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Political parties, elite-mass gap and political instability in Hong Kong.


Political parties constitute either an "intermediary institution" between the government and ordinary citizens, or a link in the "elite-mass gap".(1) By aggregating and representing the interests of citizens, political parties not only narrow any communication gap between the elites and the masses but also play a crucial function of stabilizing a regime. As Alan Ball puts it succinctly:

One of the most important functions of political parties is that of uniting, simplifying and stabilizing the political process. Political parties tend to provide the highest common denominator ... Parties bring together sectional interests, overcome geographical distances, and provide coherence to sometimes divisive government structures ... This bridging function of political parties is an important factor in political stability.(2)

Other political analysts point to the intermediary role of political parties, which constitute a link between the state and civil society.(3)

Political parties are a relatively new phenomenon in Hong Kong, which changed from a colony of Britain to a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on 1 July 1997. The parties have emerged and mushroomed since the Tiananmen incident of June 1989.(4) Although there are numerous political parties in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), some of them are dependent on the PRC for political influence upon the HKSAR Government, where a multiparty system without any dominant party exists.(5) The HKSAR has a multiparty system because a number of small political parties, which aim at capturing political power, persist and compete among themselves. However, the HKSAR's multiparty system is weak. None of the popularly supported parties can form a government because of the partially directly-elected Legislative Council (LegCo), and the determination of both the PRC and the HKSAR Government to maintain an executive-dominant polity. Together with the senior bureaucrats, the HKSAR's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and his top policy-making body, the Executive Council (ExCo), constitute the executive branch, which is politically dominant over any political party.

This article will also contend that political parties in the HKSAR are increasingly divided into two types: popularly supported parties which are politically powerless, and patron-client type of parties which are backed by the PRC and the HKSAR Government to share some political power.(6) While the popularly-supported political parties are increasingly marginalized in the HKSAR's executive-dominant polity, the masses regard the clientelist parties as unpopular and unrepresentative of public opinion. The inability of political parties to function as an intermediary between the ruling elites and the masses contributes to a widening elite-mass gap, precipitating a crisis of political turbulence in the HKSAR in the years to come.

Political Parties in the HKSAR: Ideological Spectrum, Origins and Constraints

The ideological spectrum of political parties in the HKSAR is relatively narrow (see Table 1). Most political parties are situated between the liberal and conservative spectrum, with the exception of a political group named April the Fifth Action Group (AFAG), which vows to change the PRC's polity from authoritarianism to democratic socialism and which often has confrontations with the police on the streets.(7) It is rumoured that the AFAG has been blacklisted by the Hong Kong police force, and that its activists are under the surveillance of the Security Branch.(8) Strictly speaking, the AFAG is a pressure group rather than a political party, for it aims at using street protests to oppose government policies instead of supporting candidates to participate in local elections.

The Political Spectrum of Parties in the HKSAR

Radical    Liberal    Moderate    Conservative    Reactionary

AFAG       DP         ADPL        LP                   -
           Frontier   DAB         HKPA

Note: This political spectrum is derived from Leon P. Baradat,
Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact (New Jersey:
Prentice-Hall, 1994), p. 13.

Political parties which support civil liberties and advocate Western-style democracy tend to have a liberal ideology. A notable example is the Democratic Party (DP), whose leaders are Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah and which was formed by merging two political pressure groups, namely, the Hong Kong Affairs Society and Meeting Point.(9) Another liberal political party is Frontier, led by Emily Lau Wai-hing, a former LegCo member and an outspoken critic of the PRC, and Lee Cheuk-yan, a leader of the independent Confederation of Trade Unions.(10) The third liberal-oriented party is the Citizens Party (CP), led by Christine Loh Kung-wai, a former LegCo member and a critic of the colonial administration. While the DP, Frontier and CP share liberal values, they cannot amalgamate because of different strategies. The DP leaders aim to achieve democratization by trying to negotiate with the PRC Government, but this approach is rejected by Frontier, which tends to be sceptical about the usefulness of any dialogue with PRC officials. However, the CP advocates dialogue with PRC authorities to a degree much greater than both the DP and Frontier.(11) These divergent strategies of the liberal political parties towards China are detrimental to their struggle for democratization, because internal competition in local elections undermines the overall solidarity of Hong Kong's democracy movement.

The moderate political parties include the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (ADPL) and the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). Both the ADPL and DAB emphasize dialogue and friendly relations with the PRC. The DAB has a very close relationship with PRC officials and some party members may actually be underground members of the Chinese Communist Party.(12) Unlike the liberal parties, the ADPL is moderate in the sense that it is willing to abandon the call for political reform in the HKSAR for the sake of maintaining harmonious relations with the PRC. For example, ADPL chairman Frederick Fung Kin-kee and vice-chairman Bruce Liu Sing-lee supported the PRC's decision to establish the provisional legislature, which was set up in January 1997 to replace the LegCo, which was elected in 1995 under Governor Christopher Patten's political reform blueprint. The position taken by Fung and Liu alienated some ADPL members, such as Eric Wong Chung-ki, who eventually withdrew from the party and joined the DP. In short, the ADPL adopts a very moderate stance on democratization, although its leaders occasionally fluctuate their political position from moderate to hardline.(13)

The DAB is also a moderate political party whose views have changed from anti-Patten to pro-HKSAR Government since 1 July 1997. During the Patten administration, the DAB acted as its critic and severely opposed democratization in the name of respecting the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Basic Law and other earlier Sino-British agreements on Hong Kong. However, the DAB's stance has tilted towards supporting the HKSAR Government since the transfer of sovereignty. When the provisional legislature endorsed the HKSAR Government's decision to freeze indefinitely the collective bargaining bill, which had been passed by the former LegCo several days before the handover, the DAB members of the provisional legislature supported the decision. Since some DAB leaders are simultaneously leaders of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), they are expected to fight for working-class interests. Unfortunately, both the DAB and FTU uncritically supported the decision of the HKSAR Government to abandon the collective bargaining bill. Even worse, the DAB tried to change the electoral system of LegCo elections in May 1997 in such a way as to benefit itself.(14) Obviously, the DAB is drifting towards conservatism at the expense of its populist image.

In terms of class background, the DAB is similar to other liberal-minded parties. While the CP is composed mainly of middle-class intellectuals and professionals, the DAB tends to project a lower middle-class image as some of the DAB members come from working-class unions. However, the other two liberal-oriented parties - the DP and Frontier - have lower middle-class backgrounds similar to the DAB. The DP members include some unionists, such as Lau Chin-shek of the Independent Trade Union, and Cheung Man-kwong of the Professional Teachers' Association, while Frontier has Lee Cheuk-yan, also an independent unionist leader. Even the ideologically moderate ADPL projects a lower middle-class image, although its power base is located mainly in Shumshuipo district, unlike the other liberal parties and the DAB whose influence and appeal tend to be territory-wide. Because of the very similar class background of all the liberal and moderate parties, they often compete for support from the same source of voters in local elections.

Unlike the lower middle-class backgrounds of most liberal parties and the two moderate parties, the ideologically conservative parties in the HKSAR appeal to the members of the upper-middle class. The conservative political parties include the Liberal Party (LP) and the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance (HKPA). The LP is liberal in the narrow sense of supporting private property rights and societal freedom, but it is not liberal in the broader sense of supporting political reform and equality of opportunity. The LP is actually conservative and tries to maintain the political as well as economic status quo. Funded by big business and founded by former pro-British elites, the LP can be seen as a party of big businessmen without grass-roots support.(15) The LP leader, Allen Lee Peng-fei, managed to be elected in the 1995 LegCo direct elections, but most LP members have traditionally performed poorly in local elections. The party's power base is located at the LegCo's functional constituencies, where the industrial and commercial groups have traditionally been captured by LP members. After the direct elections held for District Boards in September 1994, many members from various districts such as Sai Kung and Sha Tin were dissatisfied with the LP's leadership, and withdrew from the party. Ultimately, the LP is a clientelist organization politically dependent on the patronage of PRC officials. The PRC has appointed LP members to various committees, such as (1) the Selection Committee which elected both the Chief Executive in December 1996 and members of the provisional legislature in January 1997, and (2) the Selection Committee which selected the Hong Kong members to China's National People's Congress in December 1997. The LP members of the Selection Committee that elected the Chief Executive in December 1996 fully supported Tung Chee-hwa, who in return appointed an executive committee member of the LP, Henry Tang, to the ExCo. Without the full support of its patrons - PRC officials and the Chief Executive - the LP cannot become politically influential in the HKSAR polity.

Apart from the LP, which can be viewed as a clientelist and business-dominant party, another client receiving top political positions in the HKSAR from the patron is the HKPA, which in 1997 merged with a small pro-Beijing party, the Liberal Democratic Federation (LDF). Realizing that such a merger would expand its political influence, the LDF, led by former ExCo and LegCo member Maria Tam Wai-chu, made a strategic move to co-operate with the HKPA.(16) The LP, LDF and HKPA are all upper-class political parties. Nevertheless, the HKPA cannot amalgamate with the LP because of mutual competition and jealousy. For the HKPA leaders, the LP is composed of the former supporters of the British colonial administration and its patriotic sentiment towards the PRC is relatively weak. On the other hand, in the minds of LP leaders, the HKPA was formed by PRC officials from the New China News Agency and it competes with the LP for political support among the business elites.(17) As with liberal-oriented and middle-class parties like the DP, Frontier and CP, which cannot amalgamate because of strategic differences, the conservative-oriented and upper-middle class parties encounter a similar problem because of mutual jealousy and rivalry.

The inability of political parties, whether lower-middle or upper-middle class, to amalgamate perpetuates the political preponderance of the executive branch of the HKSAR Government. The executive branch is composed of the Chief Executive, the ExCo and senior bureaucrats. However, as long as the Chief Executive is not directly elected but merely chosen by an Election Committee whose composition tends to be controlled by a political patron - the PRC authorities - the Chief Executive is ultimately accountable to China rather than to any political party. Although the Chief Executive, like the Governor in Hong Kong during the final years of British rule, behaves in a way that is seen to be accountable to the public, his power is not really checked by the political parties. The Chief Executive consults the parties but has the discretion to ignore their views. Tung Chee-hwa meets with the DP leaders regularly to discuss Hong Kong affairs, but his action is not constrained by their opposition. Nor does Tung face any opposition from the conservative parties, like the LP, HKPA and DAB which fully support the HKSAR Government. To date, Tung has enjoyed a high degree of relative autonomy vis-a-vis any political party in the HKSAR.

At most, the ExCo takes into consideration the views of the HKPA, LP and DAB which together occupy a majority of the seats in the sixty-member provisional legislature. Because three ExCo members - Leung Chun-ying, Tam Yiu-chung of the DAB and Henry Tang of the LP - are also members of the provisional legislature, they listen to the views of other legislators and act as the executive-legislative intermediary. Unlike Governor Patten who abolished the overlapping membership between the ExCo and LegCo and relied on his own charisma as well as the lobbying efforts of senior bureaucrats to ensure that government bills were supported by the LegCo, Tung has reversed Patten's political approach. He has restored the overlapping membership of ExCo and LegCo in order to allow the former to tap the latter's views, but he refrains from attending LegCo meetings himself to answer questions from legislators, although the role of bureaucrats to lobby legislators for government bills has been retained.(18) Whenever the Patten administration put forward its bills in the former LegCo, its officials actively lobbied for support from different political parties, including the DP, LP, DAB and HKPA. The Tung government, however, tends to rely on the support of the LP, DAB and HKPA in the provisional legislature. If the DP returns some of its members to the LegCo after May 1998, the Tung administration will also likely lobby the DP legislators for support of government policies. Yet, the DP's role in the legislature will be curbed because the government can forge an alliance with the HKPA, LP and DAB to override any opposition from the DP. Therefore, the DP is unlikely to become a political force that can challenge the political coalition between the HKSAR Government and pro-establishment parties. In the event that the pro-establishment LP, DAB and HKPA cannot reach a compromise on certain issues, the DP may be able to exploit their division to lobby for support from independent LegCo members and to exert some degree of influence on the executive branch.

However, in the HKSAR's executive-dominant polity, the senior bureaucrats are still powerful actors who formulate government policies and they have the discretion to ignore the views of the political parties. Despite the fact that senior officials of the HKSAR Government are under constant attack by the mass media and elected politicians for their maladministration, they do not have to resign from their posts because of government scandals and blunders.(19) For the senior bureaucrats, the political parties can obstruct their powers to formulate and implement policies. Since the late 1980s, the colonial government had encouraged senior civil servants to treat citizens as clients. As a result of democratization and politicization, senior bureaucrats had taken into account the views of political parties during the policy-making process, ranging from the formulation of the annual budget to social welfare policy.(20) In the former LegCo and the current provisional legislature, senior bureaucrats have taken the views of the opposition seriously, and political acceptability of government policies has become a must since the early 1990s. Recent events have suggested, however, that some senior officials of the HKSAR Government seem to be turning a deaf ear to the views of elected representatives - a situation that, if it persists, may widen the elite-mass gap.(21)

In any case, senior bureaucrats are far more politically powerful than elected politicians because of three factors. First, as long as political parties cannot form a government in power even if they secure a majority in the legislature, senior bureaucrats will retain the capability to push forward government policies if they desire. Bureaucrats do not have to shoulder any political cost, such as resignation, when they choose to turn a deaf ear to the opposition of political parties. Secondly, because of the fragmented and divided nature of the political parties in the legislature, government bills can be passed easily by lobbying for support from pro-establishment parties, such as the LP, HKPA and DAB. As a result, the liberal-oriented parties remain politically isolated and have their influence curbed. Thirdly, Article 74 of the Basic Law - the HKSAR constitution - confers upon the LegCo's President and Chief Executive the power to disapprove private member's bills "relating to government policies".(22) This power was exercised by the President of the provisional legislature, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, who ruled a bill, initiated by a member, as out of order.(23) Because the Basic Law gives considerable power to the LegCo President, any further exercise of this power by the President would cripple the power of any political party which seeks to use private member's bills as a means of changing government policies. In short, the multiparty system in the HKSAR is characterized by relatively weak and small parties, with minimal impact on the politically dominant and powerful executive.

Parties, Elite-Mass Gap and Political Instability

Given the fact that clientelist parties, which lack any power base at the grass-roots level, are enjoying far more political influence than the liberal-oriented and popularly supported parties, the HKSAR's political institutions are becoming increasingly unrepresentative. This politically unrepresentative phenomenon is testified by the ease with which the HKPA, DAB and LP capture seats in influential bodies, such as the ExCo, whose members are all appointed by the Chief Executive, the provisional legislature, and the Selection Committee, which chose thirty-six Hong Kong representatives to China's National People's Congress (NPC) (Table 2). Nevertheless, the DAB, LP and HKPA were far less popular than the DP in the LegCo's direct elections in 1995. The DP obtained 41.9 per cent of the votes in LegCo's direct elections; the DAB 15.4 per cent; the LP only 1.6 per cent; and the HKPA 2.8 per cent.(24) However, the critical stance of the DP jeopardizes its chances of becoming the beneficiary of political patronage. As mentioned before, the DP boycotted the election of members of the provisional legislature. On the other hand, the PRC regarded the DP as "subversive" and did not appoint its members to the Selection Committee which chose the Chief Executive and provisional legislators. Three DP members failed in their attempt to obtain ten nomination signatures from the 424 members of the Selection Committee that elected the thirty-six Hong Kong deputies to China's NPC.(25) For the overwhelming majority of the members of the Selection Committee, the DP adopted an "anti-PRC" stance that was politically detrimental to them.(26) Thus, the most popularly supported political party, the DP, remains at odds with the most powerful patron in the HKSAR's political arena, namely PRC officials.

Parties and the HKSAR's Influential Political Bodies

            424-member               60-member         15-member
Party       Selection                Provisional       Executive
            Committee for            Legislature       Council

HKPA(*)     56 (7 elected)            9                1

DAB         43 (4 elected)           10                1

LP          12 (1 elected)           10                1

ADPL        4 (none was elected       4                0

DP          0                         0                0

Notes: * The HKPA members here include members of the Liberal
Democratic Federation.

Sources: Sing Tao Jih Pao, 2 November 1997, p. A9; Apple Daily, 9
December 1997, p. A22; Eastweek, 26 June 1997, p. 68; Chris Yeung,
"Political Parties," in Joseph Cheng, ed., The Other Hong Kong
Report 1997 (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1997), p. 70;
Ming Pao, 9+December 1997, p. A4; and

The lack of representation and the proliferation of clientelism in the HKSAR polity will widen the elite-mass gap in the long run. After the LegCo elections in May 1998, it is expected that a loose coalition involving the DAB, LP and HKPA will check the influence of members of liberal-oriented political parties such as the DP, Frontier and CP. The LegCo that will be elected in May 1998 to serve a term of two years is already structurally constrained by its composition: one-third of its sixty members are directly elected from geographical constituencies, half of them chosen by functional constituencies, and ten seats are chosen from an Election Committee. A proportional representation system is adopted for the twenty directly elected seats, which must give the DAB more seats than what the party attained in the 1995 LegCo direct election.(27) In 1995, the LegCo's direct elections adopted a single-member single-vote system which resulted in some popular DAB candidates who obtained a considerable number of votes being defeated by DP candidates.(28) In Hong Kong where the legislature has merely one-third of the directly elected seats, using proportional representation to protect the interests of minorities - the business elites and pro-Beijing politicians who are already over-represented in the LegCo's functional constituency elections - is not really justified. Since the direct election method has been reshaped in such a way as to favour the representation of pro-Beijing and pro-HKSAR Government parties, the representative function of the popularly supported and liberal-oriented parties is undermined, thus directly or indirectly widening the gap between the ruling elites and the masses.

While the DAB must be able to prevent the liberal-oriented parties from capturing all of the twenty directly elected seats, the LegCo's functional constituency election perpetuates and legitimizes the political dominance of conservative-oriented parties - the LP and HKPA - in the legislature. Some functional constituency elections in the 1995 LegCo witnessed many business candidates being automatically elected.(29) Only a minority of functional constituencies give representation to grass-roots organizations, such as labour, teachers and social workers. The majority of the thirty functional constituency seats in the LegCo must be occupied by the pro-Beijing and pro-government elites, especially members of the LP and HKPA. Functional constituency elections tend to have a narrower franchise than direct elections and they are prone to being controlled by the business elites. It can be said that functional constituency elections are tailored for the LP and HKPA, which have become clientelist parties enjoying a relatively high degree of political influence out of proportion to their relatively low level of public support.

Another factor which will entrench the influence of conservative parties in the HKSAR's legislature is the ten seats to be elected from the Election Committee in 1998. The Election Committee is bound to be dominated by the business elites - a pattern seen in all previous committees responsible for selecting the Chief Executive and members of the provisional legislature, and for arranging the transitional affairs of Hong Kong (such as the Preliminary Working Committee set up in 1993). Even in the 1995 LegCo election, the Election Committee, which was composed of all directly-elected District Board members, had appointed six pro-Beijing legislators - an indication that patron-client relations and political compromise were commonplace in the electoral process.(30) In the 1998 LegCo election, the ten seats to be elected from the Election Committee will guarantee the political representation of pro-Beijing and pro-HKSAR Government elites. Since these elites within the HKSAR's political structure are mostly uncritical clients, the communication gap that exists between them and the masses is likely to widen.

If this is the case, the HKSAR polity will sooner or later encounter a crisis in political representation as conservative-minded elites who are not popular but who are the clients of a powerful patron, the PRC, can obtain a disproportionate degree of political influence. On the other hand, the liberal-minded elites, who have been popularly supported by citizens since the 1991 LegCo direct elections, are destined to be a minority opposition in the HKSAR legislature, and thus also the ExCo, which has been traditionally dominated by pro-government as well as conservative elites. Consequently, the functions of the political parties to aggregate the interests of citizens and to stabilize the polity are distorted and undermined. The conservative political parties in the HKSAR lack public support, but their dominance in the polity is artificial and destabilizing. For one thing, decisions made by the clientelist legislature from May 1998 to 2000 will not represent the wishes of ordinary citizens. An alarming signal came from the provisional legislature when it repealed the collective bargaining bill passed by the former LegCo several days before 1 July 1997. In the 1998-2000 LegCo, there is a real danger that the business-dominated legislature will again make unpopular decisions and pass legislation unfavourable to the working class.

What is more, at a time when the income gap between the rich and the poor is widening, and as the number of Hongkongers living below the poverty line is increasing,(31) inequality will become a political time-bomb for the HKSAR. In the event that more citizens feel that their interests cannot be represented in the existing political structure, their grievances could be translated into anti-government protests and even riots which would endanger the HKSAR's political stability. As one angry citizen, in a letter to a newspaper, wrote:

Apparently, Hong Kong has been economically prosperous in recent years. Those people who benefit are not the hard-working ordinary people, but the officials and business people who collaborate with each other as well as the speculators. This situation easily builds up social dissatisfaction which has been accumulated and suppressed. If there are no civil liberties and if grievances cannot be voiced, social dissatisfaction will increase to a point where a riot will erupt in a way more serious than the anti-British riot in 1967. At that time, Hong Kong's economic prosperity will turn into smoke.(32)

So far, civil liberties in the HKSAR have generally been maintained and citizens can voice their grievances through various channels, particularly via the mass media.

However, if any political turbulence in the HKSAR does occur, it will likely take the form of protests and perhaps even riots initiated by ordinary citizens. Writing in 1986, Ian Scott argued that "political turbulence" in Hong Kong was partly caused by the emergence of political groups making demands on the colonial government, and partly attributable to the PRC's intervention in Hong Kong affairs.(33) Political turbulence in the HKSAR is unlikely to be influenced by the China factor, for the PRC has adopted a relatively non-interventionist policy towards the HKSAR, at least in the short run. For the central government in Beijing, proving the feasibility of the concept of "one country, two systems" is necessary in order to appeal to Taiwan for reunification, and to win the confidence of the international community. Judging from the rising social dissatisfaction of the Hong Kong people, political crises in the HKSAR will very likely stem from internal sources, namely, the unrepresentative nature of the political institutions and the widening communication gap between the government and ordinary citizens.

In retrospect, the colonial administration regarded the 1966-67 riots as an outcome of a widening communication gap between the government and ordinary citizens.(34) To put it in another way, the riots were the product of a huge elite-mass gap. The colonial government acted swiftly to narrow that gap by introducing administrative reforms, such as the establishment of the City District Offices which promoted and explained government policies to the public. In the early 1980s, District Boards were established to allow more elites to participate in politics, and to let the masses vote for representatives to these consultative bodies. Democratizing reforms in Hong Kong from the 1980s to the Patten administration actually narrowed the elite-mass gap further, forcing the colonial government to become more responsive, accountable and transparent than ever before.(35) The colonial rulers in Hong Kong after the 1966-67 riots learnt how to bridge the elite-mass gap through administrative and political reforms.

Nevertheless, the HKSAR Government has so far not fully appreciated the importance of bridging the elite-mass gap. Instead, it has been adopting the policy of patronage, granting an unprecedented degree of political influence to conservative-minded elites who lack mass support at the grass-roots level. Even worse, the current polity tends to minimize the influence of liberal-minded elites who are determined to fight for the interests of the populace. After the LegCo elections in May 1998, liberal elites are bound to be in a minority in the legislature, without effective checks on executive power. In the event that the pro-Beijing DAB, which can be considered a relatively populist party among all the clientelist parties, continues to adopt an uncritical stance without a political conscience to speak for the interests of the increasingly alienated masses, the elite-mass gap will be widened further.

One factor sowing the seeds of political instability in the HKSAR is that, apart from popularly supported parties which cannot function effectively, the other "elite-mass linkages", such as elections and interest groups, are becoming increasingly ineffective.(36) Elections have traditionally served a legitimizing function for the Hong Kong government, channelling elite participation to such institutions as District Boards, Urban Council, Regional Council and LegCo. The Patten administration democratized the electoral system, abolishing appointed seats in District Boards while widening the franchise of the LegCo's functional constituency elections. Objectively speaking, Patten's reforms made elections more meaningful than ever before, for the elites and masses perceived elections as part and parcel of the process in which "Hong Kong people [are] ruling Hong Kong".

However, with the onset of the HKSAR Government, the rolling back of Patten's electoral reforms has produced a destabilizing effect that is underestimated by the Tung administration. In July 1997, appointed seats were reintroduced to District Boards, thus balancing the influence of liberal political parties, particularly the DP.(37) The reinjection of appointed clients to the HKSAR's political institutions has rendered elections meaningless, for the appointees are mostly pro-HKSAR government, or previously defeated candidates. Elections are increasingly meaningless also because of the structural constraints imposed on the liberal-oriented parties. No matter how well they perform in the LegCo elections, the over-complicated and manipulated electoral system makes it impossible for them to gain a majority of seats in the legislature, at least from now to 2007 when a review of political reform in the HKSAR will be undertaken in accordance with the Basic Law. If structural constraints on political parties are so great, elections become nothing more than window-dressing that creates an illusion of democratic development. In the event that more citizens perceive local elections as meaningless, the elite-mass gap will deteriorate further.

Objectively speaking, one factor that mitigates the gradually widening elite-mass gap is the civil liberties enjoyed by interest groups. Hong Kong has been traditionally a liberalized society where interest groups can articulate their interests, make their demands known, and criticize the government. This situation persists in the HKSAR. However, business interest groups have traditionally enjoyed far more influence than non-business groups. The HKSAR administration, as with the colonial regime, consults extensively with business groups through hundreds of advisory committees, producing a partnership between the government and business.(38) The crux of the problem is that this partnership is not accompanied by a corresponding relationship between the HKSAR Government and non-business groups. Non-business groups, such as women, ethnic minorities and labour, have been and are under-represented in Hong Kong's political institutions. There is no functional constituency allocated to both women's groups and ethnic minorities, in spite of the fact that women are quite visible at the top levels of the bureaucracy, and ethnic minorities such as Indians have been contributing significantly to the territory's economic prosperity. Traditionally, Hong Kong's women's groups and ethnic minorities have been politically passive,(39) unlike some radical groups such as the April the Fifth Action Group which has vowed to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the ruling elites. Although some functional constituency seats in the LegCo are allocated for labour unions, working-class interests are often under the threat of the business-dominated legislature. If non-business interest groups are artificially and permanently excluded from the HKSAR's power centre, and if they are dissatisfied with the government policies affecting them, they would probably resort to protests outside the increasingly unrepresentative polity.

Political Instability in the HKSAR

The lessons of the 1966-67 riots have to be learnt by the HKSAR Government. The riots not only exposed the elite-mass gap in Hong Kong under colonial rule, but they were also the result of a convergence of social and political problems. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, working-class interests were neglected, social welfare policy was underdeveloped, and the political structure was unrepresentative.(40) The danger for the present HKSAR is that working-class interests risk being neglected by the business-dominated polity, social welfare reform is insufficient to appease the anger of the have-nots, and the political structure shows signs of bias towards the economically affluent elites. It is urgent for the government to address the issues of social, economic and political inequality. Otherwise, economic inequality in the HKSAR may converge with social dissatisfaction and political alienation, producing an abrupt crisis which would be similar to the 1966-67 riots.

Recent events in the HKSAR have shown that the economic confidence of ordinary citizens is declining. The Southeast Asian and South Korean financial crises which began in the second half of 1997, and the drastic fluctuations in the Hong Kong stock market have shaken the confidence of many Hongkongers.(41) The HKSAR leadership's emphasis on the success of the "one country, two systems" approach has unintentionally undermined its capacity to anticipate future problems, let alone any sudden crisis.(42) The declining economic confidence of Hongkongers and the self-indulgence of the HKSAR leadership in giving a gloss to the territory's social, economic and political circumstances will widen the gap between the masses and the elites in the long run.

The persistence of economic inequality will also sooner or later make social mobility more rigid, generating public sentiment that the masses cannot elevate themselves in society through hard work and perseverance. Many tycoons in the HKSAR were from humble origins, but they climbed up the social ladder swiftly in the 1960s and the 1970s. A case in point is property developer Li Ka-shing, who was originally a worker in a plastic factory.(43) However, as economic inequality worsened in the 1990s, social mobility from the lower classes to upper classes has become far more difficult. New immigrants who arrive in Hong Kong from the mainland are mostly from the lower classes. Livelihood issues, such as the high cost of housing, become a stumbling block to their attempts to move up the social ladder. To cope with the housing problem, the Tung Chee-hwa administration promises to build 85,000 fiats a year from 1999 onwards.(44) He has also tried to achieve an ambitious ten-year housing plan by increasing land supply and encouraging tenants to purchase their fiats in public housing estates at a relatively low price.(45)

By 2007, the results of Tung's ambitious housing programme will be seen. By that time, the masses and their elected representatives will assess critically the government's housing and social welfare policies. If the government is then able to demonstrate to the people that livelihood problems can be solved, a social crisis would be defused. If not, social dissatisfaction would probably converge, and liberal-oriented political parties would push for further democratization in the form of an entirely directly-elected legislature and a Chief Executive selected by universal suffrage.(46) On the other hand, it can be anticipated that conservative parties such as the LP and HKPA would try to prolong the existence of functional constituency elections in the LegCo and resist any move towards universal suffrage. Therefore, the year 2007 will potentially be an explosive watershed for the HKSAR's political development. Regardless of whether political disputes will converge with gradually increasing social dissatisfaction, a bone of contention between the liberal and conservative elites will undoubtedly be the reform of the HKSAR polity - an issue that was intentionally or unintentionally postponed by the drafters of the Basic Law in the late 1980s.

Prior to the start of Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong's future in 1982, an official of the Hong Kong Government had commented that the colony's political stability rested on "a tripod of consents" between the Hong Kong people, Britain and the PRC.(47) This equation for political stability in Hong Kong has, however, changed with the termination of British rule since 1 July 1997. While the British factor is no longer significant, the Hong Kong people are politically divided into liberal and conservative groups; and the China factor remains uncertain and unpredictable. The division among the Hong Kong people sows seeds of political bickering, struggle, confrontation and instability. Given the reality that the conservative elites share some political power with the still powerful bureaucrats under the PRC's patronage, and that the liberal elites, popularly supported by the masses, are powerless and alienated, political conflict will be inevitable.


The HKSAR polity is increasingly showing the roots of a problem: the inherent bias in favour of clientelist parties that rely on political patronage and the prejudice against popularly supported parties that cannot function as a stabilizing force. Unable to articulate the interests of the masses effectively, the popularly supported parties, such as the Democratic Party, constitute a peripheral force which can exert pressure on the executive-dominant, clientelist-oriented regime. If these parties continue to be alienated in an unrepresentative polity, they could resort to more street protests to oppose government policies. The liberal-oriented opposition may also encounter an internal split between the hardliners, who advocate confrontational tactics, and the softliners, who support continual negotiation with the government. On the other hand, the socially frustrated masses will increasingly find the liberal parties politically powerless. This may lead to the alienation of the masses, especially if the government is unable to deal effectively with livelihood issues.

The elite-mass gap, which had been narrowed as a result of administrative and political reforms initiated by the British from the late 1960s to the first half of the 1990s, now faces a real danger of being widened further. Preoccupied with promoting the success of the "one country, two systems" policy, the HKSAR leadership has ignored the politically destabilizing impact of the widening elite-mass gap. The government has recently taken the appropriate step to address the livelihood problems of the masses by putting forward the ten-year housing programme. Yet, whether this programme will be successful and whether the income gap between the rich and the poor narrows will ultimately affect the political debate in 2007, when liberal and conservative elites will argue over the pace and scope of the HKSAR's political reform.


1. Robert D. Putnam, The Comparative Study of Political Elites (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), pp. 154-64.

2. Alan Ball, Modern Politics and Government (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 81. The representative function of political parties is also discussed in A. H. Birch, Representation (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 97.

3. Theda Skocpol, "Bringing the State Back In: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research", in Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 23. Skocpol maintains that parties are "mediators between electorates and the conduct of state power" (p. 23). See also James Manor, "Parties and the Party System", in India's Democracy, edited by Atul Kohli (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 63. Manor remarked that India's political parties "have provided the main links between state and society, state-society relations (p. 63)".

4. Louie Kin-shuen, "Politicians, Political Parties and the Legislative Council", in The Other Hong Kong Report 1992, edited by Joseph Y. S. Cheng and Paul C. K. Kwong (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1992), pp. 53-78; and Chris K. H. Yeung, "Political Parties", in The Other Hong Kong Report 1997, edited by Joseph Y. S. Cheng (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1997), pp. 49-70.

5. In the "Third World", there are no-party, one-party and multiparty systems. Within the multiparty systems, one political party may be dominant. Rod Hague, Martin Harrop and Shaun Breslin, Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 249-52. One example of the multiparty system with a dominant party is Japan where the Liberal Democratic Party once dominated the political arena. See Ronald J. Hrebenar, "The Changing Postwar Party System", in The Japanese Party System: From One-Party Rule to Coalition Government, edited by Ronald J. Hrebenar (Colorado: Westview, 1986), pp. 6-7. However, Hong Kong can be viewed as having a multiparty system without any dominant political party.

6. Patron-client relationship is unequal and "involves an exchange between a superior patron or patron group and an inferior client or client group". See Vicky Randall and Robin Theobald, Political Change and Underdevelopment: A Critical Introduction to Third World Politics (London: Macmillan, 1985), p. 52. It must be noted that patron-client politics also exist in some Southeast Asian states. For example, see Anek Laothamatas, "From Clientelism to Partnership: Business-Government Relations in Thailand", in Business and Government in Industrializing Asia, edited by Andrew Macintyre (New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 195-215.

7. Liberals tend to respect the concept of law, seek change in the political system and are confident that the application of reason will solve problems. Conservatives, however, tend to be more supportive of the status quo, are doubtful about whether change will bring about positive results, and are pessimistic about the impact of using reason. Leon P. Baradat, Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1994), pp. 19-25.

8. Apple Daily, 29 November 1997. One member of the April the Fifth Action Group, Leung Kwok-hung, is regarded as a radical by the Hong Kong police. He believes in "Utopian" socialism, advocating democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. See a special report on Leung in Apple Daily, 12 November 1997, p. A14.

9. Yu Wing-yat, "Organizational Adaptation of the Hong Kong Democratic Party", Issues and Studies, 33, no. 1 (January 1997): 96-98.

10. It must be noted that trade unions in Hong Kong are divided into left-wing, independent and right-wing. At present, leaders of the pro-China Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) tend to be clients who receive the reward of political positions from the HKSAR Government. For example, the FTU Deputy Director Tam Yiu-chung is a member of the top policy-making ExCo. See Apple Daily, 18 November 1997, p. A14.

11. The CP's political platform includes advocating small government, environmental protection, educational reform, and "active cooperation" between Hong Kong and China. See Hong Kong Economic Journal, 5 May 1997, p. 5.

12. Shiu Sin-por, the Director of the China-funded One Country Two Systems Economic Institute, told a group of senior civil servants in September 1997 that the DAB was "under the management" of the Social Welfare Department of the New China News Agency in Hong Kong. Shiu's talk was on the PRC's organs in Hong Kong, at an advanced China course for senior Hong Kong civil servants at the Civil Service and Development Institute on 23 September 1997. Shiu has very close relations with PRC officials and his information on the role of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong is reliable.

13. Fung and Liu, for example, were appointed by the PRC to a 424-member Selection Committee which would elect Hong Kong representatives to the PRC's National People's Congress. In a meeting of the Selection Committee which decided to approve the members of its presidium by a show of hands, Fung and Liu disagreed with the way in which the names of presidium members were endorsed and thus they voiced their opposition. Their action illustrated the dilemma of being co-opted by the PRC. On the one hand, they emphasize the necessity of communicating and co-operating with PRC officials. But, on the other, any unpopular action on the part of PRC authorities forces them to express opposition. For a discussion of the dilemmas of political elites who are co-opted by the PRC, see Wong Wai-kwok, "Can Co-optation Win Over the Hong Kong People? China's United Front Work in Hong Kong Since 1984", Issues & Studies 33, no. 5 (May 1997): 125-131. Wong said that some elites who were co-opted by China did not believe that they were responsible to the citizens (p. 126). But Fung and Liu appeared to act in such a way as to show that they spoke for the interests of the Hong Kong people.

14. The DAB attempted to include neighbourhood (kaifong) associations in the LegCo's social welfare functional constituency, which was traditionally occupied by social welfare groups. Alienated by the DAB's attempt to manipulate the electoral system, social workers advertised in the Chinese newspapers to denounce the DAB's action. See the advertisement in Ming Pao, 6 October 1997, p. A13.

15. Sonny S. H. Lo, "Legislative Cliques, Political Parties, Political Groupings and Electoral System", in From Colony to SAR: Hong Kong's Challenges Ahead, edited by Joseph Y. S. Cheng and Sonny S. H. Lo (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1995), pp. 53-55.

16. Hong Kong Economic Journal, 29 April 1997, p. 5.

17. Chris Yeung writes: "The close links between the HKPA and Xinhua (New China News Agency) have been an open secret". See his "Political Parties," in The Other Hong Kong Report 1997, edited by Cheng, p. 63.

18. Governor Patten separated the membership of the ExCo and the LegCo. For a review of executive-legislative relations in Hong Kong, see Norman Miners, "The Transformation of the Hong Kong Legislative Council 1970-1994: From Consensus to Confrontation", Asian Journal of Public Administration 16, no. 2 (December 1994): 224-48.

19. In November 1997, the failure of the Health Bureau to prevent dispensers in a government clinic in Cheung Sha Wan district from mixing up mouth wash with anti-fever medicine indicated the extent of public maladministration in the HKSAR. Yet, the Health Department chief did not have to resign and she got the support of both Tung and the Secretary for Administration Anson Chart. In fact, colonial officials in Hong Kong did not resign from their positions despite numerous scandals. A notable example was the Legal Department in Hong Kong under British rule. See Ming K. Chan, "The Imperfect Legacy: Defects in the British Legal System in Colonial Hong Kong", Journal of International Economic Law 18, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 145-48.

20. For the political attitudes of senior bureaucrats, see Joseph Y. S. Cheng and Jane C. Y. Lee, "The Changing Political Attitudes of the Senior Bureaucrats in Hong Kong's Transition," China Quarterly, no. 147 (September 1996), pp. 912-37.

21. After 1 July 1997, there have been signs that some government officials have been less open than before. Elaine Chung, the Director of the Urban Services Department, argued with members and the chair of the Urban Council (UrbCo) over the architectural design of the central library. She claimed that the chair had approved her decision on the new architectural design, but the chair later denied this and some UrbCo members criticized her for not respecting the opinion of the elected representatives. See Apple Daily, 17 November 1997, p. A14.

22. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (hereafter cited as The Basic Law) (Hong Kong: Consultative Committee for the Basic Law, April 1990), p. 29.

23. Express Daily, 1 November 1997, p. A4.

24. Louie Kin-shuen and Shum Kwok-cheung, eds., A Collection of Materials on Hong Kong Elections 1995 (in Chinese) (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1996), p. 117.

25. South China Morning Post, 27 November 1997, p. 4.

26. PRC officials have equated the DP with the Association in Support of the Patriotic and Democratic Movement in China, an organization formed by some Hong Kong liberal democrats like Szeto Wah and Martin Lee during the June Fourth Incident in the PRC. Although Lee is no longer the leader of the Association, some DP members are still affiliated with it. To PRC officials, the DP wants to "terminate the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party" in China. See Hong Kong Economic Journal, 13 November 1997, p. 7.

27. The proportional representation system "favours the representation of 'minorities' ..., [it] gives any well-organized pressure group - be it a union, a religion, an ethnic group, a profession, or an ideological faction - a chance to win seats". See Guy Lardeyret, "The Problem With PR", in The Global Resurgence of Democracy, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 161.

For a hypothetical situation of the DAB's performance where different proportional representation formulae were used in the 1995 LegCo's direct elections, see Lo Shiu-hing and Yu Wing-yat, "The Electoral System of Hong Kong's Legislative Council: Results under Different Proportional Representation Formulae", in The 1995 Legislative Council Elections in Hong Kong, edited by Kuan Hsin-chi, Lau Siu-kai, Louie Kin-shuen and Wong Ka-yin (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1996), pp. 97-134.

28. The DAB obtained 15.4 per cent of the total votes in the 1995 LegCo's direct elections, but it had only elected 2 members (10 per cent of the directly elected seats). On the other hand, the DP obtained 41.9 per cent of the total votes in the same direct elections but gained 12 directly elected seats (60 per cent of the directly elected seats). It is therefore understandable why the DAB wanted to change the direct election method from the single-member single-vote system to proportional representation. For the DAB's performance in the 1995 LegCo elections, see Louie and Shum, eds., A Collection of Materials on Hong Kong Elections 1995, p. 117. For the 1991 LegCo elections, see Hung Ching-tin, "The Reasons for the Complete Defeat of Left-wing Participation in Elections", in Media Strategy and Elections, edited by To Yiu-ming and Nip Yee-man (in Chinese) (Hong Kong: Humanities, 1995), pp. 63-76.

29. This situation took place in the functional constituencies involving (1) commerce; (2) industry; (3) finance; (4) real estate and construction; (5) architectural, surveying and planning sector; (6) Urban Council; and (7) rural groups. See Boundary and Election Commission: Report on the 1995 Legislative Council General Election (Hong Kong: Government Printer, 15 December 1995), p. 136.

30. Ibid., p. 137. The DP had two members elected by the Election Commission while the DAB had two; the LP one; the ADPL one; the LDF one; the HKPA one. A pro-Taiwan One Two Three Alliance had one member elected; and finally a pro-Beijing politician from a group named Civic Force. See Louie and Shum, eds., A Collection of Materials on Hong Kong Elections 1995, pp. 117-18.

31. The number of people receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance in August 1995 was 119,000, and it increased to 179,000 in August 1997. See South China Morning Post, 13 November 1997, p. 30. Another report which uses a monthly income of HK$9,500 as the "median wage" estimates that there are 600,000 people living below this level. See Apple Daily, 24 May 1997, p. A8.

32. Letter to the editor, "Officials and Business Suppress and Eat into the Fruits of Prosperity", Apple Daily, 7 October 1997, p. F11.

33. Ian Scott, "Policy-making in a turbulent environment: The case of Hong Kong", International Review of Administrative Sciences 52 (1986): 447-69.

34. The riots prompted the colonial administration to reform social welfare in the late 1960s and the 1970s and to tackle the issue of police corruption later in the mid-1970s. See Frank Welsh, A History of Hong Kong (London: HarperCollins, 1997): 467-94.

35. Arguably, democratization has strengthened the legitimacy and governability of the Patten administration. For an opposite view that democratization in Hong Kong during the Patten era brought about the problem of "ungovernability", see Lau Siu-kai, "Decolonization a la Hong Kong: Britain's Search for Governability and Exit with Glory", Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 35, no. 2 (July 1997): 28-54.

36. For these linkages, see Putnam, The Comparative Study of Political Elites, pp. 154-60.

37. Different District Boards have different political complexions. Some are dominated by the DP; some by the DAB; and some without any party dominance. In the Central and Western District Board, for example, the former chairperson who was a DP member was not re-elected. He was replaced by a District Board member more supportive of the PRC's policy. In Kwun Tong District Board, the former chairperson was an independent supported by DP members, but she was ousted by a pro-Beijing member in July 1997. In short, even at the district level, political institutions seem to be influenced by patronage, undermining their representativeness and threatening the relations between the elites and the masses.

38. The ADPL Chairman, Fung Kin-kee, maintains that the provisional legislature has become "a rubberstamp of the business sector", for it had repealed the collective bargaining bill endorsed by the LegCo before 1 July 1997. See Ming Pao, 31 October 1997.

39. See Irene Tong, "Women", in The Other Hong Kong Report 1994, edited by Donald H. McMillen and Man Si-wai (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1994), pp. 367-87. The Indians were only politically active over the issue of British nationality; see Rup Narayan Das, "A Nationality Issue: Ethnic Indians in Hong Kong", in The Other Hong Kong Report 1990, edited by Richard Y. C. Wong and Joseph Y. S. Cheng (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1990), pp. 147-58.

40. See Ian Scott, "The State and Civil Society in Hong Kong" (Paper presented at the conference on Political Development in Taiwan and Hong Kong, held at the University of Hong Kong, 8-9 February 1996, pp. 7-12.

41. For example, on the morning of 12 December, some citizens phoned the popular radio programme, "The Nineties", saying that they were really worried about Hong Kong's economic prosperity in the future. One citizen accused the HKSAR Government of "beautifying" the economic performance of the territory, but she said that the reality was the opposite.

42. Humans' mental capacities to grasp the complexity of policy problems are often limited, as Lindblom and Woodhouse warn us. See Charles E. Lindblom and Edward J. Woodhouse, The Policy-Making Process (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1993), p. 5.

43. See Ha Ping, A Biography of Li Ka-shing (in Chinese) (Hong Kong: Ming Pao, 1996).

44. Building Hong Kong For a New Era: Address by the Chief Executive the Honourable Tung Chee-hwa at the Provisional Legislative Council Meeting on 8 October 1997 (Hong Kong: Government Printer, 1997), p. 20.

45. See Editorial, "Tenants Purchase Scheme", Ming Pao, 10 December 1997, p. D10.

46. Article 45 and Article 68 of the Basic Law state respectively that the HKSAR's Chief Executive and legislature will aim at the selection process of universal suffrage. See The Basic Law, p. 19 and p. 27.

47. Remarks made by Denis Bray, the former District Commissioner for the New Territories. See Norman Miners, The Government and Politics of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. viii.

Lo Shiu Hing is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong.
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Author:Hing, Lo Shiu
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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