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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Why Didn’t Britain Ever Give Democracy to Hong Kong?

By: inoljt,


Great Britain is a democracy and a country dedicated to helping spread liberty around the world.

At least today. There used to be a time when Great Britain was not a friend to democracy. Indeed, there used to be a very undemocratic thing called the British Empire.

One of the last great British colonies was a city called Hong Kong.

More below.

 Hong Kong stayed under British control for far longer than its other colonies, and Hong Kong was still painted in the pink of the British Empire long after the rest of the empire was gone. Indeed, Hong Kong was still British long after the idea of empire began to be thought of as something very negative.

But there is something very strange about what the British did with Hong Kong, or rather what the British did not do. That is, for the longest time Great Britain never attempted to introduce democracy to Hong Kong. In the end, Hong Kong never did become a democracy under Great Britain. It is not a democracy today.

Now, this would be more easily explained if it happened before the Second World War. Before World War II, of course, it just wasn’t the European way to give democracy to their colonies. But Wikipedia’s page on Democratic development in Hong Kong doesn’t start until the 1980s. This was long after decolonization and the idea that empires were good. Indeed, the first elements of local autonomy in Hong Kong were introduced with the agreement to give back sovereignty of Hong Kong to China.

Why did Great Britain never make Hong Kong a democracy? Why didn’t it do this in the 1960s or 1970s? Why did it continue appointing bland British bureaucrats, who had never lived there and knew nothing about the place, to run Hong Kong? It seems that this failure has something to with the continuing British nostalgia of empire.

In America today people are not proud of America’s colonies. They’d rather forget it. You can talk to an American for a lifetime, and the subject of the Philippines will never come up. Indeed, the last time I actually talked with an American about American colonization escapes me. But talk with a British person long enough, and eventually the subject of the British Empire will always come up. Probably they’ll even speak in a half-nostalgic tone about the days of Britain’s glory. They’d do it again if they could.

Hong Kong’s political system today is a strange thing. People in Hong Kong vote in free and fair elections, they can protest and assembly, but the rules are bent so that ultimately only the Chinese government’s candidate can win. Yet, ironically, Hong Kong today is more democratic than it was during the vast majority (perhaps the totality) of its time under British rule. This is doubly ironic, because Great Britain is a democracy and China is not.

If Great Britain had had the option of ruling Hong Kong as long as it pleased, would Hong Kong today be a full democracy? Maybe not. Probably not.

Would Hong Kong even be as democratic as the not-really democracy it is today?

Probably so. But perhaps not. Even the “perhaps” is quite disturbing.