comment 0

Missing the Point on HK’s Colonial Relationship: An Exchange of Letters with Regina Ip

編按:與葉劉淑儀在南華早報交流過後, Evan 提出了一個普遍人都犯謬誤:現在北京現時提供的民主改革水平,是英國未能給予的,而北京覺得這種民主應該是香港人期望的。他推測葉劉可能在回信時故意不提。
In a public exchange of letters with Regina Ip, Evan addresses a commonly stated fallacy that Britain’s failure to introduce the level of democratic reform now offered by Beijing should set the level of expectation among Hong Kong people. He speculates whether Mrs Ip may have deliberately missed the point in her reply.

Last month I felt compelled to write to the South China Morning Post to point out that an opinion piece that appeared in papers not only stated an ill considered opinion but also supposes a common fallacy in logic.

In the opinion piece, Jean-Pierre Lehmann stated his anger at the hypocrisy of the West, before reminding readers that in 150 years of colonial rule Britain had failed to offer anywhere near the level of democratic reform that is today on the table. His implication is clear: Hong Kong people should be grateful for what Beijing is prepared to offer.

Lehmann, who as well as holding a position at IMD is also a senior fellow at the Fung Global Institute, is entitled to rage over Western hypocrisy. I certainly do. But my rage is also tempered by the fact that the most glaring examples of Western duplicity are to be found in history – we no longer live in the era of Nixon and Kissinger.

Lehmann may point to Britain’s record in Hong Kong, even if he fails to account for Beijing’s role in hindering democratic progress in the former colony. However he is wrong in drawing an absolute judgement without reference to context.

For Britain to respond in support of increasing demands in the 1980s for greater democracy would have been consistent with British sentiment at the time; and documentary evidence clearly show Beijing, not Whitehall, being against more power being given to the people of Hong Kong.

But it is what Lehmann implies in his article that I found so surprising. The implication is not only founded on an ill-considered if not ignorant position, it is also clearly a non sequitur. Even if Britain denied Hong Kong people democracy, why should this define the expectations of Hong Kong people today? The positions from which to debate political reform must be reflective of conditions as they are now. As I would write,

…this does not mean Hong Kong today will accept a colonial relationship with Beijing…

And so I hit a nerve with Mrs Ip. The mention of a colonial relationship with China was seized upon by her to again state, this time with personal insight, Britain’s record in Hong Kong.

Mrs Ip is a most articulate woman and can state a position well. She does however completely miss the point. Whether this was deliberate so she may under the guise of a reply actually restate a common (but flawed) position, or if she genuinely failed to see my point, I felt it only right to send another letter clarifying my position and inviting her to address my point. I look forward to reading her reply.


Following are the three letters, all of which have appeared in the letters section of the South China Morning Post.

Published in the SCMP, July 14th, 2014

Jean-Pierre Lehmann’s article (Chequered Record – July 14th) admits to being “incandescent” at the “sanctimonious hypocritical smugness” of the West in preaching democracy. He highlights that in a century and a half of colonial rule Britain never granted Hong Kong democracy. Governors were appointed. Much as our chief executive is today, I might add, who is also an appointee and may be removed at any time.

We also know that Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony, and that it did not grant the people of this city the kind of democratic political reform being demanded today. However, this does not mean Hong Kong today will accept a colonial relationship with Beijing, which is, in fact, what we seem to have. It was not until the late 1980s, when this city began to settle from the affects of those great upheavals across the border that brought millions of people here as poverty stricken refugees, that a voice for democratic reform began to grow. As Patten made clear in his at times public disputes with his own government, Britain was not closed to the demand as so much as tied to Beijing’s wishes to ensure a smooth transition in 1997.

The West were not always champions of the democratic ideal, but then again why did Chinese nationalism find a haven in Hong Kong a century ago? Perhaps it was because given the standards of the times Hong Kong was a city that offered comparative freedom to voices of dissent.

To return to history to call hypocrisy today is disingenuous. The West practices today what it preaches today. British nationals all vote. It may not be the best system, but it a system that is democratic in so far as British people not only vote for their government, but perhaps more crucially may also vote for a change. China, on the other hand preaches One Country Two Systems. One need not look back at the history of the CCP to raise a few questions. Is it any wonder that some Hong Kong people are also “incandescent” at the “sanctimonious hypocritical smugness”?


HK was never a colony of China
Published in the SCMP, July 29th, 2014.

I refer to Evan Fowler’s letter (“HK seems to have colonial relationship”, July 16).

Mr Fowler suggests that Hong Kong today may not accept a “colonial relationship with Beijing”, which is what we seem to have.

I beg to differ with him on this point. Hong Kong was never a colony of China. It has always been, geographically and demographically, an integral part.

The boundary between Hong Kong and mainland China, drawn after China’s defeat at British hands after the opium wars, was an artificial one, and had been breached many times by waves of illegal immigrants who flooded the territory at the height of China’s turmoil in the past century.

It is not clear what Mr Fowler is going after. If what he has in mind is a relationship with China as though Hong Kong were an independent country, that would involve rewriting history, and may not be in the best interests of Hong Kong.

As someone who grew up in Hong Kong in the 1960s, I can vouch for the fact that the illegal immigrants from the mainland who fled to Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s primarily sought a better livelihood. Hong Kong’s freedom was attractive, and still is today to many mainland Chinese.

But I doubt if many would press for Westminster-style parliamentary democracy not in keeping with Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region nor acceptable to China.

As for Hong Kong’s democratic development, as the first principal assistant secretary for district administration in the city and New Territories administration responsible for implementing Hong Kong’s first set of universal suffrage-based district elections, I can also vouch for the fact that Hong Kong started going down the democratic path only after then governor Murray MacLehose’s visit to Beijing in 1979.

He learned there was no possibility of extending British rule after 1997, and so commenced a series of subtle moves to “return power to the people”.

In the early 1980s, when I started promoting the novel, universal-suffrage based district board elections, there was little interest on the part of the public or the media.

Democracy only became the vogue after many deft policy and promotional moves by my then colonial masters in the last two decades of colonial rule.

Regina Ip, legislative councillor


The Colonial Record is not a Reason to Ignore the Voice for Democratic Reform.
Published in the SCMP, 12th August, 2014.

On the 14th July I felt compelled to write to the SCMP to address the argument put forward by Jean-Pierre Lehmann. In an article entitled Chequered Record he writes of being “incandescent” at the “sanctimonious hypocritical smugness” of the West in preaching democracy. Britain, he reminds us, never granted Hong Kong democracy in 150 years of colonial rule.

In my reply I outlined the fallacy of making such historical analogies. In time the way we relate to a place and to authority changes. Hong Kong people today have different expectations, and in the debate over political reform it is these expectations, not those of the past, that should be shape the discourse – as indeed they do.

However, in acknowledging Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony, I added that “this does not mean Hong Kong today will accept a colonial relationship with Beijing, which is, in fact, what we seem to have.” This has warranted a reply from Regina Ip (“HK was never a Colony of China”, published on the 29th July).

Mrs Ip asks what is my point, before proceeding to share her own experience of the colonial administrations reluctance to advance democratic reform. I hope restating in summary my point will help clarify my position.

I stand by what I wrote: Jean-Pierre Lehmann may be incandescent at the sanctimonious hypocrisy, and whilst I may agree that listening to certain Western leaders talk of God and Democracy may grate – divinity is, of course, in principle and by definition undemocratic – I would not let this blind me to the wishes of the people.

Evan Fowler

Filed under: Politics

About the Author

Posted by

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a writer, essayist and commentator. He has written and been published on a broad range of topics, from art, literature and aesthetic, to social and political commentaries, with a particular focus on issues of culture and identity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s