Hong Kong Election and Sovereign Democracy

Henry C.K. Liu 



The election of a city council seat is normally not of interest beyond city limits. Yet the Western press has highlighted the recent by-election in Hong Kong as a symbolic vote for democracy for the former British colony now under Chinese sovereignty.

In a by-election on December 5 in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, a former held-over colonial chief secretary for Hong Kong, the then undemocratic colonial government’s highest civil servant known for her role as a faithful running dog, won a hotly contested seat in the Legislative Council vacated by the recent untimely death of Ma Lik, the late chairman of The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the largest political party in Hong Kong, a patriotic organization.

Anson Chan’s anti-China supporters, who disingenuously bill themselves as “pan-democrats”, tutored by foreign hostile forces, had distorted the purpose of the by-election held between regular elections in order to fill an unanticipated vacancy, to promote it as a vote on the pace of democratic reform in Hong Kong, calling for universal suffrage within five years regardless whether electoral conditions in Hong Kong are ripe for universal suffrage by that time.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, China is committed to introduce democracy to replace colonialism at an appropriate pace to coincide with the gradual revival of nationalist sentiments out of the ashes of colonial mentality. China is not obligated to allow neo-colonialism to exploit the “One Country, Two Systems” policy to turn Hong Kong into an anti-China base. The premature introduction of universal suffrage in the context of lingering colonial mind-set will turn Hong Kong into such an anti-China base. It amounts to an abuse of democracy for reactionary purposes rather than an enhancement for progress.

The election issue is miscast in the West as a dispute on the need for democracy in Hong Kong where in reality, no such dispute exists. The 150-year-long nationalist struggle against British colonialism had been one long struggle to replace it with sovereign democracy in Hong Kong. The political struggle has prevailed since 1997 and what is left now is a cultural struggle to erase deeply imbedded mentality of the house slave of colonialism.

The continuing dispute is over the brazen exploitation of the democracy card for devious geopolitical purposes by the self-styled “democrats” of Hong Kong who had never taken part in the protracted struggle against colonialism or for democracy.  They only belatedly transformed themselves from meek colonial subjects to the high-sounding status of fighters for democracy to disguise their continuing service to neo-colonialism.

Anson Chan’s by-election success represents only a temporary win for lingering colonialism, not a true victory for democracy.

It has been rightly noted that the so-called “democrats” in Hong Kong are all sudden converters to the merits of democracy as a devious ploy to perpetuate colonial institutions. Anson Chan, who shamelessly bills herself as the “Conscience of Hong Kong” spent 35 years in the detestable colonial civil service without any pangs of conscience while patriots with real conscience faced persecution and jail by the atrocious British colonial authorities of which Anson Chan had been a top official. One such victim of undemocratic British colonial rule is Tsang Tak-sing, now Secretary for Home Affairs in the post-colonial Hong Kong government under Chinese sovereignty, who is also a Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress of the People’s Republic of China.

In her maiden Legislative Council speech, newly elected Anson Chan, said shamelessly with sham righteousness: “Speaking for the public and caring for the poor is my election pledge. I have the responsibility to speak for the public.”  For 35 years, Lady Anson spoke only for British colonial rule and cared only about pleasing her British masters for which she had been rewarded with the top post in the colonial civil service.

Tsang Tak-sing, an authentic patriot, was obliged to put the record straight: “The new lawmaker today was a top [colonial] official in the past, once in charge of economic and welfare issues under colonial rule. Unless she believes there [was] democracy under colonial rule, I don't know whether she was doing the work of “livelihood” or that of an [colonial] official. She said she has seen the bitterness in people's lives during the election campaign - apart from being a ‘sudden democrat’ [she is also] a sudden supporter for livelihood.”

Belatedly, after 35 years of subservient civil service in an undemocratic colonial regime that lorded over an unjust society, Anson Chan proclaimed her sudden epiphany: "My [recent campaign] experience has convinced me even more that genuine democracy is the only way of safeguarding our freedoms and building a more just society.”

In 1986, Anson Chan as Director of Social Welfare under the colonial regime was widely criticized even in the colonial press for her Gestapo tactics in the handling of the Daughter of Kwok-A Incident.  Chan authorized the colonial Social Welfare Department to break into a private home in a public housing project and forcibly separate a child from her allegedly abusive mother. The underage daughter was sent to a children home facility after the illegal break-in, and the mother was sent to a local mental hospital. For years after the break-in incident, the Social Welfare Department barred visits between mother and daughter. To placate unabated public criticism, the colonial government finally investigated and released a report admitting violation of administrative rules that reserved breaking into a private home to forcibly separate a family for only the most extreme of circumstances of clear and present danger. Anson Chan was officially criticized for being excessively authoritarian and inconsiderate. This same Anson China now poses as a tireless defender of civil liberties.

Time Magazine reports in 2007: British Hong Kong was not always well governed. Indeed, the first two decades of colonial rule were awful. That period was marked by petty infighting among senior officials, corruption reaching nearly the very top, administrative inefficiency and gross discrimination against local Chinese. As John Bowring, Hong Kong's Governor in the 1850s, admitted: “We rule in ignorance; they obey in blindness.”

From the perspective of most Chinese in Hong Kong, while British rule after WWII had moderated in form, its essence remained oppressive and corrupt.

Anson Chan now also tirelessly promotes herself as the personification of a corruption-free colonial civil service. During her recent campaign, government and bank records were revealed to show that Chan, in violation of government regulation, in an odorous abuse of power for personal gain, obtained an illegal 100% mortgage to purchase a flat in 1993, the year she was appointed chief secretary by Chris Pattern, the last British colonial governor, in a devious localization strategy to ensure the existence of an obstructionist civil service to make Hong Kong ungovernable after its return to China in 1997. Such disclosure would have torpedoed many campaigns in the US, but in Hong Kong, Anson Chan was protected by her fellow pan-democrat cronies who blocked an independent commission investigation.

After Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, Anson Chan, in her continuing role as Chief Secretary, defended the government operated Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) which functions as a government department with full public funding, for outright disrespectful and hostile programming insulting to the governments of Hong Kong and China and their leaders in the name of press freedom. Under British rule, disrespect of the British imperial government and the British sovereign would land the offending journalist in jail within hours. In 1999, under Anson Chan protection, RTHK became a platform for advocating splitting China into separate parts, a treasonous proposition. In March, RTHK broadcast an interview with Annette Lu, a leader of Taiwanese independence who had just been elected vice-president of the Republic of China, espousing such views.

Lu’s separatist views aired on a Hong Kong government station prompted Chinese official Wang Fengchao to suggest that Hong Kong government media should not be allowed to serve as a platform for treasonous separatist propaganda. On April 12, 2000 Wang suggested in a speech titled “The Principle of One China and the Taiwan Issue” that Article 23 of the Basic Law should be enacted as quickly as possible in Hong Kong to prohibit acts of treason and subversion.

Article 23 states that: 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 or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

Chan spoke in a four-hour speech to oppose Wang’s suggestion, defending press freedom as including the right to promote treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Central People’s Government and the Chinese nation.

In 1998, Chan was widely criticized for inadequately discharging her responsibility in the monitoring of the construction of the new Hong Kong International Airport which opened amid total chaos, causing substantial loss to the Hong Kong economy. She also opposed Hong Kong government's bid to host the Asian Games in 2000, exceeding the traditional mandate of a civil servant to support the decision of the government.  Her frequent opposition to Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa prompted Vice Premier Qian Qichen to publicly reprimand her for failing in her duty to lead the civil service to provide required support to the Chief Executive.

In recognition of her 39 years of uninterrupted service to the British Crown, including 5 years in the Hong Kong government under Chinese sovereignty, and in anticipation for many more years to come, Chan was anointed by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, one year after her resignation from the Hong Kong government under Chinese sovereignty, as honorary Dame Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George. Such award was previously given only to British governors of Hong Kong before its return to China.

As Hong Kong fell into a severe deflationary recession as a result of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, when it became obvious that Hong Kong needed to develop closer economic links to the mainland, Anson Chan opposed such links by insisting that Hong Kong should not become “a Chinese city”, condemning the Hong Kong economy unnecessarily to six years of painful recession which did not end until her resignation in 2001, which opened the path to Chinese economic assistance.

The future of Hong Kong as a vital economic center hinges on increased economic integration with neighboring Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta. A proposal is being considered to merge Hong Kong and Shenzhen as one metropolitan region. The scheme would offer Hong Kong enlarged potential for growth by providing free access to southern China and a free flow of resources, manpower and talent across administrative borders and unified management of transportation, shipping and other infrastructural networks and integrated solutions to cross-border problems such as pollution and crime-fighting.

The idea of an economic merger was first introduced a couple of years before the 1997 handover. Anson Chan, who then held the colony’s highest civil service post, and her gangs of British-trained civil servants, opposed closer economic ties with the mainland. In his 2007 policy address in October, Chief Executive Donald Tsang said the Special Administrative Region would go all out to promote the development of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong International Metropolis. Hong Kong business circles are mostly supportive of the proposed merger to enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness in global markets in the context of robust growth of the Chinese economy. A study by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Center, which is associated with the Tsang administration, predicts that the combined city could outperform London and Paris in terms of GDP to become the world's third largest city, after New York and Tokyo by 2020. Unless Anson Chan reverses her past record of opposing close links to the mainland, she can be expected to be a vocal opponent to the proposed scheme.

Sovereign Democracy against Neo-liberal Democracy

The Western Press has generally featured the by-election as the latest contest in a continuous war in Hong Kong between so-called democratic forces and forces that support Chinese sovereignty.  Such views not only neglect the true historical facts about colonialism, it denies a global trend to distinguish sovereign democracy from neo-liberal democracy promoted by the US and her cronies.  See my January 2, 2006 article: The Hong Kong Democracy Controversy

Sovereign Democracy

In the history of politics, the majority has always been led by an influential minority, but usually with a long time lag. History is always made by a minority who has the insight and foresight to break new ideological and political grounds. In the US, majority rule in the South after the Civil War delayed racial equality for more than a century, notwithstanding clear constitutional abolition mandates.

The global debate on democracy has taken a new turn in recent years in reaction to
US transformation foreign policy to spread democracy around the world. In Russia, for example, after allowing the nation to plunge into political chaos and economic collapse as a result of following dubious US neo-liberal advice of shock treatment market fundamentalism, President Putin is leading the United Russia Party to promote “sovereign democracy” – a concept invented by Vladislav Surkov that means shielding Russian politics from foreign interference, a democracy that is developed indigenously by the people, whom this democracy serves, not by foreigners who claim to know better what model of democratic institutions fits best for the whole world.

Putin observes that countries such as Estonia and Georgia adopted their democracies simply copying word by word what they were told to do, either by EU or the US. Echoing a well-known Chinese approach, Putin asserts: “We are building our democracy ourselves, making a lot of mistakes, stumbling, doing two steps forward and one step back, but this democracy is ours to its root not a thoughtless copy of some “standard” that cannot even theoretically exist.”

The subject of external threats to Russia's independence and territorial integrity first came up during the Beslan terrorist tragedy of September 1, 2004, when a group of armed Chechen separatists took more than 1,200 schoolchildren and adults hostage at School Number One in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia-Alania, an authonomous republic in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, which resulted in 334 hostages killed including 186 children and hundreds more were wounded. In an address to the nation, Putin stated that certain powerful outside forces longed to weaken and even dismember
Russia. After Viktor Yushchenko won the presidential election in Ukraine, sovereignty was even more widely discussed, and the defeat of Kremlin favorite Viktor Yanukovych was seen as the result of outside interference. Many officials demanded Russia take measures to prevent a similar turn of events back home. Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev warned the State Duma of the danger and named particular international organizations that he believed were trying to organize a color revolution in Russia.

Many Russians believe that Putin has overseen a remarkable transformation from the late 1990s when Russia was nearly bankrupt, under the sway of an oligarchy of rapacious tycoons and in danger of breaking up as a united nation.  The popular mandate for Mr Putin was to complete Russia’s economic modernization and move it – gradually rather than in the big-bang approach attempted in the 1990s – towards a more open and democratic political model.

Deputy chief of staff the President of the Russian Federation, Vladislav Surkov, spelled out his vision for the responsibility of the the state to promote he calls "sovereign democracy." The state should be governed by a “national elite” for the benefit of the people as opposed to an “offshore aristocracy” that practically governs from abroad with foreign ideologies. Domestic capital or sovereign credit should dominate in strategic industries, as a sovereign democracy faces ruthless competition from foreign powers. The Russian situation has profound implications for China. See my article: Liberating Sovereign Credit for Domestic Development

Similar to Russia, historical memory of national greatness is crucial and sets China apart from Western nations. Like Russia, China should move only cautiously toward democracy under the watchful eye of national authorities, so as to keep destructive foreign political influence from the helm of the state power. Democracy will grow stronger as society becomes objectively more prepared to handle it -- and today, Surkov believes Russia is simply not ready yet for it.  The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have welcomed the Russian debate on sovereign democracy as a tool to reduce Western democratic transformation of Eurasia. The same can be argued for China’s reform direction and certainly for Hong Kong.

There is today in China, as it is also in Russia, a continuation of a historical conflict between two ideologies, two sets of values that are equally dear to every patriot and citizen: freedom and independence – democracy and sovereignty. These two concepts have been set by history in opposition to each other.

In February 2006, Surkov addressed the centrist United Russia Party’s ideological cadre with the now famous speech, “Sovereignty as a political equivalent of competitiveness”. Conceptually, the speech consists of two parts, with the first part having received the most attention, about the concept of Russia as a “sovereign democracy,” a democratic, socially-oriented country where the supreme power of the state and its institutions (“sovereignty”) belongs exclusively to the people of Russia and not to non-Russian internationalists. In a later article, Surkov defined sovereign democracy as “justice for everyone in Russia and for Russia in the world”.

The second part of Surkov’s speech is an ideological document that tackles the problem of the privatization of the 90s, which the vast majority of Russians considered illegitimate and unjust. Surkov argues that the lingering uncertainty about the future of the property acquired in the 90s deprives Russia’s business community of its faith in Russia as a place to do business. As a result, a class of business leaders has emerged (Surkov calls them “off-shore aristocracy”) who -- with money in off-shore accounts and whole families living abroad ­simply do not identify themselves with Russia in the long term.

Surkov believes that a solution to this problem lies in the formation of the true “national bourgeoisie” ­ by nurturing a new class of property owners who would stay in Russia and strive for the nationally oriented economy. Surkov is proposing a New Contract between the state and private enterprise. The rules of this contract would require private enterprises to pay taxes and be socially responsible, whereas the state would guarantee their legitimacy. Most importantly, to fulfill its part of the deal, the state must replace the broken post-Soviet bureaucracy with modern and efficient state institutions. This appears to be following the example of China’s reform policy in the past decade and China’s attitude towards the Hong Kong bourgeoisie.

As with the Solidarity revolution in Poland, the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Rose revolution in Georgia were not spontaneous democratic uprisings against unpopular regimes but US-remote-controlled coups, bankrolled by exiled 1990s-era oligarchs such as the London-based Boris Berezovsky. They were concerned less with creating democracy than projecting US influence. These developments are warnings for Hong Kong where some see it as a model to influence China by peaceful evolution.

Dmitri Trenin, native Russian analysts who served for more than two decades in the Soviet and Russian armed forces, is now deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment and co-chair of the Moscow Center’s Foreign and Security Policy Program. He is convinced that Russia has changed for good under Putin.

“There is absolutely no basis in Russia today for anything like an Orange revolution,” says Trenin. “But in [the Kremlin’s] thinking, that’s not the issue. You can rent a revolution – rent a crowd and push it all the way towards a revolution. If you don’t fight against such attempts and nip them in the bud, they have a tendency to spread.” This applies also to Hong Kong as evidenced by the July 1, 2003 demonstration.

Surkov’s idea of sovereign democracy envisions a developed democratic state and civil society that prevent outside powers from influencing domestic politics and its international behavior in ways that are contrary to the state’s national interests. While it is true that Surkov became interested in the concept following Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, he now seems to view it much more broadly ­ in ideological rather than geopolitical terms. He calls it the political equivalent of global competitiveness. He wants Russia to be internationally competitive and constantly talks about the need to diversify Russia’s economy and reduce its dependence on high oil revenues. This vision has applications to Hong Kong as a competitive international finance center under Chinese sovereignty. Hong Kong does not serve China’s national interest if it continues to permit HSBC, a British bank, to monopolize 60% of the Hong Kong financial market. Hong Kong as a international financial center dominated by foreign financial institutions will be a threat to Chinese national economic security.

Putin believes that the recently-coined term “sovereign democracy” accurately reflects current geopolitical realities and that the debates on this subject in Russia and around the wrold are “certainly useful.” It is a concept that can organically blend a nation’s foreign and domestic priorities, its national interests in dealing with the world and an effective social arrangement, which would enable it to react to outside developments and ensure a good life for its citizens. This is no small task and is by no means limited to the right choice of words. The crux of the problem is that the ability of a country to consistently uphold and implement its national interests in the world arena cannot be taken for granted.

Officially there are 192 sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, but very few are genuinely sovereign. Only 89 are classified as fully democratic by the US Freedom House. In other words, more than half of the world’s sovereign states are targets for US transformation foreign policy.

National centers of power, primarily the US State Department, are making major policy decisions and leadership appointments, even down to the middle level of government, in many “new democracies” which were once part of the Soviet sphere of influence or Western empires. To date, only a handful of states enjoy the luxury of true sovereignty, which is very costly and constitutes an exclusive club. China, Russia, India, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and perhaps a handful of other countries are still fully sovereign. Putin is convinced that Russia “is a country, which cannot exist without protecting its sovereignty. It will either be independent and sovereign, or, most probably, won’t exist at all.”  The neo-liberal international trading system is a frontal assault on national sovereignty. US efforts to sell China the idea of a new “stakeholder” in the international system are part of a strategy to dilute China’s national sovereignty.

Why sovereign countries such as Russia and China need to defend their sovereignty? As long as the US, the sole superpower after the end of the Cold War, pursues a global transformation policy to promote universal “democracy” to transform other nations’ historical and cultural essence, national sovereignty is threatened. A key paradox of modern geopolitics is that the more aggressive the attempts on the part of the superpower to spread universal democracy globally, the stronger the rejection of democratic values and institutions in the countries undergoing their own indigenous “democratization.” An empire of universal democracy is still an empire and will be resisted.

National interests remain an absolute priority to all sovereign nations. The problem is that Western democrats use democracy as a bargaining chip to discount the power status of major countries that can effectively claim appropriate status in settling global issues. Democracy deficit has become a medium of exchange in international power. The US will tone down demands for alleged human rights abuses if a major power deemed infested with democracy deficit would support US policy, for example, on Iran or North Korea or any country on the latest US list of disfavors.

Even US neo-conservatives are accepting the notion of sovereign democracy. Speaking in May 2006 Vilnius Conference in Lithuania, US Vice President Dick Cheney stated: “The vision we affirm today is of a community of sovereign democracies that transcend old grievances, that honor the many links of culture and history among us, that trade in freedom, respect each other as great nations, and strive together for a century of peace.”

If sovereign democracy can be promoted by the US in former Soviet republics, why can it not be promoted in former British colonies?

In this context, the Russian proposal on the concept of “sovereign democracy” appears to be appropriate and timely. The world is no longer divided into two hostile camps. A just future for all nations can only be built by granting to each one the right to sovereign development.

Far from advancing democracy in Hong Kong, Anson Chan’s win on a bogus democracy platform only retards true democratic reform in the former British colony by posing democracy as a threat to Chinese sovereignty.

Written December 10, 2007
This article was refused publication by Asia Times on Line without explanation.