JPRI Critique Vol. 22 No. 9 (July 2016)
Whither Hong Kong?
Sheila K. Johnson

Review of Lynn T. White III, Democratization in Hong Kong—and China? (Lynne Rienner, 2016), 274 pp.

Lynn White, now retired from Princeton as a professor of Chinese politics, has been living in and visiting Hong Kong since he was a graduate student in 1968. He was there at the time of the “hand-over” of the British colony to the government of mainland China on July 1, 1997. Although he could not gain admission to the ceremony as a China academic, he was a former member of the Cecilian Singers in the city and therefore was invited to join a choir that “sang down the Union Jack” (p. 105, n. 79).

White’s close familiarity with Hong Kong over almost fifty years has led him to produce a long and extremely useful chapter “Exploring British and Chinese Legacies,” in which he outlines Hong Kong’s continuities in governance. Hong Kong is not (and never was) an independent state and it is not now (nor was it under the British) a democracy. It is an executive-led administrative entity with a weak advisory legislature. Before 1997, a series of governors, some more liberal and independent than others, ruled over the colony; today a Chief Executive, who is chosen in a complicated process by a committee and must be approved by Beijing, administers Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region. The treaty between England and China assured residents of Hong Kong that for 50 years it would remain part of one country under two governmental systems. The question that interests White and Hong Kongers is what will happen to the place then and in the interim leading up to that.

As the recent British vote to leave the EU demonstrates, political prognostication is always hazardous. The best-laid plans of mice and men, as Robert Burns warned, “gang aft agley” [go oft awry]. White has decided to gaze into his crystal ball with the aid of various democratization theories to see whether any of them can provide insights into the future. This means that he is trying to assess both the Hong Kong government’s potential for liberalization but also Communist China’s, since the two are inextricably linked.

In 1984, when Deng Xiaoping announced that China would resume full sovereignty over the New Territories in 1997, the year the 99-year lease expired, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “commissioned a confidential report from her army advisers to answer this question: ‘If all of Britain’s forces outside the UK . . . were moved to Hong Kong, how many additional days could the colony hold out against a military attack from the mainland?’ The advisers came back with an answer: ‘Three days.’ This convinced even the ‘Iron Lady,’ who had recently defended the Falklands from becoming the Malvinas, to fold up the British tents in Hong Kong and go home” (p. 102, fn. 20).

The treaty eventually concluded between the two governments was carefully designed not to create a panic among the population of Hong Kong but also, perhaps more importantly, among the banks and businesses there that made the place so successful. In the first years after the hand-over, China needed Hong Kong’s infrastructure to launch its comeback onto the world stage after the Cultural Revolution and to finance its industrial expansion. It also made ample use of Hong Kong’s trained and disciplined work force, so Hong Kong initially prospered under Chinese rule.

However, as Chinese manufacturing grew, Hong Kong businesses began to transfer their plants and factories to places like Shenzhen and Guangzhou (Canton), where labor costs were cheaper, and Hong Kong became useful chiefly as a front-office. White argues that the Hong Kong government has now become “in effect a nonprofit agency of the richest members of the business elite” and that these ‘tycoons’ are loathe to raise taxes and spend money on improving things like housing for the poor (p. 41). Instead these tycoons have promoted projects like the new airport and fancy hotels, office towers, and high-end apartments to keep up with developments in Shanghai and elsewhere in China. If housing prices fall in Hong Kong, their bottom-line will suffer.

Hong Kong’s tycoons take an equally dim view of opening elections for Chief Executive and the consultative legislature (LegCo) to universal suffrage. Even if this were achieved, Beijing demands that the lists of candidates be pre-selected (White accurately compares this to Iran, where voters get to vote, but only for candidates pre-selected by the ayatollahs), and this is where the current impasse now rests.

In June of 2015, Hong Kong’s legislature voted down a Beijing proposal that would have allowed universal suffrage for the Chief Executive in 2017, but only from a list of two or three nominees chosen by a committee controlled by Beijing. White suggests that they might have accepted half a loaf—voting for the government’s universal suffrage proposal “while at the same time promising to hold later demos against limited nominations. They chose otherwise, and only the future will tell whether this judgment was correct for their purposes” (p. 227).

This vote (or, rather non-vote, leaving matters as they are) was preceded by a popular protest movement the previous summer called “Occupy Central,” started by pro-democracy activists who intended to block the streets in Hong Kong’s financial district for a brief time. When the police tried to dislodge the protesters with teargas, the shock brought out many more protesters in other parts of Hong Kong, and the original organizers lost control of the movement, which ultimately lasted 79 days. “Disparate leaders emerged among university students who made moving speeches but had scant unified organization” (p. 175).

White argues that Hong Kongers like their independence and distrust Beijing’s leaders, but are also risk averse. The Tiananmen killings of 1989 “inspired both hatred and fatalism among Hong Kong’s population concerning the mainland’s party-state” (p. 171). A contributing factor is that a large proportion of Hong Kong’s residents are refugees from previous upheavals on the mainland: the Communist revolution of 1949; the Great Leap Forward of 1958; the Cultural Revolution starting in 1966. The Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 is remembered in Hong Kong every year on June 4 with a candlelight vigil, even though (or perhaps because) memory of it has been totally suppressed on the mainland.

Of all the political theories that White invokes, perhaps the most useful and applicable is Albert O. Hirschman’s notion of “exit, voice, and loyalty.” However, White applies it to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, whereas I think it might more accurately apply to Hong Kong’s tycoons. Should the crunch come—in the form of Beijing’s formal absorption of Hong Kong (much as Putin has re-annexed the Crimea)—the tycoons would have a choice of leaving (and many have made ample provision for that financially as well as by acquiring foreign residences and passports). Or they could voice their opposition—probably to little effect and great damage to themselves. Or, as many have already have done or are in the process of doing, they could make their peace with Beijing, which has plenty of rich tycoons of its own, and which treats them fairly well unless they are too visibly corrupt or challenge the political leadership.

In 1997, when Beijing first acquired political sovereignty over Hong Kong, it was also trying to reassert its claim to Taiwan. So it was trying NOT to kill a chicken (Hong Kong) in order to scare the monkey (Taiwan). But, as Suzanne Pepper wrote in 2003, “Beijing’s offer of a Hong Kong-style one country, two systems design . . . will never be accepted by anyone in Taiwan however sympathetic they might otherwise be to the cause of national unity.” [1]

Today Taiwan is for all intents and purposes an independent nation-state with a strong military and 110 miles of ocean between it and the Chinese mainland. A crackdown on Hong Kong’s independence is much more likely today because Beijing’s leaders want to send a message to liberal elements in their own backyard. This is evident in their purchase of and pressures on Hong Kong newspapers and other media. The blatant kidnapping of several Hong Kong book-publishers who have published insider accounts of China’s leaders is of a piece with the arrest of mainland artists, authors, and lawyers. As Beijing continues to chip away at Hong Kong’s freedoms I am not convinced that it can or will be able to resist. White also ends his book by saying that his conclusion “must be pessimistic for Hong Kong democratization in the short and medium terms” although he adds “and eventually optimistic from a democratic viewpoint for both [Hong Kong and mainland China] in the long term” (p. 236). Suzanne Pepper’s equally tempered optimism offers that “all of the so-called meaningless marches and demonstrations that have marked each step of the way as Hong Kong pushed back [against Beijing] . . . have succeeded in keeping the greatest pressures for cross-border political integration at bay.” [2]

Meanwhile, White’s book provides an interesting up-to-date snapshot of contemporary Hong Kong. With it’s population of 7.3 million, it “is the world’s least equal large economy as regards asset distribution . . . the portion of Hong Kong USD billionaires’ assets as a share of annual gross domestic product exceeds 75 percent” (p. 16). Because rental and food costs are high, about one-third of the population lives in public housing, much of which was built by the British when they were trying to clear squatters from “Crown land.” Many of these housing estates are now old, as are their residents. Approximately 13.5% of the Hong Kong population is 65 or older. Hospitals and universities are publicly funded, but many of the primary and secondary schools are run by religious and private foundations.

When my husband and I lived in Hong Kong during 1965-66, my husband was a scholar of mainland China (like his soon-to-be Ph.D. candidate Lynn White). I, then a graduate student of anthropology, did some research on Hong Kong’s squatter resettlements. [3] Today Hong Kong appears to have a somewhat larger middle class than it did then—and certainly more universities and university students. According to White, “the portion of people over age fifteen who had some tertiary education in 1981 was 6 percent. By 2011, it was above 27 percent. The tertiary enrollment rate from schools by 2015 was about 70 percent” (p. 39). However, whether these people, who are today exercising their voices politically, will over the next thirty years stay and make their peace with Beijing or decide to leave is an open question.

Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist and the author of The Japanese through American Eyes (Stanford University Press) and Idle Haven: Community Building Among the Working-Class Retired (University of California Press), along with numerous articles and reviews. She is on the Board of Directors of JPRI, and the widow of its founder and first president, Chalmers Johnson. 


[1] Suzanne Pepper, “Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Reunification,” in David Arase, ed., The Challenge of Change: East Asia in the New Millennium, (University of California, Berkeley, Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003, pp. 178-200), p. 181.

[2] Suzanne Pepper, “China Elections and Governance Website: Hong Kong Focus,” March 31, 2016. In February of 2009, Suzanne Pepper, who lives in Hong Kong, began posting online—usually twice or three times a month—an analysis of politics in Hong Kong that remains the single most useful source of information on the ups and downs of its struggles with Beijing. It can be found at

[3] Sheila K. Johnson, “Hong Kong’s Resettled Squatters: A Statistical Analysis,” Asian Survey, Vol. 6, No. 11 (November 1966): 643-56.

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