No Country, No System: Liberalism, Autonomy, and De-politicization in Hong Kong

  • Daniel F. Vukovich
Part of the China in Transformation book series (CIT)


If any space in the world today illustrates the powers and limits of liberalism, classical (which is to say: colonial), as well as contemporary or neo-, it is Hong Kong, the would-be city-state and, like Macau, a ‘special administrative region’ of southern China. (Two useful and widely read historical texts on Hong Kong are Steven Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), and John M. Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). An excellent overall study of the SAR’s recent politics up through 2004 is the collection, Remaking Citizenship in Hong Kong: Community, nation and the global city, Agnes S. Ku and Ngai Pun, eds. (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004). For the true basis of power and domination in Hong Kong, namely by capital and a cartel-like property market (and it overlaps clearly with mainland capitalists), see Leo F. Goodstadt, Poverty in the Midst of Affluence: How Hong Kong Mismanaged its Prosperity (Hong Kong University Press, 2013) and Alice Poon’s classic, surveying the system from the British onward, Land And The Ruling Class In Hong Kong (Second Edition. Hong Kong: Enrich Publishing, 2011).) While tiny by mainland standards at a mere seven million, and certainly not a major part of the bloody British Empire in the manner of South Asia, the city has a remarkably large, global footprint for its size, including within China. It must also be said that it is often poorly understood across the Lo Wu border on the one hand, and is ill-served by the academic and English media adulation of the territory’s ‘importance’ for the mainland as a ‘free’ and ‘open’ space on the other. The exceptional global presence of the city is due to many reasons—its influential movie industry, its unique landscapes (the most skyscrapers in the world by far), its particular culture and language, its food, and so on. But perhaps the strongest muscle for its footprint, its greatest leverage, has been its special status as an ‘autonomous’ city even after its handover/return to the mainland. This is thought to be written into the Basic Law or mini-constitution of the city as well as the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, as worked out by the Deng Xiaoping-led CCP and the local British and Chinese colonials. (Chapter 1, Article 5 of the Basic Law text notes that Hong Kong will keep its ‘capitalist system and way of life unchanged for 50 years,’ and China will not impose its ‘socialist’ one. This is the clearest, explicit legal statement backing up Deng’s 1c, 2s remark. If China was not fully capitalist in the 1980s—and certainly the breaking up of the commune system in 1983 marks the end of Maoist economics—it is much closer to it now, which radically undercuts the very idea that there are two systems, in political-economic terms. The absence of Marxism in Hong Kong intellectual political culture is felt acutely here. See the city government’s website for The Basic Law full text: Accessed Nov. 24, 2017.) As we will see that Basic document turns out to be highly contestable in a battle over interpretations offered by the local democratic, that is, politically liberal politicians/activists on the one hand, and who are not powerless given their hegemony in educational and media institutions, and on the other hand by the obviously still more powerful sovereign, Beijing. More on the law and movement later. But so far what I am saying points to one thing: Hong Kong’s global footprint and highly favorable image in at least the English language media and political world has to do with its difference—a hierarchical, normalized difference—from the mainland. And this very much stems from its colonial past. It is better, more free, ‘special,’ and—in a rather condescending but popular phrase used in Hong Kong – ‘not just another mainland city.’ For much of that media and for the many who claim to want full autonomy or de facto independence from the mainland, it as if the SAR stood for Semi-Autonomous Region and not a Special Administrative Region.

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel F. Vukovich
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Comparative LiteratureHong Kong UniversityHong Kong SARHong Kong

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