How Hong Kong's Democracy Died (Part I)

Updated: Mar 10

Using the frameworks from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's "How Democracies Die" to analyze Hong Kong’s downfall

"Democracy is inevitable."

This was a proud claim by Philip Slater and Warren Bennis, two American scholars, in the Harvard Business Review in 1990. Indeed, after the Cold War, it looked like democracy had won and it was the only way to go.

In light of the rise in democracy, the World turned a blind eye to new threats. Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000. Communist China was turbocharged with its admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Together, they formed a new wave of resistance to the "Western value" of democracy.

Since then, many countries around the globe have suffered a decline in the quality of democracy. This intensified after the 2008 Financial Crisis and the European Debt Crisis. Countries such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey all slipped into autocracy.

But the world finally woke up in 2016, when US President Donald Trump came to power. People suddenly started to wonder, "Is democracy inevitable?"

How Democracies Die

Against this background, Harvard Universities political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote the book How Democracies Die.

Levitsky and Ziblatt pointed out that many democracies died in a violent way, such as via a coup. In fact, during the Cold War, coups accounted for nearly three-quarters of the democratic breakdowns. But the authors were more interested in a different type of breakdown: death at the hands of elected leaders. Such examples range from Adolf Hitler to Hugo Chavez to Vladimir Putin.

Through studying these examples, the authors created two important tools that can be applied globally, including:

  1. A list of warning signs to help identify an authoritarian leader, or government

  2. A playbook on how an authoritarian would destroy democracy

Below, we examined Hong Kong’s situation today, through these two tools. We will argue that Hong Kong today is undoubtedly an authoritarian state, and we go on to highlight the important players and tools utilized by the authoritarians as they set out to destroy democracy.

What happened in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong was a small fishing village when it first became a British colony in 1841. As a gateway to China, the British implemented a system that helped the economy prospered. This included the introduction of common law and a fair judicial system that provided confidence to those who were trading in Hong Kong. In the 1970s, a series of reform was taken to weed out corruptions and to build out an international city.

Yet, even in its most glorious days under the British, Hong Kong was, at best, a semi-democracy. The British never allowed Hongkongers to elect their governor. The legislative council, Hong Kong's parliament equivalent, also was never fully democratic. But Hongkongers' freedom of speech and human rights were largely protected. Society was perceived as fair and just.

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. The handover of the city from the British to the Chinese was promised under a framework called "One Country, Two Systems". Broadly, this means that Hongkongers will be able to maintain their rights and their way of living for at least 50 years. The signatories to this framework, both British and Chinese, clearly recognized that Hong Kong was different from China.

After the handover in 1997, China's authoritarian system slowly crept in over time, but nothing could be compared to what unfolded after the summer of 2019.

In early 2019, Hong Kong Government introduced a law to allow extradition to mainland China, previously explicitly outlawed. Hongkongers' fear was clear: Political dissidents could be extradited to China, where judges swear loyalty only to the Chinese Communist Party.

BBC summarized the six month-long saga in 100 words:

"Hong Kong's protests started in June against plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Critics feared this could undermine judicial independence and endanger dissidents. Until 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by Britain as a colony but then returned to China. Under the "one country, two systems" arrangement, it has some autonomy, and its people more rights. The bill was withdrawn in September but demonstrations continue and now demand full democracy and an inquiry into police actions. Clashes between police and activists have become increasingly violent, with police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers and throwing petrol bombs."

The demonstrations have since come to a halt by the end of 2019, largely due to the global pandemic. But the end of the protests did not spell a period of re-engagement. Rather, the government, led by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has become ever more authoritarian with a view to revenge against those who spoke out, whilst passing laws to tilt the playing field completely. The authoritarian pounced once the opposition ran out of steam.

Has Democracy Died? Does Carrie Lam's Government Qualify as an Authoritarian Government?

No doubt, the answer is a resounding yes. But a more structured answer can be found by applying the Authoritarian Checklist outlined in How Democracies Died.

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the four key indicators of authoritarian behaviours are:

  1. Rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game

  2. Denies the legitimacy of opponents

  3. Tolerates or encourages violence

  4. Indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

Today, the Government of Hong Kong illustrates authoritarian behaviours across all four domains.

1. Politician rejects in words or action, the democratic rules of the game

Hong Kong had few true democratic rules to begin with, but the local District Councils (18 of them) was an exception. Most district councillors are democratically elected by voters. Following the unrest in 2019, pro-democratic parties won a landslide in the 2019 District Council Elections, capturing control in 17 of the 18 councils.

In response, the government rejected the election and people's choices. It appointed the losers in the elections to public offices, directly offering them access to taxpayers' money. On the other hand, the government curtailed responsibilities, cut funding and built new administrative barriers to obstruct the District Councils from fulfilling their functions. Such barriers included tricks like preventing the Councils from using government-managed meeting facilities.

Democratic rules of the game also include holding elections in a timely manner, as well as creating an environment that respects fundamental human rights and freedom. Lam's government swiftly rejected most civil assemblies following the unrests. It also banned mask wearing at protests, in a bid to lower the turnout. With the pandemic as a convenient excuse, election of the Legislative Council, originally scheduled for September 2020, was postponed. The average number of cases, then, stood at about 100-150 per day.

2. Denies the legitimacy of opponents

Hong Kong's electoral system was set up to always favour those who supported the government. As such, pan-democratic legislators mostly sat in opposition and played a supervisory role, with limited success in pushing through their own agendas. Yet following the 2019 unrest, the Hong Kong Government took two extraordinary steps to completely deny the legitimacy of its opponents.

A landslide pan-democratic victory was expected ahead of the Legislative Council elections, originally scheduled for September 2020. In anticipation, Lam’s government disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates, including activist Joshua Wong. The reasons for disqualification ranged from "solicited intervention by foreign governments in Hong Kong's affairs", to expressing an intention to vote against proposals brought forward by the Hong Kong government.

So, if you plan on voting against the government, you can be disqualified as a candidate.

The government further requested Beijing to introduce a new law to disqualify four current Legislators who were voted in by the people, for "endangering national security". All pro-democracy legislators resigned as a result.

No wonder Carrie Lam said she was "excited" that government bills might be passed more quickly in the council without opposition lawmakers.

3. Tolerates or encourage violence

Since 2019, multiple humanitarian reports pointed to the excessive use of force by the Hong Kong police force in dealing with protests, not least with the bombardment of universities on two separate occasions. Yet, Lam's government has continued to shield the police force. In fact, commanders who were responsible for non-humanitarian acts have been promoted.

But the government's tolerance of thugs was even more troubling. On July 21, 2019, the world was shocked when dozens of thugs, with metal and wooden rods, rushed into a subway station and attacked citizens. The police force arrived 39 minutes after the incident. When they did, they spent their time chatting and befriending those who carried out the attack.

Over a year on, Hong Kong's police have, in turn, arrested two pan-democracy legislators who were on scene, as well as a journalist who tried to investigate into the incident. The police now classified the clear thug attack as "clashes between two evenly matched rivals".

4. Indicate a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, Including the media

After the handover, pro-China businessmen bought out most mainstream media outlets over time. There remains only one exception: Apple Daily, owned by the media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Apple Daily is the number one pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, and Lai is, perhaps, the government's number one enemy.

On June 30, 2020, Hong Kong passed a new National Security Law, which gave sweeping power to the authorities to detain and arrest anyone suspected of violating the law. Jimmy Lai was arrested less than two months later, with China's Hong Kong and Macao Affair Office, a government agency, openly pressuring the courts by "welcoming the arrest and calling for severe punishment".

Jimmy Lai was released on bail on December 23, 2020, but his bail conditions included a ban on publishing articles, posting or comment on social media, as well as attending or hosting media interviews. This represented a clear curtail of the civil liberties of the government's number one opponent. Even then the government was feeling insecure, and his bail was overturned 8 days later. He was ordered back in prison until his court date in April.

Separately, the police arrested 53 activists and former lawmakers on January 7, 2021. They were arrested under the National Security Law, as China's national security was apparently threatened by a group who participated in unofficial election primaries.

Should Hongkongers have identified an authoritarian before she came to power?

The bottom line is, Hongkongers never had a choice in picking their own leader. Their leader was handpicked by Beijing, and she was always more likely to act on Beijing's orders as opposed to public opinion.

But it should also be noted that against the four points on Levitsky and Ziblatt's Authoritarian Checklist, it was hard to pinpoint Carrie Lam to be an authoritarian even before 2019. She came from the colonial-British civil service and was known to be an effective civil servant. She did not openly show any of the four authoritarian behaviours, as discussed above.

As such, many placed their faith in Carrie Lam. In hindsight, Hongkongers could have been more vigilant. There was one warning sign that was not included on the Authoritarian Checklist, but that the world should take note of - a politician's personality.

Be it in business or in politics, arrogant leaders are more likely to be an authoritarian. An arrogant leader is more unlikely to change his mind even if presented with new evidence. Rather, he is more likely to bulldoze his way through feedback and guardrails that have been set in place to protect the organization and the system.

Carrie Lam has been well-documented as an arrogant and hard-headed person. After all, perhaps few Christians would publicly proclaim that "God has reserved a place in heaven for me". She has also been described by those around her as "close-minded" and "it is not easy for people to work happily on her team".

In retrospect, the Extradition Bill which ultimately led to the protests in Hong Kong could have been easily avoided by a leader that would back down. Even before major protests took place in June, various business groups have voiced their opposition to the bill. Their opposition was swiftly dismissed by Lam.

On June 9, 2019, the first major protest took place with over one million people participating. Rather than admitting her mistake, Lam conducted a TV interview, claiming that a withdrawal would be a concession, and this would be like tolerating “wilful behaviour” by her children. Her insistence led to the largest protest in the history in Hong Kong. Two million, or a quarter of the city's population, came out on June 15, 2019.

Anti-Extradition Bill Protest in Hong Kong
Anti-Extradition Bill Protest in Hong Kong (Credit: Studio Incendo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In her slow and late retreat from her misjudgement, Lam set out a series of meetings with different sectors of the city. However, it excluded those who were not supportive of her Government. When asked about it, she called the opposition,

“[A small minority group of people] did not mind destroying Hong Kong’s economy, they have no stake in the society which so many people have helped to build.”

Such attitude not only showed Lam's arrogance but represents a clear denial of the legitimacy of her opponents. This pushed the city into further unrest which was, perhaps, what Lam had hoped for.

Lam's arrogance should have served as an early warning sign for Hongkongers, and hopefully this would serve as a warning sign for citizens in other parts of the world.

Summary: The Hong Kong Government is an Authoritarian Government

Concluding part one, it is clear that Hong Kong is now run by an authoritarian government because it:

  • Rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game

  • Denies the legitimacy of opponents

  • Tolerates or encourages violence

  • Indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media

There is no doubt that "One Country, Two Systems" is dead. In part II, we will examine in detail the steps that Carrie Lam took, and how she utilized the Authoritarian Playbook to destroy Hong Kong's freedom and limited democracy.

If you have never read Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's "How Democracies Die", you can get a copy of the New York Times Best Seller here, through Amazon. I will receive a commission for your purchase made through this link at no extra cost to you.

Read More: How Hong Kong's Democracy Died (Part II)