation. Plans for the integration of Hong Kong into a new Southern Chinese Economic zone (“The Greater Bay Area”) and the resulting promise of increased wealth are supposed to sweeten the bitter political pill.

Will these maneuvers succeed in merging Hong Kong smoothly into the Chinese political system? Or will Beijing eventually be forced to use stricter measures as in Tibet and Xinjiang? It is clear, in any case, that the policies the Chinese authorities are pursuing in Hong Kong are not uniquely tied to the Communist system. They are just as available elsewhere. We have seen democracies overthrown by a variety of means: by military take-overs, by invasion, by violence in the street, even by democratic elections. China is now trying something else, a new kind of transfer of power from one kind of regime to another brought about through a co-option of the established elite, the step-by-step reduction of political liberties, the re-education of a new generation, and the promise of economic development. These tools are available also elsewhere and one can see them, in fact, being used by interested parties in a number of Western democracies. The transfer of power within democracies is always in danger of becoming a transfer of power from democracy into another kind of regime.




  1. The “One country, two systems” is supposed to be maintained for 50 years, not forty years.

    two typos: (1) “neve rule” should be “never rule”, and (2) “it is mean to limy” should be “it is meant to limy”.

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