Background to the Transition Project

By the Director, Michael DeGolyer


Don McMillen and I came to Hong Kong in 1988 to join the rapidly expanding Hong Kong Baptist College, as it was then called.  Don was the original founding director of the project and I took over directing when he returned to Australia in 1993.  The Hong Kong Government effectively assumed control of the college in 1984 from its religiously affiliated founders and made it part of the University Grants Committee system of universities in Hong Kong.  Today, as Hong Kong Baptist University, it makes up one of the eight universities in the UGC system, joining Hong Kong University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, City University of Hong Kong, the Open University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University.  Don, now at University of Southern Queensland, was a well established China scholar.  I was just three years out of graduate school at the Claremont Graduate University, with an interest in comparative and historical political economy.  Interactions between state and market formed the core of my academic interests.


We both found Hong Kong's transition from British to Chinese rule set for 1 July 1997 fascinating.  For Don, as an International Relations specialist, China's long history of suppression and difficult relations with foreign influence made the reversion of the British colony to Chinese sovereignty a natural focus.  For me, Hong Kong's reputation as the "world's freest economy," cited frequently by Milton Friedman as the closest entity to Adam Smith's ideal laissez faire political economy being forcibly wedded in 1997 to China's rapidly changing but still dominantly socialist command economy provided every attraction imaginable to a new scholar of political economy.  The untested "one country, two systems" proposal of Deng Xiaoping for Hong Kong's post-1997 existence promised that somehow the communist party state would retain and even extend the growth of democracy in free market Hong Kong.  In terms of state-market interactions, nowhere else at the time promised anything like the Hong Kong-Communist China experiment.  And, for a change, we had ample notification of exactly when that experiment would launch:  midnight of June 30 as it changed to 1 July 1997.  So Don and I decided we would propose a project to track the transition to and through 1997.  I drafted the first proposal for such a project, we invited two other colleagues, K.K. Lee and B. Karin Chai, both sociologists to join us, and we turned it in for funding in December 1988.  The college authorities set us a funding decision date of 5 May 1989. From the beginning we envisioned the project to be long term as well as multi-disciplinary, gender representative and international in the nature of its project members.  We've had Germans, Americans, Australians, Hong Kongers, mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Macanese, and Canadians on the team over the years.


The Basic Law, Hong Kong's "mini-constitution" delineated limited democratization up to 10 years after the handover.  The year 2008 appeared to be the earliest deadline by which time the constitution could be amended to go forward toward the universal suffrage election of the Chief Executive and all members of Legco explicitly promised as "the ultimate goal" in the Basic Law.  In constitutional theory, an amendment of a constitution is a ratification and a renewal of the original compact by the relevant generation.  And in the case of Hong Kong, since neither the agreement to return Hong Kong to China signed in December 1984 nor the Basic Law, promulgated by the National Peoples Congress in April 1990, had seen any election of drafters or ratification by elected representatives or by the people, its constitutional legitimation hinged on amendment by representatives elected by vote of the people.  The real test of Hong Kong's transition, as far as I as a political economist was concerned, was, and still is, the successful amendment of Hong Kong's Basic Law to permit the direct, full election of its Chief Executive and legislators.  In that sense the transition is still ongoing, and still in doubt.  In 2005 amendments were proposed but failed to get the stipulated two thirds vote in the Legislative Council (Legco).  In 2007 Beijing decreed that the earliest Hong Kong could amend the Basic Law to permit direct election of the Chief Executive was 2017 and 2020 for all members of Legco.  But Beijing also called for "gradual and orderly progress" in that direction from 2008.  So in 2010 we may see, for the first time, amendment of the Basic Law to permit somewhat more democratic elections in 2012 and 2016 respectively, and find out the details of the final constitutional form for 2017 and 2020.  As still the freest place in China either politically or economically by benefit of its British past and the international treaty Sino-British Declaration of 1984 guaranteeing Hong Kong 50 years of "one country, two systems" exceptions to the Chinese norm, Hong Kong may be by 2020 the first under the Chinese constitution to enjoy full democracy under a rule of law established by constitutional order as ratified by votes of the people's duly elected representatives.


In 1988 it seemed unlikely that Hong Kong would develop an indigenous democracy movement.  Indeed, Don and I were told by one of the members of university's funding committee that our proposal would not likely be funded because political activism in Hong Kong, especially among union members and students, which was the focus of the initial project proposal, was invisible and had not been visible since the early 1970s.  Everyone believed that Hong Kongers were, and always would be, politically apathetic.  (That belief in Hong Konger's apathy was one of the first things I challenged in an academic article written by Janet Scott and me later.  Lam Wai Man has written a very good book also debunking this widely touted myth.)  But 1989 was to change everything, not just in Hong Kong but in many places.  On May 4 1989 over 6,000 Hong Kong students marched to Chater Garden in support of the students in Beijing.  Don, Janet Scott and I attended the rally, interviewing students and taking photos.  So technically we started the project early!  The next day at our hearing for the project proposal, the authorities awarded us the full amount asked, the largest up to that time for a social science research project at Baptist College.  Unlike the expected long lead time to build contacts and develop new facts and theory, we started out overwhelmed by fast moving events and massive change, not just in Hong Kong but also on the mainland and in Taiwan.  That pace never really slowed down right through 2008.  You can check the member's attached cvs to see the extensive research and other publications produced over the years.


In 1988 the collapse of the Soviet Bloc simply wasn't imagined.  The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the mass demands for democracy and accountable government and media in China took everyone by surprise.  That the whole Soviet Bloc began to come apart by the end of 1989 opened up the issue of state-market relations across all of Eastern Europe.  Later, the project added to its membership Kenneth Chan, a fine Oxford educated Hong Kong scholar who lived three years in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall and who married a young Pole who followed him back to Hong Kong.  Scholars like Sonny Lo, Newman Lam, Eilo Yu, Peter Baehr and Benson Wong joined the project, adding perspectives honed in Canada, Australia, and Taiwan and acadmic research focuses on education, finance, cross border crime, and grass roots party organizing to area expertise in Taiwan, Macau, and China as well as Hong Kong.  So the comparative aspect has long been a feature of the project as well.  Today the project continues to track developments in Hong Kong and compare them with changes in Greater China (the PRC, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the various SEZs such as Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai getting special attention) as well as to put these changes in the larger context of global changes in political economic theory and practice.


Technically, May 5 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Transition Project.  We've barely had time to look back.  But now this website marks a renewed push to broaden the impact of the project member's research and focus the years of our study on making events in this growingly important, fast changing region more comprehensible and accessible.  I hope you will find the regularly published weblogs of our members insightful and the occasional detailed reports you can download informative.  We've also provided a number of links to websites of interest.  If you want to know about the development of democracy in the Greater China region, this is THE place to start.


Contact:  degolyer@hkbu.edu.hk (copyright HKTP 2009-2010)