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Tuesday, March 31, 2020 Leer en Español

Don’t Blame Capitalism for the Hong Kong Protests

The relationship between democracy and liberty is, to be sure, a complicated one.

Image Credit: Flickr-Studio Incendo | CC BY 2.0 (

Before June 2019, Hong Kong had a reputation as an orderly city. Long a nexus for the East and West, a territory that has thrived despite (or perhaps because of) a lack of planning, the city had taken its 1997 handover from British sovereignty to Chinese control in stride. What’s more, Hong Kong’s reputation and overall importance to the global economy were such that the Communist Party of China imposed few changes on its politics, and even fewer on its economy.

The protests that began in the middle of 2019 have changed this view of the city. The protests’ length now dwarfs that of the events they are most often compared to: the six-week Tiananmen Uprising, Hong Kong’s 1966 and 1967 riots (both of which were settled in a matter of days), and the two and a half-month Occupy Central protests of 2014. And while they have become less frequent since the local elections of November 2019 (and the Covid-19 pandemic gave people a reason not to congregate in large groups), they have not gone away completely.

While the outside world’s inclination has been to assume that China’s dictatorial one-party rule is finally clashing with Hong Kong’s traditional freedom of speech and press, as well as its loose regulatory environment, another narrative has competed for prominence: blame capitalism.

Which is to say: blame the uniquely unfettered capitalism that has allowed the city to top economic freedom indices for decades even as apartment prices soar, out of the price ranges of most Hongkongers. Either that, or blame a broader trend in global capitalism which has been straining under its unsustainability around the world, with Hong Kong as just the most visible example.

Do such complaints have any merit? To answer that, we should perhaps go back to the beginning.

Heroic (In)action

Few would have predicted Hong Kong’s emergence as a successful example of laissez-faire economic policy in the late 1940s. Then again, few predicted its success at all; it had been a largely unremarkable port, save for being a British colony in what was once imperial Chinese territory, thanks to Britain’s victory over the Qing dynasty in the first Opium War of 1842. Following a brief period under Imperial Japanese rule during World War II, the British colonial administrators overseeing the city’s governance had the choice of how to keep the city afloat.

They succeeded: between 1962 and 1973 Hong Kong’s economy grew 6.5 percent per year. Though roiled by the global oil crisis of 1973-75, it rebounded in 1976, growing by an average of 5.6 percent per year for the next 20 years. It would become known as one of the four Asian tigers–smaller economies than Japan, but Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, modernized, flourished and grew immensely, just as the post-war Land of the Rising Sun had.

In the other three Asian tigers growth policies have become associated with a “strong leader”: Lee Kuan-yew in Singapore, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and Park Chung-hee in Korea. In all three cases, the story goes, the leader used authoritarian approaches to building the domestic economy, suppressed the import of foreign goods for the sake of homegrown industry, and wouldn’t let luxuries like freedom of speech or freedom of association stand in the way of national unity during a time of trial. Search Amazon or Google Scholar for treatises on any of these three men and there are numerous hits.

Search for John James Cowperthwaite, however, and results are far sparser. Neil Monnery’s Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the Making of Hong Kong is the only text Amazon yields on the former Hong Kong financial secretary’s exploits. That could be due to academia and the commentariat’s thirst for government “action” and for a single heroic figure one can frame a story around; it may also be because, with Cowperthwaite, there’s very little story to tell.

Monnery’s book, while instructive, revolves around Hong Kong government meetings, speeches and legislative debates, with the former financial secretary’s “bold” actions mostly limited to resisting the calls for tax increases, or using the healthy reserves Hong Kong had built up, or instituting protectionism. Under Cowperthwaite, Hong Kong would be a haven for free trade, limited regulation, and low taxes.

Compared to Park overseeing the construction of his country’s first steel mill or nationwide highway, Lee’s push to build infrastructure to attract foreign companies, or the Chiang government’s direction of US foreign aid into an industrial base, it’s perhaps understandable that few think pieces would be devoted to Cowperthwaite’s actions, which largely consisted of resisting action. But doing so might also raise doubts about to what extent “strong leadership” deserves the credit in those cases, as opposed to the aggregate economic decisions of the populace.

And refusal to discuss this in detail has resulted in an information gap obscuring what’s happening in Hong Kong now.

Capitalism and Rebellion

Perhaps the easiest way to determine whether capitalism is behind the events in Hong Kong is to ask what the protesters themselves are saying. They aren’t demanding cheaper housing. They aren’t demanding more generous pension plans, massive redistribution of wealth, or free college. They’re demanding universal suffrage, namely the right of all Hongkongers to choose their chief executive–something the city’s mini-constitution says is the ultimate aim.

For the first decade of Chinese control, relations between it and Hongkongers were relatively peaceful. China respected the economic system that had flourished under Cowperthwaite, and Hongkongers went about their business (literally and figuratively). But progress toward this goal has been stymied, and in recent years, since Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Communist Party, the rebuffing of Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations has become more blatant, as have its calls for subservience to Chinese nationalism.

Hongkongers’ pride in their freedoms, desire to complete the process of autonomy, and pride in their unique Cantonese-speaking identity lay at the heart of their discontent with Beijing, which seeks to push Hong Kong in the opposite direction. Hongkongers also look to the suppression of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims and recognize that without a sustained pushback now, it may be too late later.

The relationship between democracy and liberty is, to be sure, a complicated one. A Hong Kong with universal suffrage might well move away from the sort of hands-off policies that the city is legendary for. But to deflect the source of their discontent to economics, rather than politics–including the government’s role in economic problems–invites further intervention in economics, rather than the pursuit of greater individual rights.

It also should be seen as an attempt to discredit what made Hong Kong unique to begin with.

  • Rob York is director for regional affairs at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. He previously worked as a production editor at The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.