Opinion – Disequilibrium in Hong Kong’s Political System

While political scientist David Easton said that any political system should ideally aim at achieving equilibrium, the Hong Kong political system is now showing a serious disequilibrium.

The police attack at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the protestors’ occupation of the main road cutting across Tolo Harbour, the police siege at the Polytechnic University, and the profound public distrust of police from July to the present have recently plunged the Hong Kong political system into an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy, governance and disequilibrium.

What are the reasons for this serious disequilibrium?

First and foremost, the entire disequilibrium is attributable to not only the extradition bill put forward by the government in May and June, but also the power struggles between some Hong Kong people and the Chief Executive on the one hand, and between some Hongkongers and Beijing on the other. The Chief Executive, according to the Basic Law, should be accountable to the central government in Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.

Yet, structurally, the Chief Executive is destined to be accountable more to Beijing than to Hongkongers. That was and is why some Hong Kong people have been demanding for a more “democratic” political system. Yet, Beijing as the central government is concerned about whether a fully “democratic” system as with the West would create a Chief Executive vulnerable to the political influence, by not only the masses but also Western powers.

As such, some young Hongkongers believe that the Chief Executive is like a “puppet” of the central government, resisting and opposing Beijing at all costs. Hence, the democracy “deficit” has made the position of the Chief Executive precarious and he or she is seen as politically “unaccountable” by many Hong Kong people. The ongoing protests and political chaos reflect the aspirations of some Hong Kong people to have a more democratic system.

Yet, the extradition bill frightened them. Even worse, starting from July 21, the police performance has generated profound public distrust of the entire government. The young generation of Hong Kong is not only pro-democracy, but many of its members also demand that the police actions should be accountable to the public.

Second, Beijing as a crucial actor in Hong Kong’s political system has turned more hard-line in its policy toward Hong Kong since 2012, especially after the anti-national education movement in Hong Kong. Beijing’s deep concern about national security has heavily shaped its policy toward Hong Kong.

Most importantly, Beijing is also concerned about the “disharmony” between the executive, legislature and judiciary. For instance, the High Court of Hong Kong has recently ruled the anti-mask law that was invoked under the Emergency Regulation Ordinance as “unconstitutional,” triggering an immediate rebuttal from the National People’s Congress (NPC) Legal Work Committee that the court judgment “curbed” the power of the executive branch of the government in Hong Kong.

It remains to be seen whether the Standing Committee of the NPC would interpret the Basic Law, but Beijing’s concern illustrates the tension between the mainland’s legal political culture and Hong Kong’s judicial “independence.”

Third, the disequilibrium shows the lack of middlemen in Hong Kong’s chaotic political system. The involvement of the former Legislative Council President, Jasper Tsang, in the dialogue between the police and protestors who were trapped at Polytechnic University demonstrates a rare example of an intermediary to bridge the communication gap between the government and ordinary citizens.

From June to November 2019, the violent confrontations between protestors and police have corroborated the absence of meaningful dialogue and communication between the government and ordinary citizens. The public forums attended by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to listen to public opinion appeared to be a political “show” rather than a genuine attempt at addressing the concerns and grievances of ordinary citizens.

In other words, the “feedback loop” of the political system in Hong Kong simply does not work. The communication gap between the government and members of the public remains huge. Public opinion surveys were not utilized effectively by the government to gauge public views. Nor are top government leaders determined to listen and accept public opinions.

Fourth, although Hong Kong’s political system has elections at the Chief Executive, legislative and district levels, elections in Hong Kong are arguably not meaningful in the sense that voters have votes without influence and power. Even worse, some protestors, from peaceful or violent ones, have appeared to use demonstrations to help themselves get publicly popular, while a minority secretly participated in the violence.

Of course, from the perspective of politicians, they believe in the utility of elections, which can be a barometer of measuring public opinion. The upcoming District Councils elections, if held, would reflect public support of the pro-Beijing and pro-government forces on the one hand and pro-democracy camps on the other.

If the democrats can grasp more seats in District Councils elections, they would be able to grasp more “super-seats” in the Legislative Council in 2020, and to influence the composition of the Chief Executive Election Committee later. Yet, elections have made pro-Beijing and pro-democracy forces act in a disequilibrium.

Both sides have been trying their best to undermine each other through negative campaigns, political accusations, constant struggle, verbal intimidations and physical brawls both inside and outside the Legislative Council. If a political system is working well, the legislature should ideally reflect public opinion and act as an effective bridge between the executive and the citizens. Sadly, the Hong Kong legislature has failed; all the arguments and struggles inside the law-making chamber has exacerbated Hong Kong’s political disequilibrium.

Fifth, although the political institutions of Hong Kong are legacies of the British rule, the personal factor has been contributing to the current chaos and disequilibrium.

While the outbreak of the bird flu in Hong Kong in December 1997 led to the immediate formation of a cross-departmental coordination committee chaired by the former Chief Secretary Anson Chan to tackle the crisis, the entire protest crisis since June 2019 has not seen the establishment of such coordination committee until mid-November, when Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung eventually announced the formation of a similar committee to tackle the transport chaos, educational issues and other matters resulting from the protests.

The clumsy and sluggish way in which the Hong Kong government is handling the ongoing protests explain the serious disequilibrium of the political system. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has not yet listened to the public calls for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police action and operation, mostly because of her concern about police opposition and morale.

She rejected the idea of setting up a reconciliation committee much earlier so that the members of the public could feel some kind of redress from such committee, especially those arrested citizens who hoped for a possible amnesty or pardon from the Chief Executive. Hard-liners in the Hong Kong government insist that those who break the laws must face court trials first before any amnesty is considered.

Yet, they have forgotten that Governor Murray MacLehose granted an amnesty to corrupt police before January 1977 when his new Independent Commission Against Corruption sparked a police mutiny. The failure of the Hong Kong leadership to deal with crisis through the adoption of a flexible and swift approach explains the disequilibrium of the political system.

In short, the ongoing chaos in Hong Kong’s political system can be explained by five major factors: the power struggles between some Hongkongers and the Chief Executive, on the one hand the between them and Beijing on the other hand; the central authorities’ drift toward a hard-line approach to handling Hong Kong matters and their different legal political culture; the absence of any effective intermediaries or middlemen in the ongoing political and power struggles; the peculiar impacts of elections that appear to be influential but which has been generating highly calculated moves by all kinds of power-hungry political actors; and the personal factor of leadership that fails to deal with crises non-bureaucratically, swiftly and flexibly.

If the political actors of Hong Kong do not humbly reflect upon their own weaknesses, the disequilibrium of Hong Kong’s political system would likely continue from now to 2047.