Planned development and political adaptability in rural Hong Kong

AuthorKuan, Hsin-chi

Lau Siu-kai

TitlePlanned development and political adaptability in rural Hong Kong
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateJanuary, 1980
Keywords:Rural development

Rural conditions

Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:In this paper, we are touching upon a very puzzling phenomenon: a supposedly anachronous colonial administrative system, when assigned the task of development management, has manifested a capability to adapt itself to the new needs, and, judging from the results, it seems to be doing quite well. What is even more surprising, however, is the fact that the adaptation process follows a direction of reducing the extent of popular participation and democratic decision-making in the area under study. In comparison with the village representation system in the past, it is an undeniable fact that the newly-installed District Advisory Board system is less “democratic”, inasmuch as it does not allow for elected representatives of the people and it leaves the ultimate decision-making power in the hands of the Government, which will no longer be encumbered by an elected body claiming to represent local interests.

In view of the fact that he constitutional structure of urban Hong Kong is one characterized by an administrative apparatus which is not subject to control nor supervision by any elected representatives of citizens, the old political system of the New Territories, though looking like a misplacement, can be explained by arguing that it is a historical legacy which suits aptly only a forgone political context. Needless to say, the Government would never be willing to extend the application of the electoral principle from the New Territories to urban Hong Kong, for fear that the constitutional setup of the Colony will then have to be drastically altered. The policy it consequently has adopted is to de-democratize and de-politicize the New Territories, so that once again the political game in under the direction of the Government.

One may query as to the causes of the adaptability of the political system in the New Territories. In structural terms, we would expect a political structure to display high levels of adaptability a) when its institutional structure and its policy goals can be transformed with ease by the decision-making in the center; b) when the process of transformation does not encounter insurmountable opposition; c) when the process of transformation does not entail rapid mobilization of the masses whose interests are conflictual (otherwise the conflict-resolution capability of the system will be insufficient to prevent the occurrence of political instability); and d) when the government’s political legitimacy is maintained throughout the process of transformation. It is not difficult to see that all these conditions are there in the New Territories. The New Territories Administration, being a component part of the Hong Kong Government, is amenable to restructuration by the center, though naturally many of the officials so affected may harbour some displeasure at the loss of functions of their department. The Heung Yee Kuk and the Rural Committees, which are only in a advisory capacity and devoid of any executive power, have no statutory or constitutional means to determine their position in the political system, and are hence subject to the manipulation of the Government, which reserves the right to prescribe the rules of the game.

As the nature of development in the New Territories is service- or welfare-oriented, it is generally supported by the people of Hong Kong. Even the “original inhabitants” and their leaders are, in principle at least, receptive to the development programmes. When they are in opposition, it is mostly concerned with the details of compensation, and can be conveniently dealt with by administrative means. The selective dispensation of benefits and punishments to the rural leaders by the Government serves to break apart any united front that might be formed among them, consequently, the possibility of the mobilization of the villagers against it is minimized.

The Government has thus far abstained from mobilizing the outsiders in the New Territories and using them as a political weapon against the “original inhabitants” who happen to oppose the development programmes. In the first place, it is not necessary. In the second place, it is the last intention of the Government to instigate confrontations and conflicts. On their part, outsiders are lowly mobilizable due to a dearth of the necessary organization and leadership. Even the rural leaders will shy away from mobilizing their constituents as that would put their political career and other material benefits in jeopardy, these being controlled in the hands of the Government.

Throughout the process of development, the legitimacy of the Government in the eves of the Hong Kong citizens has not been tarnished; on the contrary, it might even have increased. In addition to the general support rendered to the development programmes by the populace, the Government’s actions to dismantle the privileged status of the “original inhabitants” as a group also drew their applause, even though what the Government is adopting is a politically “backward” policy.

One last word. As the case study of the New Territories has amply shown, planned social development need not necessarily be accompanied by political development. Under a certain set of conditions, planned social development might be implemented more effectively and smoothly, in a de-politicized environment.

NoteIncludes bibliographical references
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