The city that cannot sleep

SEVERAL years ago, Samuel Finer, a distinguished professor of politics at Oxford, wrote a three-volume history of government. He set out to describe every form that has ever been. There was one short chapter on societies that were liberal but not democratic. The only example he could think of was Hong Kong.

By Chris Patten

Published: Wed 4 Jul 2007, 8:55 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

When I left Hong Kong 10 years ago, we were in the throes of introducing democracy. We were late in doing so. But what we set out to do was to give the citizens what they had been promised in the agreement on the city's handover to China, known as the Joint Declaration. It was also a development specifically allowed for in the Basic Law, Beijing's constitution for Hong Kong.

Alas, this has not happened. Democratic development has been blocked by Beijing. It has also intervened twice in the judicial process in Hong Kong. But otherwise it is fair to say that Deng Xiaoping's principle of "one country, two systems" has been upheld. Hong Kong remains an open society living under the rule of law — within China.

Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom, warned a few years ago about the dangers of illiberal democracy — the way in which democracy could turn into authoritarianism. To hold governments to account, while safeguarding pluralism, you need more than an occasional election. You need independent courts, due process, freedom of speech, religion and association, an honest civil service and good policing.

Hong Kong has all those. All that it lacks is the ability to choose its own government. That will ultimately come as the number of citizens demanding it continues to increase. They know the relationship between civil liberties and quality of life. They have the confidence to assert their citizenship in a way that is both forceful and moderate.

This sense of citizenship is one of the things that has most clearly flourished in recent years. It has not been at the expense of Hong Kong's entrepreneurial energy. In 1997, at the time of the handover, Hong Kong, with 6.5 million inhabitants, accounted for 22 per cent of China's gross domestic product. For five successive years, the departing colonial government had been able to cut taxes, increase spending, put more money into the reserves and build the new airport out of income. All that was the result of 35 years of continuous growth. That figure of 22 per cent has fallen in the last 10 years, but it is because of economic growth in China, not failure in Hong Kong.

Perhaps the best mark of its success is the way it has recovered from Sars and the Asian financial crash. Hong Kong today is as buoyant and confident as ever, comfortable in the knowledge that China's growth is sufficient to help sustain both itself and Shanghai, and aware too that the rule of law gives it priceless advantages. The quality of its outstanding civil service has been on public display in the last couple of years. The Doha trade discussions, held in Hong Kong, were superbly chaired and managed, and public order maintained with tact and skill by the police. The former public health chief, Margaret Chan, has recently become head of the World Health Organisation, a job she will do superbly. The professions have also lived up to their responsibilities, especially lawyers. The chief justice, Andrew Li, has been an exemplary leader of the independent judiciary, and barristers have been prominent in defending civil liberties and fighting for democracy.

So where does Hong Kong go from here? That it will have a mature democracy sooner rather than later is beyond doubt. Beijing has to realise it is a moderate community and that the only thing likely to stoke up immoderation is the denial of democratic aspirations.

No one who has spent any time in Hong Kong forgets it. It is one of the great exciting maritime cities: beautiful, cluttered, rumbustious. It brings together much of the best of China and of the west. The only downside is pollution, much of it blown in from the industrialisation of the Pearl River delta.

Overall, Hong Kong remains a very special place 10 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty. It used to be said that no one ever made any money out of betting against Hong Kong.

That remains true today, and it will still be the case in 2017. It is not yet a democracy but it is a lot more free and open than some Asian cities that are allegedly ruled by the ballot box.

Lord Patten is the chancellor of Oxford University and was the last British governor of Hong Kong

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